A 19th Century Proletarian Citadel in Paris (Part 1)


Photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

I recently rediscovered a collection of documents that Martin Le Bourgeois and myself had collected and produced, almost four years ago, about a very interesting group of housing buildings in Paris’ 18th arrondissement (district).  Situated at the intersection of the rue Eugene Sue and the rue Simart these blocks had been built in the second part of the 19th century during Haussmann’s transformations of Paris in order to host 10,000 workers. I described them above as a group of housing buildings but what really struck us back then was the fact that this group appeared actually as a unique built mass, incised by two streets and punched by a multitude of more or less narrow courtyards. What also appeared to us is that this mass’ area was almost exactly the same of a more well-known compact mass of buildings that the low social class transformed into a proletarian citadel: the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong (see previous article and the fantastic section). Although the Parisian citadel is probably one of the densest blocks of the city, the Walled City used to be five time denser until it was destroyed in 1993.

Just like the Walled City has been associated for a long time with its own myth in which the police did not want to enter it and was hosting all kind of crooks, clandestine and other pirates – in reality it seems that this reputation was usurped – one could imagine a fictitious re-reading of Paris’ history in which this block could have functioned as an autonomous entity with its 10,000 inhabitants -during the bloodshed of the attack of the Commune by the Versailles troops in 1871 for example – and resists to the various forces of suppression by the use of this architecture’s defensiveness and labyrinthine organization of space. Unfortunately, the reality is somehow more prosaic and nothing like that happened. The Citadel is now subjected to Paris’ real estate (although the neighborhood is very far from being one of the most expensive in Paris), the density decreased and the blocks have been divided in individual lots, thus suppressing any form of potential community within it.

This concludes the first part of this article, a second one explores the depth of the multitude of courtyards which populate the citadel.

Photograph by Yann Arthus-Bertrand