DANGER COLLAPSE: Analyzing a Ten-Year-Old Photograph from the Paris Banlieue Revolt


“Danger Effondrement” (Danger Collapse) in Aulnay-sous-Bois (North-Eastern Paris banlieue) / Photograph by Léopold Lambert on November 8, 2005 (full photo here)

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Since September 2004, I have been taking and selecting one photograph per day in a project that links the short and long term, the banal and, sometimes, fragments of history (during the great French student strike in 2006, Occupy Wall Street in 2011, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 for instance). One of these fragments can be seen in my November 8, 2005 entry, exactly ten years ago yesterday, with a photograph taken in Aulnay-sous-Bois of a car dealership burnt during the October-November 2005 revolt of the banlieues that the recent blog articles and the second issue of The Funambulist Magazine have been examining. Being a 19-year old architecture student back then, I wanted to confront the media discourse that was offering us visions of a civil war to a reality eminently more complex about which the small-town provincial I was only had a vague intuition back then. The testimonies gathered ten years later in various independent medias (Mouvements and Mediapart for instance) attests that the revolt is as much born from the police racist profiling and brutality, as from the media coverage of the events in particular, and of the banlieues in general, which seemed (and continue to be) taking its information directly from police representatives and demagogic politicians. The most vocal of the latter was, of course, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior and, thus the “chief of the police,” who had already promised to wash out the banlieues “scum” (racaille) with a Karsher a few days before the revolts started (see past article) and who declared on November 10, 2005 that polygamy might be one the cause of the revolt (what most of the French press continues to call “riots”).

Another discursive effort to fundamentally dissociate the Banlieue Black and Arab youth from the rest of French society consisted for politicians and the press to insist on the numerous fires light up in various banlieues burning various cars and buildings, and providing the perfect mix of spectacle for the press and fear for the politicians. In the descriptions of these fires, they particularly insisted on the fact that this youth was burning its own local infrastucture, implying that not only were they violent and dangerous, they were also irrational or suicidal. In La domination policière (La Fabrique, 2012), Mathieu Rigouste (who has been since then assaulted and beaten by undercover police officers) explains that the youth was contained by the police within their own neighborhoods and had to therefore burn what they had “handy” in a gesture that can be seen as a revelation of the banlieues, yet that were also easily instrumentalized by antagonizing, demagogic and often racist political discourses. It is tempting on a platform that had argued numerous times that architecture is to be more thought as a problem than as a solution, to think of these buildings burning as the “positive holes” described by the Situationnists (see past article), or, along the same line to the text written by Guy Debord after the African American Los Angeles revolt of 1965 describing the fires of the city supermarkets as a critique of capitalist urbanism. However, this is something that I refuse to do here. I do not think that there was a constructivist agenda or unconscious to the numerous fires lit in the banlieues back then, but, rather, the desperate (in the proper sense of the term: who has lost any form of hope) catharsis for a legitimate anger of a socially excluded youth.

This is where this November 8, 2005 photograph is useful in the symbolic layer it adds to the reality of the revolt. The structure of the car dealership being compromised, someone had sprayed the phrase “DANGER EFFONDREMENT” (DANGER COLLAPSE) on the building’s remaining facade. I remember these words hitting me for their simple but powerfully accidental description of the situation. On the first page of the magazine’s second issue, it was important to me to link 2015 with 2005, but also to the 1995 vision of the banlieue offered by Mathieu Kassovitz in the canonical film, La Haine (see past article) that presents today a testimony that nothing really changed in the last twenty years: journalists still visit the banlieues “as if they were in a zoo” as Hubert Kounde points out in the film, young Black and Arab men still die “from complications following their police arrest,” and the occasional forms of revolt are still antagonized and feared by the rest of society. But, the most compelling comparison between these words, “DANGER COLLAPSE,” and La Haine lies in the first scene of the 1995 film (see below), when we see a molotov cocktail slowly falling towards the ground with the following narrative accompanying the fall: “There is this guy who is falling from a skyscraper. On his way down, past each floor, he keeps saying to reassure himself: ‘So far, so good…so far, so good…so far, so good…’ But that’s not the fall that’s important, it’s the landing that is.” As we recently saw through the architecture of Paris Northern banlieues’ police stations, the police and politicians already have a scenario planned out for “the landing;” it is therefore crucial that we fundamentally address this narrative that the rest of society is being prepared to legitimize on a daily basis, and undermine it at its very neocolonialist urbanistic and social foundations.