Razing the 4000 Complex in La Corneuve, a suburb of Paris: Architecture as Social Engineering

Scott Sayare   New York Times Sep 7, 2011

It is hardly the first time such efforts have come to this neighborhood.  Governments have been razing and rebuilding in this neighborhood for 25 years, hopeful that new architecture and new theories about how best to house  the poor will solve the problems.  Residents and local officials, though, have few expectations that new walls and fresh pavement, whatever their configuration, can drive a deeper renewal.

Erected in the 1960s, the 4000 complex was meant as a utopia, an experiment in social engineering that would rationalize the lives of the immigrant workers it would house.

The theory of the day, drawing on the architectural philosophy of Le Corbusier, held that residential areas ought to remain separate from roads and the work place, and so the cluster was built as a sort of island; residents trudged across a muddy field to reach an adjacent train station.

Each airy apartment was equipped with a bathroom, a relative rarity in Paris at the time.  The complex was deemed revolutionary.  But it fell into disrepair within a decade.  Built cheaply, the units leaked and crumbled.  More recently, the elevators seldom ran.  The rats moved in.  The drug trade arrived in the 1980s.

Government after government has since pledged to undo the damage they say these structures have done, deploring the homogeneity, monotony, and social segregation they imposed.

And yet, while the particular philosophy underlying the 4000 has been disavowed, few French officials have jettisoned a belief in the primacy of architecture in shaping social outcomes, said Marie-Christine Vatov, the editor-in-chief at Innovapresse, a media group specializing in architecture and urban planning.  “It’s not enough to build in a certain way,” she said, especially without more pointed efforts to improve education and employment.  There are political considerations, too. Buildings thrown up or torn down, are visible markers of action, Ms. Vatov noted.