Collectors who, like Autolycus the Rogue in The Winter’s Tale, are snappers-up of unconsidered trifles, and whose collections subsequently prove to be of great historic or aesthetic value, or both, excite my admiration for their constructive single-mindedness and foresight. Hans Prinzhorn (1886–1933) was one such, David King (1943–2016) another.

Prinzhorn was a German psychiatrist who collected art produced by psychotic patients in mental institutions, little thinking that many of those artist-patients would be killed, as life unworthy of life, only a few years later in a rehearsal of the Holocaust. Much of the work that Prinzhorn collected was not only of psychiatric interest but also of artistic merit, and after years of use by the Nazis for propaganda purposes and then of neglect, it is now properly housed in a Heidelberg museum that produces beautiful monographs on artists such as August Natterer.

King was a British graphic artist who collected 250,000 examples of Soviet graphic art from the time of the Russian Revolution to the Khrushchev era, the largest collection in the world outside Russia, later bought by the Tate in a surprisingly enlightened act of acquisition.

To the names of these two great men in my little personal pantheon must now be added that of a third, Renaud Epstein (b. 1971). Epstein is a French sociologist specializing in urban policy, and he had the brilliant idea (and what is perhaps as important, the determination and assiduity to carry it out) of collecting postcards of the vast public housing projects that were built in France during les trente glorieuses, the thirty years from the end of the war which, more than any other comparable period, transformed France into a modern industrialized consumer society.

Most people would have disregarded these postcards as being of no value or interest.

The postcards he collected, with the peculiar washed and faded quality of the colored photography of the time, were contemporaneous with the heyday of the brave new world of public housing in France. Most people would have disregarded these postcards as being of no value or interest, and it is to Epstein’s immense credit that he saw that they were important historical documents in their own right, capturing a moment of his country’s history like nothing else. In all, he has collected three thousand such postcards and has published a selection of them in a book titled On est bien arrivés, precisely the phrase that people used to inform their friends or relatives when they had arrived somewhere, in the days when such postcards were still an important means of communication.1 (The words that my best friend, aged about eight, would write on his postcards he sent to me, addressed to Master Anthony Daniels, from wherever he had gone, are engraved on my memory: “I hope you are well I am and having a lovely time.”)

Not only were the postcards themselves fast disappearing, but the housing projects that were their subject were fast being demolished. It was therefore doubly urgent that the collection should be made. Regardless of whether one views these housing projects as a heroic attempt to improve the standard of living of the lower classes or an exercise in totalitarian planning and social control, it is important that a record of the recent past should be preserved—if, at any rate, one considers the past as important in itself, whatever the use made of our knowledge of it.

In a lucid and jargon-free introduction to the reproductions of the postcards, which the author chose to demonstrate the ubiquity of these housing projects in France rather than for any other reason, Epstein succinctly describes the problem to which the projects were thought to be the answer:

Their mass production, begun in the middle of the 1950s, put an end to the dramatic housing shortage from which French towns suffered from the end of the nineteenth century. At the end of the Second World War, which destroyed 400,000 homes and damaged a million and a half others, it grew even worse in the years that followed. . . . While the need for urban accommodation exploded because of the baby-boom and rural exodus that accompanied industrial development, building remained almost stagnant until 1953. To the quantitative deficit was added a qualitative one: in 1948, a half of homes had no running water and three-quarters no toilets.

But however understandable the rationale for the mass construction of these projects, often with Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian immigrant labor and subsequently inhabited disproportionately by immigrants from France’s former colonial empire, one cannot but be horrified at the postcard pictures of them. They illustrate perfectly the synergistic effect of a prevalent architectural ideology with a technocratic mindset. Something had to be done, but did it have to be this?

What strikes one immediately about the views is the sheer inhumanity of what is portrayed.

It is important to realize that the postcards were produced not to bury the projects but to praise them. They were intended to illustrate the supposed glories of modernity as then conceived. What strikes one immediately about the views is the sheer inhumanity of what is portrayed, an inhumanity so obvious that only a person with severe autism could miss it.

To begin with, many of the views are taken from the air and, because the projects are so large, from quite a high altitude so that no actual human life can be perceived below. They are little different from architects’ maquettes; they are pure geometric abstractions, and from the point of view of human life, they might just as well have been struck by a neutron bomb, the weapon that kills humans but leaves buildings standing.

Even more alarming, in fact, are the views taken from ground level. Human life is almost as absent from them as from the aerial views, as if the presence of a human would spoil the perfection of the geometry. At most, there is a child or two, playing in a wilderness of concrete; in the foreground of one view in Creteil of a bizarre collection of round concrete towers (as if awaiting their future extraterrestrial immigrant tenants) is a playground, complete with primary-color plastic equipment—it being never too soon to induct children into bad taste—but without a single child in view: for, as everyone knows, children are messy.

The absence of humans is not accidental, as the architects of the projects accepted whole Le Corbusier’s urbanism, with its hatred of the street and human spontaneity and its belief that not only towns but life itself should be divided up into functional units, so that there should be one physical space for dwellings, another for commerce, another for work, and so forth. Above all, there was to be none of the intermingling that gives life to a street or to a town.

The architecture is the concrete embodiment (and embodiment in concrete) of the technocrat’s vision of the good life.

The architecture is the concrete embodiment (and embodiment in concrete) of the technocrat’s vision of the good life, for the achievement of which everything can be planned and measured: so much cubic and square space per person, so much running water, so much ventilation. Since no one could deny that relief of overcrowding, superior sanitation, proper heating, and the provision of hot and cold running waters are goods in themselves (and since no one who has experienced them would happily do without them), criticism is disarmed in advance. A technocrat is a person who has never heard or taken to heart Einstein’s famous dictum that not everything that can be measured is important, and not everything that is important can be measured.

One of the impressive things about Epstein’s book is that it is not univocal. Opposite most of the postcards reproduced is a well-chosen quotation. A psychoanalyst, René Kaës, writing in 1963 of a style of housing so redolent of the Soviet Union (though better built) said:

The large projects can give to woman the role and the place that political and social customs have always denied her. She remains absent from public life: the city, the economy, politics are still the province of men. Now, however, the large projects built by men offer woman a chance: better household equipment, a home easier to maintain, better collective services where they exist, a social life which, thanks to the presence of a large number of children, demands her greater participation in decisions.

A communist writer named Marc Bernard published a book titled Sarcellopolis, taking off on the name of a commune outside Paris with an almost unimaginably vast housing project initially built to house some of the million Pieds-noirs who fled Algeria after that country’s independence. Bernard was not one of them; rather, he was sent by his publisher to live in the project for three months and report what he saw. Bernard quotes a newly arrived tenant of this vast concrete agglomeration:

Suddenly a sign appears at the side of the road: Sarcelles-Lochères.

We’re there! At last, almost. It remains only to find the road, the block, the corridor, the stairway, and the flat . . .

Happiness is unconfined: The joy that I felt on entering a modern apartment for the first time in my life, the impression of well-being and social advancement, of belonging to a people that is at last able to enjoy the best comforts that modern civilization has to offer, was what I later learned was exactly what all the new tenants felt. It is a headiness akin to that of heights, approaching weightlessness.

This cannot be entirely dismissed as an ideological commitment to collectivism: there are numerous records of impoverished people, hitherto inhabitants of slums or worse, overwhelmed with delight, not only in France, when moved into accommodation like that offered by Sarcelles-Lochères, before the drawbacks are evident.

It didn’t take long for those drawbacks to become evident. Here is an account of the arrival in France from Algeria of Faïza Guène’s mother only twenty years after the above dithyramb was written, that is to say in 1984:

My mother imagined that France was like it was in the black and white films of the Sixties. . . . But when she arrived with my father in February, 1984, she thought she’d taken the wrong boat and arrived in the wrong country.

The architecture had transformed more than the townscape.

Of course, it is easy to be wise after the event, but some were wise during the event. Louis Caro, in an article titled “Psychiatrists and Sociologists Denounce the Madness of the Large Projects,” wrote: “It is the world of isolation and promiscuity, of boredom and din: in the language of the tenants as in that of the experts, it is hell.”

The root of the evil, if any such development may be said to have a single root, is to be found in the quote from Le Corbusier’s book of 1925, L’Urbanisme, instinct with fascistic or totalitarian puritanism:

The curved road is the way of donkeys, the straight road that of men.

The curved road is the way of whim, of insouciance, of slackness, of relaxation, of animality. The straight is a reaction, an action, an act, the effect of self-mastery. It is healthy and noble.

It is sobering to think that this drivel comes from the pen of the man who was probably the most influential single architectural figure of the twentieth century, responsible for so much of the ugliness of the world, and who by his writings opened the floodgates to a tide of self-serving verbiage by architects worldwide. If Le Corbusier is admired, everything is permitted.

What can be said now in defense of these projects, which housed, and still house, millions? I am not sure whether this is a defense, but it is far from certain that, once demolished, they will be replaced by anything very much better. For the first time in two thousand years, no Frenchman is capable of erecting a decent building, neither on a large scale nor a small one, on a huge or a tiny budget. It is even uncertain what proportion of the population can any longer distinguish between a monstrosity and a masterpiece, and those with the power of decision certainly cannot. If one gets used to what one lives with, and even comes to like it, it could be argued that architecture is less important than I suppose. And some of the quotes employed by Epstein tend to the view that, regardless of the built environment, life goes on: mankind, after all, is still mankind. A little essay at the end of the book by M. Capodano, the owner of a Parisian bookshop specializing in questions of urbanism, who spent much of his childhood in a new housing project in the Thirteenth Arrondissement of Paris, recalls his neighbors with affection. Having discovered the work of Epstein via Twitter, on which the sociologist put a postcard of a French housing project every day, the bookseller realized he had forgotten that

the sister of Rachid, my class friend . . . taught me to ride a proper bicycle. Forgotten also Madame and Monsieur Zenatti, neighbors from the first floor, who came from Oran, repatriated from Algeria like my parents, who brought us salad of peppers in olive oil because they always made too much. Forgotten also the games of football in front of the staircase of the building where each team fought to have Yannick (“The Martiniquais”) on its side because he ran so fast. . . .

Forgotten also Madame Pinquier who looked after me on Wednesdays, whose husband was a dustman in the Sixteenth Arrondissement [the most chic and expensive] and who from time to time brought me completely new toys that the children of the rich district had thrown away without even opening.

How infused with human warmth! Yet there is surely an important difference between a project in the Thirteenth Arrondissement and that of Sarcelles-Lochères. In the former, one is not more than a few hundred yards from a Métro station, which is to say one Métro station away from a beautiful and civilized urban environment. It is very different in Sarcelles. There, in the words of a song by a group called Suprême ntm (ntm being an acronym for nique ta mère: fuck your mother), no one is locked up, but they might as well be.

I hesitate to quote François Mitterrand as someone with a more realistic grasp than Capodano, who is clearly a fine man, but his words seem to me more apposite: “Can one make a real home for oneself in a numbered flat on a numbered staircase in numbered building?”

“Can one make a real home for oneself in a numbered flat on a numbered staircase in numbered building?”

Irrespective of the answer, and irrespective of one’s opinion of the architecture exhibited on the postcards (in my heart I admit of only one reasonable one), Epstein is in my pantheon of snappers-up of unconsidered trifles of enormous value not only to us but also to future generations.

  1.   On est bien arrivés, by Renaud Epstein; Nouvel Attila, 160 pages, €18.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 4, on page 17
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