Garden cities

Plan du projet de la cité-jardin de Stains, 1920Our colleague Matt Houlbrook’s blog post today about Welwyn Garden City in 1920 got me thinking about the cité-jardin of Stains, north of Paris, built at about the same time and very much under the influence of les garden city across the Channel. I spent a happy afternoon wandering around it in September of last year with some friends, one of whom was working there on a public history and heritage project. You can read more about it in slightly erratic English here, or in greater detail in French here (or just look at the pictures, which are better on the French site). Stains, by the way, is pronounced more like ‘Stan’ than ‘stains’. I’ll admit I find it funny every time I see a sign for it somewhere on a main road in the Parisian banlieue.

The Stains cité-jardin was one of several ambitious social housing projects carried out in the Paris region in the 1920s and 30s. Here’s a striking modernist map produced by the Office public d’habitations du département de la Seine in 1933, showing where they all were:


Most of them ran into significant problems later—because they didn’t get the sustained investment they needed to maintain their initial high standards; because the very moderne layouts of public and private areas turned out to make for noisy, echoing, and unpleasantly exposed public spaces; above all, because local authorities lost interest in them and the people who’d been decanted into them. I found myself thinking of the ‘Bullring’—not the shopping centre in Birmingham but the social housing in central Liverpool whose official title is St Andrews Gardens, which ran into many of the same problems. I asked my mum about it just now; she texted back to say she remembered its bad reputation. (It’s now been redeveloped as student accommodation.) Here’s an excellent photo by Flickr user SomeDriftwood:

St Andrews Gardens

St Andrews Gardens is the sort of development—possibly the same one, anonymized as ‘Roundhouse’—where Howard Parker did the research for his classic urban ethnography, View from the boys (1974), which notes on p. 25 that:

In the 1950s the ‘gardens’ disappeared, due to vandalism and neglect, and the whole courtyard area was tarmaced. [This didn’t make the acoustics any less harsh.] Even a Housing Manager admitted that ‘Tarmac is a supreme example of dealing with things in an ad hoc manner. It is the Corporation’s message to the tenants—we’ve finished with you now, we give up.’ It was not until the 1960s that the air-raid shelters in the courtyard were removed.

Something similar happened to the nice little individual vegetable gardens in the areas behind the blocks in the cité-jardin de Stains that I visited, though the ones I saw had just been allowed to become overgrown and litter-strewn—they hadn’t been tarmacked over, and the whole area is now getting a bit of attention (whereas other parts of the Paris banlieue, including more recent cités a few streets away, are indeed given the neglect/tarmac/demolish treatment).

Not too far from Stains, and particularly hard to read in the upper right-hand part of the map, was the housing development of La Muette at Drancy:


These were the first high-rise residential tower blocks in France, built in 1931–34. The whole complex was confiscated by the Nazis after the occupation of France, and the horseshoe shaped low-rise complex to the upper left—built around a courtyard with the unfriendly dimensions of 200m long by 40m wide, and incomplete at the time—became the Drancy internment camp, used first as a police detention centre and then more notoriously as a holding camp for Jews prior to their deportation to the death camps. As well as building watchtowers and surrounding the place with barbed wire, they tarmacked the courtyard.

Click images for source

Editorial update: I corrected a reference to ‘the Bulks’:
this wasn’t a shortened nickname for the Bullring, it turns out,
but an invention of the predictive text editor on my mum’s mobile.

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