Social Control in Bricks and Mortar: “Governmentality” in French and British Postwar Housing Estates By Stephen Basdeo

In the early part of the twentieth century attempts had been made to provide sanitary, mass housing for the residents of inner cities. This is evident by the construction of the Quarry Hill Flats in Leeds in the United Kingdom in 1938. These projects were usually planned and undertaken by local corporations. However, after 1945 the national governments of both the UK and France embarked upon large-scale building projects to provide a decent standard of living for their populations. Two examples of these post war mass social housing projects are the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, and Les Minguettes in Lyons. The theoretical framework through which the aims, failures and successes of the above estates shall be analysed is Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’. The term was coined in 1978 and refers to ‘the governance of a mentality (a collectively held view that is communicated through a variety of discourses) by way of “techniques of power” – calculated tactics that guide everyday citizen-subjects to act in accordance with societal norms’ (Ettlinger, 2011, p.538). Hollow acknowledges that it is often difficult to define a rigid Foucauldian methodology. Yet his research shows that Foucault’s insights into ‘disciplinary practices, surveillance techniques and forms of conduct have the potential to shed new light’ upon the study of urban architecture and planning (Hollow, 2010, p.120). In effect, social control can be expressed in architecture. With particular reference to Park Hill Estate and Les Minguettes, this paper discusses the ways that social housing in the 1950s and 1960s was designed to regulate the lives of their inhabitants.

Contexts, Causes and Explanations.

In 1945 the Labour Party swept to victory in the General Election in Britain. Amongst the party’s promises of the introduction of a full welfare state, and a commitment to full employment, was the promise that the government would build new homes for the British people. Their 1945 manifesto promised:

[The Labour Party] will proceed with a housing programme with the maximum practical speed until every family in this island has a good standard of accommodation. That may well mean the centralising and pooling of building materials and components by the State…and housing ought to be dealt with in relation to good town planning – pleasant surroundings, attractive lay-out, efficient utility services, including the necessary transport facilities (Labour Party Manifesto, 1945).

This meant that central government after 1945 was prepared to encroach upon areas of administration and civic governance that had previously been the prerogative of local corporations. With the growth of the welfare state and other public services, the centralisation of power from local authorities to central government has continued until today. Whereas city officials in the Victorian era enjoyed the freedom to raise rates, and allocate the spending of public money as they saw fit, today’s officials do not enjoy such power. Nowadays they ‘might wait anxiously for a ministerial Rover and spend the day shuffling a Parliamentary Under-Secretary-of-State around city “no-go areas” in the hope of obtaining some beneficence from Whitehall Departments’ (Hunt, 2004, p.489).

The model of local government in France is slightly different to that in the United Kingdom. France has traditionally been a centralised state. In 1944 government at all levels in France was in a parlous state following the collapse of the Vichy Regime in that same year. The interim provisional government, through the Ordonnance du 21 avril 1944, dissolved the municipal councils that had been established under the Vichy regime and called for new elections to determine the leadership of local authorities (Maury, 2007). However, the French central government left little scope for municipal self-government in contrast to the British case. As Smith observes, ‘only partial forms of authority have been transferred to a regional level…in many cases [this] means that “government” is an excessively generous term with which to describe what many regional authorities actually represent and do’ (Smith, 2000, p.5). In effect, local governments in France assume more of an administrative role, implementing the dictates of the central government rather than governing themselves.

Despite the fact that many large-scale social housing projects are often considered to be failed projects, any discussion of social housing must consider the reasons why governments of the day embarked upon mass housing programmes. The housing which had sprung up in the inner city districts in the middle of the Industrial Revolution had begun to decay. Nineteenth-century working-class housing, being generally cheaply built by private entrepreneurs, was often insanitary and overcrowded. The ‘slums’ of Leeds, in the words of one Victorian commentator, were a sign of ‘individualism [run] riot in the building of property’ (Foster, 1897, p.7). Likewise, Paris had had problems with slum housing since the nineteenth century. The French government began large-scale slum clearances in the twentieth century with the passage of the Debré Act of 1964 (Rihs and Daniel, 2014). During the blitz in World War Two, a total of two million homes across Britain had been damaged or destroyed, and in London alone 1.5 million people had been made homeless (Faulkner, 2011). Along with the ravages of war and urban decay, as well as the promises of a post war welfare state, Power has listed some of the main reasons why governments in both countries after 1945 embarked upon mass social housing projects:

  • The ravages of the Second World War, leaving many homeless…
  • The decay of private urban housing built in the Industrial Revolution and the difficulty of upgrading and modernising it without displacing significant numbers of residents;
  • The desire for modernity;
  • The belief in corporate, technocratic solutions in the post war economic boom…
  • A post war belief in ‘welfare’ solutions (Power, 1997, p.35).

However, despite the aims of the Labour Party to provide affordable housing for all within an existing free market system, the large-scale implementation of social housing may have done more harm to the residents than good, laying the seeds of its future decline. Cole and Furbey explain that ‘instead of integrating council tenants into society, the [Labour] party…helped to exclude them by identifying them as poor and unable to provide for themselves in the market place’ (Cole and Furbey, 1994, p.69). Thus the people who were allocated housing in the new post war high-rise blocks were arguably in the process of being separated from normal mainstream society.


Looking to the Future: Modernism and Brutalism

The society envisioned by the early architects of social housing was a modern one. The man who propagated such a vision in the 1920s was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887-1965), known more familiarly as Le Corbusier. He personified ‘the bold, nearly mystical rationality of a generation that was eager to accept the scientific spirit of the twentieth century on its own terms and throw off all pre-existing ties – political, cultural, conceptual – with what it considered to be an exhausted, outmoded past’ (LeGates and Stout, 2011, p.336). Le Corbusier’s vision of life in a modern, contemporary city was one which was functional. Houses were to be designed according to specific parameters. Homes were envisaged as ‘machines for living’ (Ibid). Le Corbusier, in his work The City of Tomorrow and its Planning (1929) argued that the nineteenth-century industrial city was a dying entity because it was disordered, and a standard had to be introduced into people’s daily lives in order to supposedly prevent the collapse of society. Le Corbusier became almost messianic in his tone, speaking of modernist architecture as the ‘salvation’ of society:

The city of to-day is a dying thing because it is not geometrical. To build in the open would be to replace our present haphazard arrangements, which are all we have to-day, by a uniform layout. Unless we do this there is no salvation. The result of a true geometrical lay-out is repetition. The result of repetition is a standard, the perfect form (Le Corbusier, 1929, p.343 original emphasis).

Buildings, rigidly ordered according to mathematical rules, then, would result in a perfect standard of life for the inhabitants of new ‘modern’ cities. Some of Le Corbusier’s ideas were subsequently taken up by the ‘New Brutalism’ movement. The term nybrutalism was Swedish in origin, originally coined by the architect Hans Asplund, and his ideas surrounding the construction of modern buildings were taken up subsequently by the French architect Rayner Banham, and named beton brut (Meades, 2014). The architects that brought this movement to Britain; Oliver Cox and Graeme Shankland, and Alison and Peter Smithson, paid no regard to architecture from the past. High Victorian architecture, for example, was deemed to be a ‘monstrosity’. Historic buildings were demolished to make room for modernist buildings. Houses made of bricks were something which, in the opinion of these architects, belonged to the past. Concrete signified modernity to these men (Forty, 2012, p.14). It was only later, through the efforts of people such as John Betjeman, that the reputation of Victorian and Georgian architecture in Britain was restored (Ibid). Amongst the intended regulation of people’s lives in modernist and brutalist architecture, it seemed that there was no place for sentimentality about the past.

The Cases of Park Hill, Sheffield & Les Minguettes, Lyons

(“Streets in the Sky”: Park Hill Estate in Sheffield. Source: Municipal Dreams, 2013)

The Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, United Kingdom, was perceived to be a pioneering work in its day. Drawing upon the brutalist designs of Alison and Peter Smithson, the designers of the estate ‘shunned nostalgic cosiness and brought architecture down to its main essentials’ (Hollow, 2010, pp. 117-118). The local press praised the project, with the new flats providing ‘nearly 1,000 homes of privacy and quiet, for the widest range of families, with lifts, street-like decks inside the buildings, shops, garages and public houses’ (Sheffield Telegraph, 16th March, 1955). Other amenities included a futuristic waste disposal system for each of the flats and a school.  The amenities listed above, and the design of the housing estate, was intended to foster a sense of community among the inhabitants of the new modern housing blocks. This was the reasoning behind designing the so-called ‘streets in the sky’ (pictured above). The architects of the scheme, Lynn and Smith, admired the sense of community that nineteenth-century slum housing was alleged to have fostered, and they attempted to preserve a sense of community in the new flats which modernist architecture was often assumed to negate (Sheffield Libraries and Archives, 2010, p.16). For this reason, families who were neighbours prior to the construction of the flats were housed next to, or near to, the same families in the Park Hill Flats. The architects reasoned further that ‘being covered from the weather and free from vehicular traffic, [the streets in the sky would] form ideal places for daily social intercourse – for the conversation of adults and for small children’s play’ (Sheffield Libraries and Archives, 2010, p.18). Thus it was the dream of the architects to bring a nineteenth-century idea of community into a modernist world. The best of the nineteenth-century idea of ‘community’ would be retained, but transplanted into a functional, modernist setting.

The environment created for the tenants of the Park Hill Estate would not only provide services for its tenants, and opportunities for social interaction, but would also control and stimulate their behaviour in this respect. J.L. Womersley wrote in his report to Sheffield City Council that certain ‘elements integrated into the structure…will undoubtedly have an important psychological effect on the inhabitants’ (Womersly, 1955 cited in Sheffield Libraries and Archives, 2010, p.19). Hollow expands on this and says that ‘the logic behind the “deck” system was to retain, but institutionalise elements of the slum…it was a technique of power designed not to impose a set of regulations upon the tenants but, rather, one designed to encourage them to perform in certain ways’ (Hollow, 2010, p.126). The amenities provided on the estate, such as an advanced waste disposal system, schools, shops, and public houses, along with the idea of ‘community’ built into the architecture, was supposed to stimulate the tenants into becoming civilised members of society. To help the tenants in this respect, the city council even employed a sociologist who lived on the estate to help inspire the tenants to weld themselves into productive citizens (Heathcote, 2012, p.31). Thus the idea behind the construction of the Park Hill Estate was that the tenants would become citizens adapted to society (Hollow, 2010, p.126).

(Les Minguettes, Lyons. Source: Minguettes-City)

Les Minguettes is a banlieue on the outskirts of the city of Lyons in France. A banlieue is a place ‘outside the city proper [with]…economic and social problems’ (Austin, 2009, p.82). The high-rise housing blocks in Lyons were commissioned in 1959, and were completed in 1973. Inside sixty three tower blocks were contained 9,500 flats (Power, 1997, p.148). The architects of the scheme, Eugene Badouin, had worked on another social housing project in Paris called La Muette. In that project he applied the principles of the CIAM Athens Charter (devised by Le Corbusier) to his mass housing project, and favoured modernist steel frames and exposed concrete in his designs (Sherwood, 2002). The dwellings designed by Badouin in Lyons would provide citizens with high quality, sanitary and affordable housing. Badouin’s designed favoured uniformity; housing blocks were ordered, and rational, in keeping with the principles of the Athens Charter. In addition, the social housing project provided four community centres, churches, schools and shops. Everything was provided for citizens to become adapted to society in their new dwelling places. As Silvrestein and Tetreault write:

Urban planners sought to de-concentrate white urban poverty from city centres, providing…physical and social mobility literally to the greener pastures of the suburbs, and resulting in the emergence of a lower middle class…[the] projects were constructed as utopian modernist experiments in social life, centralizing housing, commerce, education, and recreation in the immediate proximity to the factories in which residents were assumed to work (Silvrestein and Tetreault, 2006).

However, while urban white working class families were allocated housing in the new tower blocks, the French government also housed in these blocks a number of ethnic minorities, mostly French-Algerians. This policy was not the result of a utopian dream of integrating white French people with their African counterparts. Instead the government adopted this approach so that it could police certain sections of the population whom it viewed as a potential threat. As Silvrestein and Tetreault explain further: ‘[the social housing blocks] provid[ed] for the re-housing of North African immigrant workers and their families from the large shantytowns which had become effective organizational sites for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN)’ (Ibid). Thus the social housing project in Lyons was designed, not only to encourage the French working classes in social advancement, but also to keep a watch on parts of the population who were not trusted.

How successful, then, were these projects? In the British case, the large-scale implementation of council high rises contained the seeds of their future decline. Many council high rise flats were demolished during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Quarry Hill Flats in Leeds were demolished in 1978 owing to both structural and social problems, and Birkenhead council houses were demolished for the same reasons in 1979 (Ravetz, 2001, p.187). Stilltoe writes about the decline of the Park Hill Estate. By the late 1970s, he claims, it became a place where people no longer desired to live, and was perceived to be suffering from high rates of crime and drug abuse as the pre-war communities which had originally been housed there had died out (Stilltoe, 2014). Recently, however, the commercial organisation Urban Splash is making an attempt to regenerate the Park Hill Estate. Its website explains that: ‘[it is] working to bring love, life and pride back to this iconic project and make it a genuinely vibrant and sustainable community for the 21st Century’ (Urban Splash, 2011). The regeneration efforts include colourising the façade, and ‘softening’ it brutalist tone (Ibid). Whilst aesthetically the efforts made by the city council and the organisation in this effect can be applauded, it is clear that Park Hill, once fully ‘regenerated’, will be a commercial venture. For example, an ‘apartment’ at Park Hill will cost a potential renter approximately £725 per calendar month, with an upfront deposit of £825 (Ibid). This would probably be out of the reach of families on low incomes; the very families who were originally supposed to be housed in these flats during the post war years. Despite the fact that Park Hill was originally designed to house working-class citizens then, the conversion of Park Hill into a commercial venture indicates that the original intention of the project has failed.

Les Minguettes has also suffered its share of problems. By 1977 there were growing signs of trouble and tension. There were 700 empty units in the estates, and with rioting in 1982 Les Minguettes established a ‘national reputation’ as ‘a social and housing disaster area’ (Power, 1997, p.167). To all intents and purposes, the banlieues in more deprived areas of France have become a place cut off from mainstream French society. Contemporary cultural representations of life in the banlieues portray the areas as being overrun with crime. Austin focuses upon the film La Haine (1995) and discusses its portrayal of life in the suburbs of Paris:

The suburbs are outside the city proper, and the economic and social problems associated with these places seem endemic to their location on that ‘circular purgatory’ looking in at the urban ‘paradise’ (often Paris) at the center. It is ‘out there’ that the cars burn, that the riots recur, that police stations, schools, and libraries are destroyed and degraded (Austin, 2009, p.82).

Soumahoro goes further and states that, with their high degree of immigrant residents, ‘the media accounts of youth-police confrontations over the last ten years or so provide a concrete illustration of “colonial theatre”, a locked theatre stage, where the actors are trapped by inescapable oppression’ (Soumahoro, 2008, p.45). The residents of French social housing have become, by and large, ‘confined to an immutable “other” status, regarded as not belonging within the national boundaries of France’ (Ibid). It can thus justifiably be said that social housing in France has been as a failure, inasmuch as it has not seemingly fulfilled its goal of integrating the poorer parts of the French population with mainstream French society.


In conclusion, post war governments in Britain and France supported the construction of mass social housing projects. Building upon the architectural influences of Le Corbusier, these modernist constructions had as their guiding principle regulation of their inhabitants’ lives. Placing people in sanitary, spacious and pleasant surroundings, and facilitating daily social interactions between them, would, it was hoped, transform the working-class tenants into better citizens. This “governmentality” was built into the design and the fabric of the buildings. In the French case, these buildings were even seen as facilitating the effective policing of some allegedly ‘suspect’ members of society. In the end, however, the aims of these projects failed. In the UK huge blocks of social housing has been demolished, as in the case of Quarry Hill in Leeds, whilst the flats of Park Hill have now undergone regeneration into commercial ‘apartments’. In France, the banlieues on the outskirts of the city have become places which are believed to be overrun by crime, unemployment and deprivation, with the inhabitants of those places comprising an internal ‘other’ within the French nation. The model of social housing implemented by Britain and France has ultimately been a failed experiment.

Leeds Trinity University, Leeds, West Yorkshire


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Stephen Basdeo is a PhD Researcher at Leeds Trinity University in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He is currently researching Victorian literary representations of Robin Hood, and his main research interest is in Georgian and Edwardian literature. A secondary interest of his lies in the realm of urban history, c.1800 – present. Profile:

Twitter: @sbasdeo1


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