At Home in Postwar France: Modern Mass Housing and the Right to Comfort

At Home in Postwar France: Modern Mass Housing and the Right to Comfort The ‘Trente Glorieuses’—the thirty years after the end of the Second World War—constituted a unique period of unprecedented growth and prosperity in France. It was also a period that, with the construction of vast housing estates at the outskirts of the existing cities, changed the outlook of the French urban landscape. In the beginning of her book, Nicole C. Rudolph reminds us how poor the quality of housing really was immediately after the war: half of the available dwellings did not have running water, 80 per cent did not have a toilet on the premises and only 5 per cent had an indoor shower or bathtub. The ‘invisible revolution’ that took place in these thirty years considerably changed this situation: by the end of the period, 71 per cent of the middle class occupied fully equipped dwellings that had been built after 1949, which meant that, for the majority of the population, the absence of indoor plumbing became a thing of the past, and the ‘right to comfort’ had become self-evident. The author analyses the massive construction efforts of these years by concentrating on a series of actors: architects, state planners, politicians, women movements, sociologists and inhabitants. She competently narrates how the solution to the housing question became an absolute priority for the French state and how the preferred options gradually narrowed down to the construction of ever-smaller, highly standardized and well-equipped apartments in grands ensembles. The focus of the analysis is on the layout of individual dwellings. Rudolph thus compares the standard plans developed by the Ministère de la Reconstruction et de l’Urbanisme with pre-war blueprints of social housing and with Modernist designs of the 1920s, concluding that middle-class dwelling practices were the decisive factor in the design of the one-size-fits-all apartment plans of the immediate post-war period. She also devotes a chapter to the Salon des Arts Ménagers, which promoted the ideal of the modern home as a heaven of individual happiness and family unity, while simultaneously promising to liberate women from the drudgery of housework. The efforts of all actors involved thus dovetailed around an ideal of domesticity that came to be identified with the modernization of France. The first ten years of reconstruction and building anew were characterized by experimentation with different layouts, such as trying out different dispositions of kitchen and dining area (in one big room, or separated by a wall, possibly with a serving hatch, or even on both sides of a corridor), asking the general public for their opinions. There were architectural competitions, which favoured prefabrication and rational designs, evolving towards more open plans. The link between the idea of the modern home and the modernity of France became firmly established in this period. In the second period—after 1958—the focus shifted to building for the greatest number: the experimental mood of the previous decade had done a lot to establish the prototype of modern domesticity, but was less effective with regard to the actual construction of the homes that were needed. Demographic shifts aggravated the scarcity of housing. The proponents of rational planning took the lead in arguing for massive state interventions, which resulted in a 1955 law enabling the construction of grands ensembles, such as Sarcelles. The mass production of apartment blocks was done according to strict bureaucratic and technical rules, which meant that the layout of the apartments differed only in the amount of bedrooms, but was otherwise completely standardized in what became known as the cellule. Rudolph’s last chapters are devoted to the further developments, once the masses of residents came to inhabit the new housing schemes. The 1960s saw the emergence of the discipline of urban sociology, which studied how residents felt about this massive modernization. Urban sociologists such as Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe thus came to articulate a growing discontent with the technocratic dictates of functionalism in dwelling. This discontent then became an ingredient of the wider revolutionary impulses culminating in the May 1968 revolt. For architecture and planning, this signalled a turning of the tables: no longer was it widely accepted that the grands ensembles were the only viable solution for the housing question, and there was a call for a closer link between the domestic and the urban. At Home in Postwar France is a book that focuses on the intriguing question of how the home became the quintessential symbol of modernity in France. It gives a competent overview of the experiments, competitions, discourses and actually constructed housing that formed the backbone of this evolution. I would recommend, however, that the book be read together with one that came out only one year earlier: Kenny Cupers’s The Social Project. Housing Postwar France. Whereas Rudolph is a historian and sociologist, Cupers is an architect and an architectural historian. Their interests and research questions thus diverge, which makes up for two different approaches of similar source material. Cupers’s book starts from disciplinary concerns in architecture (what is the social responsibility of the architect?). This starting point not only provides a somewhat narrower focus, but also ensures a more in-depth treatment of the material at hand. Whereas Rudolph concentrates on the plans of individual apartments, Cupers gives ample room for a discussion of their urban layouts. Cupers moreover does not shy away from the very pertinent question of how these new housing estates came to be perceived, in only a few decades, as hotbeds of social problems instead of shiny prototypes of modernity. Both books together therefore provide, in their complementarity, an excellent analysis of this exciting period in France’s housing history. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png French History Oxford University Press

At Home in Postwar France: Modern Mass Housing and the Right to Comfort

French History , Volume Advance Article (2) – May 3, 2018

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
0269-1191
eISSN
1477-4542
D.O.I.
10.1093/fh/cry034
Publisher site
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Abstract

The ‘Trente Glorieuses’—the thirty years after the end of the Second World War—constituted a unique period of unprecedented growth and prosperity in France. It was also a period that, with the construction of vast housing estates at the outskirts of the existing cities, changed the outlook of the French urban landscape. In the beginning of her book, Nicole C. Rudolph reminds us how poor the quality of housing really was immediately after the war: half of the available dwellings did not have running water, 80 per cent did not have a toilet on the premises and only 5 per cent had an indoor shower or bathtub. The ‘invisible revolution’ that took place in these thirty years considerably changed this situation: by the end of the period, 71 per cent of the middle class occupied fully equipped dwellings that had been built after 1949, which meant that, for the majority of the population, the absence of indoor plumbing became a thing of the past, and the ‘right to comfort’ had become self-evident. The author analyses the massive construction efforts of these years by concentrating on a series of actors: architects, state planners, politicians, women movements, sociologists and inhabitants. She competently narrates how the solution to the housing question became an absolute priority for the French state and how the preferred options gradually narrowed down to the construction of ever-smaller, highly standardized and well-equipped apartments in grands ensembles. The focus of the analysis is on the layout of individual dwellings. Rudolph thus compares the standard plans developed by the Ministère de la Reconstruction et de l’Urbanisme with pre-war blueprints of social housing and with Modernist designs of the 1920s, concluding that middle-class dwelling practices were the decisive factor in the design of the one-size-fits-all apartment plans of the immediate post-war period. She also devotes a chapter to the Salon des Arts Ménagers, which promoted the ideal of the modern home as a heaven of individual happiness and family unity, while simultaneously promising to liberate women from the drudgery of housework. The efforts of all actors involved thus dovetailed around an ideal of domesticity that came to be identified with the modernization of France. The first ten years of reconstruction and building anew were characterized by experimentation with different layouts, such as trying out different dispositions of kitchen and dining area (in one big room, or separated by a wall, possibly with a serving hatch, or even on both sides of a corridor), asking the general public for their opinions. There were architectural competitions, which favoured prefabrication and rational designs, evolving towards more open plans. The link between the idea of the modern home and the modernity of France became firmly established in this period. In the second period—after 1958—the focus shifted to building for the greatest number: the experimental mood of the previous decade had done a lot to establish the prototype of modern domesticity, but was less effective with regard to the actual construction of the homes that were needed. Demographic shifts aggravated the scarcity of housing. The proponents of rational planning took the lead in arguing for massive state interventions, which resulted in a 1955 law enabling the construction of grands ensembles, such as Sarcelles. The mass production of apartment blocks was done according to strict bureaucratic and technical rules, which meant that the layout of the apartments differed only in the amount of bedrooms, but was otherwise completely standardized in what became known as the cellule. Rudolph’s last chapters are devoted to the further developments, once the masses of residents came to inhabit the new housing schemes. The 1960s saw the emergence of the discipline of urban sociology, which studied how residents felt about this massive modernization. Urban sociologists such as Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe thus came to articulate a growing discontent with the technocratic dictates of functionalism in dwelling. This discontent then became an ingredient of the wider revolutionary impulses culminating in the May 1968 revolt. For architecture and planning, this signalled a turning of the tables: no longer was it widely accepted that the grands ensembles were the only viable solution for the housing question, and there was a call for a closer link between the domestic and the urban. At Home in Postwar France is a book that focuses on the intriguing question of how the home became the quintessential symbol of modernity in France. It gives a competent overview of the experiments, competitions, discourses and actually constructed housing that formed the backbone of this evolution. I would recommend, however, that the book be read together with one that came out only one year earlier: Kenny Cupers’s The Social Project. Housing Postwar France. Whereas Rudolph is a historian and sociologist, Cupers is an architect and an architectural historian. Their interests and research questions thus diverge, which makes up for two different approaches of similar source material. Cupers’s book starts from disciplinary concerns in architecture (what is the social responsibility of the architect?). This starting point not only provides a somewhat narrower focus, but also ensures a more in-depth treatment of the material at hand. Whereas Rudolph concentrates on the plans of individual apartments, Cupers gives ample room for a discussion of their urban layouts. Cupers moreover does not shy away from the very pertinent question of how these new housing estates came to be perceived, in only a few decades, as hotbeds of social problems instead of shiny prototypes of modernity. Both books together therefore provide, in their complementarity, an excellent analysis of this exciting period in France’s housing history. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of French History. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

French HistoryOxford University Press

Published: May 3, 2018

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