The Maintenance of Modernity: Cleaning Postwar Paris, 1944-54

By Brad Walters

The planning of the Paris region in the period following the Second World War can be read as a process of “cleaning” – action driven by a concern for surface appearance and for the proper organization of objects in space – in an attempt to make the city conform to an ideal. In their plans, the Municipal Council and the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urbanism (MRU) perceived the existing housing of the city as an obstacle to modernization.

Modernization, the key to economic development, required the creation of a new infrastructure facilitating the flows of electricity, transportation, and sanitation. The use of statistics and demographics allowed the MRU to plan for the further development of the Paris region as well as to define the modernization of housing through the accessibility of sanitary fixtures.

The development of the notion of the français moyen – determined through the census and surveys – allowed the government a hypothetical average Frenchman for whom to design housing. The HLM program (Habitations à Loyer Modéré – dwellings of moderate rent), revised in the late 1940s and early 1950s, would provide collective housing for such average Frenchmen and their families. At exhibitions like the Salon des Arts Ménagers (the Exhibition of Household Arts), in part sponsored by the MRU, the government succeeded in selling its vision for postwar housing – thoroughly modernized through its connections to urban infrastructure and internal organization – to a newly defined middle class.

Despite the attractive packaging of collective housing as individual “ideal apartments” and the extensive use of personal opinion surveys, the inhabitants of the HLM housing would remain contained within neat boxes, of size and location determined by the government. Through the lure of “comfort”, the MRU implicated the individual Frenchman into its larger planning strategies for modernization.