The protest of 2005 in France have a lesson that runs concurrently back and forward in time, they are an event with a socio political relevance beyond their direct cultural reference.
All protests have a trigger. Whether they develop into legal or illegal actions there is always a catalyst which changes an ordinary event into one that engages the minds of many to act in unity. The death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré following pursuit by police officers was such an event.
However, what no one expected was the identification that other disenfranchised descendants of French migrants would make with these two young men. It is startling to see in retrospect that not only were these protests / riots confined to HLM (high rise housing) but to high rise housing in in decentralised, and arguably disenfranchised areas. The only exception this this is in Paris, where protests were specifically targeted in central areas to gather the attention of the authorities, and attract the attention of the media.
So what significance to architecture?
The planning policy of creating specific districts to focus on particular economic or social requirements was pursued by French governments for the best part of 3 decades. It worked well when the factories located in the ‘suburbs’ on the outskirts on the cities thrived in the economic expansion and baby boom era of the 50s and 60s. Fast forward 60 years, adding the failing of the industrial industries on Western countries, you end up with economically poor, descendants of migrants marginalised by society… and all living not only in similar conditions but in buildings constructed in the same way. With public space constructed in the same way.
In short the planning of the public and private realm had failed these citizens leaving them in homes and communities which were (and still are) segregated from main stream society.
The architecture didn’t cause this segregation but has become its agent. Some have written that this is Corbusier’s legacy. Missing the fact that his tableau is richer than the event occurring in France in 2005. That said; it is impossible to untie the threads which combine that ideology and the resultant disturbances. However the real question; is how successive governments can allow an ideology generated in the furnaces of the 1920s and 30s to remain so relevant that they negatively influence a population living in an incomparable world some 80 years later.
This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time