Paris at the end of the 19th century was not a place to be poor and needy. The state had minimal involvement in the lives of individuals, providing neither mass housing nor schooling and very little in the way of other facilities. In these times of ‘Laissez-faire’, individual cities and towns around France were not even allowed to be involved in the provision of housing, with this role being played only by unscrupulous private promoters or generous employers.
It was the adoption of the Siegfied law in 1894 that was to change the living conditions of thousands of Parisians, and also to a lesser extent the face of the city. Named after the originator of the law, Jules Siegfried, a politician and industrialist, it enabled city authorities to intervene in the housing market and begin building low-rent housing for the neediest inhabitants. In Paris, the result of this law was the construction of the HBMs (Habitations à Bon Marché), a huge project of ‘hygienic housing’ which would fill the gaps around the gateways which circled the city.
The design of these units mirrored the Garden Cities that were springing up across the channel in England. In many ways, the theories behind the constructions were the same, as were the reasons for building them. In England, it was Sir Ebenezer Howard who promoted the concept of hygienic housing in a series of revolutionary and influential books and articles. His writings spoke of “pure air and water”, of “bright homes and gardens”, but also of “no sweating” and “no smoke”. A vital element of these constructions was an interest in giving residents "things to do", and libraries, galeries and sports facilities were often built at the same time as the housing. Radical ideas, but certainly not the initiatives of early Socialists. In fact, these social visionaries were often closely linked to the temperance movement, and "things to do" meant less time for drinking. By building a healthier, more active workforce, the idea was to feed capitalism rather than reject or replace it.
The major constructions in Paris arrived 30 years after the adoption of the Siegfried law, at the end of the First World War, when the outdated ‘Enceinte de Thiers’ defences around the city were ripped out. This ‘enceinte’ was simply a continuous stone wall around the city, with openings at the Portes, and a zone of 30 or 40 metres behind the wall which was kept clear for patrols and for the installation of additional defences. It had been built in the mid-19th century, but the First World War showed that a stone wall and patch of no-mans land offered little protection against long-range German artillery. The city authorities decided that it was wasted space that could be used for other things, notably housing.
This HBM housing is today worthy of a visit. The buildings were generally attractively designed, in brick, with decorative touches in ceramic. Built in blocks or ‘ilots’, these spaces are miniature parks of grass, with large mature trees stretching between the buildings. Curved concrete balconies jut out from some of the appartments, but as all were designed to offer a maximum circulation of air, they must still provide quality accommodation today. Walk around the ring of the city and you will see that these units are invariably interspersed with sporting facilities which were built at the same time, offering tennis courts, football pitches and running tracks. It is still an idyllic vision of how a city could be, spoilt somewhat today by the thunder of the Périphérique motorway behind, but the sense of space is real. Perhaps nowhere in Paris is truly hygienic, but these units were clearly an improvement on the tiny, squalid boxes in which the poor were previously stacked in the centre of Paris.
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