On Sundays from 6pm, a space is cleared in "Le Cinquante" bar and a guitar appears. Before long, everyone inside is singing along to a selection of French classics from the 1950s. Brel, then Piaf, on to Brassens then Montand and Gainsbourg...soon you can imagine yourself back in this golden age - if it wasn't for the lack of smoke in the establishment! It's fun, but I'm more interested in the architecture and urbanism of this decade. What is quickly evident though is how few structures there are from this period in Paris, which is somewhat surprising for a city that was home to architects such as Le Corbusier, Perret, De Mailly and Pingusson.
Across much of Europe, the 1950s was marked by the new. Mass destruction during the folly of the previous decade had left many major cities in ruin, but Paris had the good fortune to be spared. Whilst much was lost in the rebuilt cities, it did offer a fantastic opportunity to recreate basic infrastructures. In France, it was principally the port cities that were regenerated, notably Le Havre and Marseille. Whilst we can be thankful that Paris wasn't burnt to the ground (which Hitler had ordered), it did mean that the terrible living conditions in the city lasted longer than they perhaps should have.
In the early 1950s, much of Paris was in an unacceptable state. It was estimated in 1954 that 1/5th of all properties in France had no mains water, 2/3rds had no toilet and three-quarters had no bathroom*. In Paris, the areas around Les Halles and Beaubourg housed many families in such conditions, and shanty town camps or bidonvilles could be found on the edges of the city or alongside the railway lines.
Finally, it was the incredibly harsh winter of 53/54 that was to provoke change. The newspapers were full of stories of people dying in the streets, and one child died in one of the miserable, old appartment buildings. Something had to be done to house people decently, but with France being France, the results of the laws voted at this time were mostly not seen until the 1960s, and almost all of the new housing construction was high-rise towers in the towns in the suburbs of the city. It is mainly for this reason that there is such a shortage of 1950s constructions in Paris.
Whilst I would not argue that Paris would be a better, more attractive city today had the architects of the time had their way, I do think that many parts of Paris would surely be improved if they had been rebuilt in the 1950s. In the centre of the city, the renovated old buildings are much in demand today, but in other zones, such as the 13th, 15th and 19th arrondissements, hesitations in the 1950s meant that when construction did finally start, in the 1960s and 70s, cheaper, less refined buildings were put up. In Le Havre and Marseille, the elegant urban planning of Auguste Perret and Fernand Pouillon were true modernist success stories, with the architecture of Le Havre being listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.
Ah yes, the UNESCO building in Paris. Finally a structure in the city that was built in the 1950s! The modernist block, which is shaped like a letter Y or a three-sided star looks somewhat out of place in Paris, alone as it is. The only other contemporary building that I can think of for it is the CNIT structure which launched the development of La Defense. Both were prestige projects, and were not the housing that the city desperately needed. Had the city been regenerated in this decade, and had housing been constructed in the centre and not in the suburbs, it is likely that not only would there be prestigious architecture, but many of the social problems facing the country today would have been avoided as well.