Monday 2 February 2009

Hygienic Housing (Part 1)

Visitors to Paris today will enter through one of the 66 gateways without even noticing that they have broken through the city defences. The Portes which previously protected the city are today largely symbolic, offering apparently little of attraction to the casual visitor, but take a glance as you rush through to the centre of the city and you will see a snapshot of Parisian social history. This tree-lined belt around the city that you will rapidly jump across is where the city poor were finally able to clear their lungs and live decently.

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.

An HBM building near the Rue André Messager, 75018.

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.

HBM as Garden City, Rue André Messager, 75018

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.

On the same theme:

- The most original HBM in Paris
- An unusual school unit


Starman said...

Great post! I don't suppose you have a picture of the original enceinte? Never mind, I found some here:

David in Setouchi said...

Starman, there were three major city walls throughout Paris' history. (and a few more that are less known)

The picture you found is of the 12th Century, at it says on the picture, it's the "Philippe-Augustus wall". That picture was taken on rue Clovis (I think that's the last remaining part of that wall).

Then you have the Charles V wall, I think the last remaining part can be seen (a big chunk) on rue des Jardins St-Paul.

The next walls were wiped out by Haussman.

Finally, the last wall, the Thiers wall (mentioned here) used to be where the periphérique is today. I think we can see remains from it near Porte de Clignacourt.

Adam said...

Hi Starman. David has given ample explanations, something that he makes a speciality of doing I believe!

As for pictures of this original enceinte, this is the best I could find. Very little remains of this wall, which is perhaps not surprising given that it was neither effective nor attractive! This one is near Bercy (photo taken from

David in Setouchi said...

Wow, thanks Adam,
I've passed countless times near that wall near Bercy, I never thought twice about it

ArtSparker said...

I like the preview section (maybe it's been there and I haven't noticed it).

It's funny, building housing like this is basically just being decent writ large, so works for both Capitalism and Socialism. One might add that cetnering cultural and health-promoting open areas near where people live reduces the environmental footprint of the inhabitants.

CarolineLD said...

These really do look as if they could be pleasant places to live: such a contrast with much of what came later, in both countries.

PeterParis said...

First, my sincere and renewed compliments for how you cover your subjects! Have never read anything better and more clearly written about these HBM's! ... and they are worth it!

Regarding the walls; you can actually see a number of traces of most of the walls. I have written a few posts about it, but it would be too long to comment on it here. One day, I will try to make a recapitulation post.

I'm happy that you are blogging and that I found your blog!

Anonymous said...

Adam thanks for your very interesting contribution on the topic of seagulls in Paris. Food for thought as far as I'm concerned. I can't remember seeing them in Paris when I was a child, but there you are.

Now about HBMs : it's the first I've ever heard of them. I knew only of HLM (habitations à loyer modéré) a name that I presume only came later. My sister lives in one of those, in the 17ème. Your top photo could almost have been her building. Typical brick work along the grands boulevards...

Anonymous said...

Correction : ... my sister-in-law, not my sister.

Starman said...

Isn't there supposed to be a section of one of the original walls in le Louvre?

Adam said...

Starman - The walls you can see in the Louvre are part of the original castle fortress, built in the 13th century by Philippe Auguste. Here are some photos.

Squirrel said...

another wonderful post that puts us right there with you.

mass housing is always a fascinating subject. we have some lost cost housing here that really works, and some that did not-- but the stories of both are interesting. Ebenezer Howard --no sweating? no smoke?

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