20th Century

‘Streets in the Sky’: Post-war Housing Estates in Britain and France | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom.[1]


For most of the Victorian era the poorest of the poor lived in slums. After a hard day’s toiling in the factory or the docks, working-class men might return home to a living space of perhaps just one room that boasted neither a toilet nor a kitchen.

A Victorian ‘slum’ in London (British Library)

Late Victorian and Edwardian city councils had occasionally attempted to provide sanitary mass housing for their cities’ poorer residents.

Victorian model dwelling in Farringdon (1899) Personal Collection

But it was not until the twentieth century, especially after World War One. This is evident by the construction of the Quarry Hill Flats in Leeds in the United Kingdom in 1938. However, after the end of World War Two in 1945 the national governments of both the UK and France embarked upon large-scale building projects to provide workers with decent housing. Two examples of these post war mass social housing projects are the Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, and Les Minguettes in Lyons. These estates present perfect case studies for an analysis with the concept of ‘governmentality’ which, coined in 1978 by Michel Foucault, describes

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.[2]

Although Foucault never intended his concept to be applied to architecture, his ideas here have the potential to shed new light on matters of urban history.[3] I argue here, using this idea of governmentality, that the government-funded public housing estates of Park Hill and Les Minguettes attempted to regulate the lives of their citizens through the very fabric of the buildings.

Attlee’s Labour Party wins power

In 1945 the Labour Party swept to victory in the General Election in Britain. Amongst the party’s promises of a full welfare state and a commitment to full employment were promises of new homes for the British people:

[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).[4]

In other words, central government was now going to encroach upon areas of administration and civic governance that had previously been the jealously-guarded 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. Nowadays local officials, as Tristram Hunt remarks,

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.[5]

French local government after World War Two

In 1944 the pro-German Vichy Regime collapsed and 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. However, the French central government left little scope for municipal self-government in contrast to the British case as one writer observes that

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.[6]

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.

As we have seen, the housing which had sprung up in the inner city districts in the middle of the Industrial Revolution was not fit for purpose. Nineteenth-century working-class housing, being generally built by private entrepreneurs, was often insanitary and overcrowded. Paris had likewise had problems with slum housing since the early nineteenth century. They were a feature of life in both countries. Paris and London’s slums and alleyways even provided the settings for two of the biggest-selling novels of the nineteenth century: Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1842–43) and George W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48).

War devastation led the French government to begin large-scale slum clearances.[7] It was a similar story in the United Kingdom. During the blitz, over two million homes across Britain had been damaged or destroyed and in London alone 1.5 million people had been made homeless.[8] Ultimately, the demolition of Victorian slums and the building of new, clean social housing represented a desire for modernity—the casting off of the old nineteenth-century ways of thinking and individualism and a belief in technocratic solutions to social problems.[9]

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.[10]

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s vision of life in a modern, contemporary city was a functional one. Houses were to be designed according to specific parameters. Homes were envisaged as

machines for living.[11]

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. A standard had to be introduced into people’s daily lives to prevent societal collapse. Le Corbusier’s tone was messianic and described modernist architecture as society’s ‘salvation’:

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.[12]

Buildings, rigidly ordered according to mathematical rules, then, would result in a perfect standard of life for the inhabitants of new ‘modern’ cities.

Le Corbusier’s Palace of Assembly

Some of Le Corbusier’s ideas were subsequently taken up by the ‘New Brutalism’ movement. The term nybrutalism was originally coined by the Swedish architect Hans Asplund. Asplund’s ideas surrounding the construction of modern buildings (which were influenced by Le Corbusier) were subsequently adopted by the French architect Rayner Banham who coined the term beton brut.

The architects that brought this movement to Britain—Oliver Cox and Graeme Shankland, and Alison and Peter Smithson—held little regard for historical British architecture and even described the Victorian gothic as a ‘monstrosity’. Houses made of bricks were something which, in the opinion of these architects, belonged to the past. Concrete was modern. The modern family should be housed, not in a house of bricks, but a concrete box. Concrete signified modernity to these men.[13] 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.

Park Hill, Sheffield

Park Hill, Sheffield

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.[14]

The local press praised the project which would provide

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.[15]

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 only aspect of Victorian living that Park Hill’s architects, Lynn and Smith, admired was the alleged sense of community that existed in working-class communities, a feeling that their new modern flats promised to preserve.[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.

Furthermore, when such citizens lived in ‘streets in the sky’ they would be

Covered from the weather and free from vehicular traffic, [which would] form ideal places for daily social intercourse – for the conversation of adults and for small children’s play.[17]

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.[18]

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. This would, in theory, help to ensure that the working-class communities on council estates did not develop into ‘dangerous’ communities (as had happened in the Victorian era and was happening in the developing world, notably in Brazil with the beginning of the favelas).

To help the tenants in aspirations to become ‘good’ citizens, the city council employed a sociologist who lived on the estate to help inspire the tenants to weld themselves into productive citizens.[19]

Les Minguettes, Lyons

In France, a banlieue is defined as a place

Outside the city proper [with]…economic and social problems.[20]

Les Minguettes is one such banlieue on the outskirts of the city of Lyons in France. These high-rise housing blocks in Lyons were commissioned in 1959 and completed in 1973. Inside this mammoth tower block estate there would eventually be 9,500 flats.[21] 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.[22]

Les Minguettes, Lyons

As in Britain, the social housing designed by Badouin in Lyons would provide citizens with high quality, sanitary, and affordable housing for poorer people. Badouin’s designed favoured uniformity; his housing blocks would be orderly 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 would be provided for citizens to become respectable citizens, as two scholars explain:

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.[23]

However, whilst urban white working class families were allocated housing in the new tower blocks, independently of the architects the French government also housed a number of French-Algerians in Les Minguettes. This policy was not the result of a utopian dream of integrating white French people with their fellow Algerian citizens. Instead the government adopted this approach so that it could police certain sections of the population whom it viewed as a potential threat and 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).[24]

In the case of Les Minguettes, the architects had a dream, and when the blocks were built, the government had other ideas.

Success (or not)

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, for example, as were several other estates across the country such as those at Birkenhead.[25]

The Park Hill Estate also entered into a period of decline. 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 or moved away.[26]

Recently, however, in collaboration with the city council the commercial organisation Urban Splash regenerated the Park Hill Estate

To bring love, life and pride back to this iconic project and make it a genuinely vibrant and sustainable community for the 21st Century.[27]

The regeneration efforts included colourising the façade, and ‘softening’ it brutalist tone. Whilst aesthetically the city council’s and Urban Splash’s efforts can be applauded, their actions were a pure attempt at gentrification. Now Park Hill has been fully regenerated, an apartment costs an average of £800 per calendar month with an upfront deposit of £825.

A monthly rent of £800 is 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.

Scene from La Haine (1995).

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 had won for itself

A ‘national reputation’ as ‘a social and housing disaster area’.[28]

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. Although not set in Les Minguettes but in a Parisian banlieue, the film La Haine (1995) was remarkable for its portrayal of the marginalisation of the citizens who lived in such places:

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.[29]

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.[30]

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.


Building upon the architectural influences of Le Corbusier, modernist social housing blocks in Britain and France wanted to regulate 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 or regenerated. In France, the banlieues have suffered social decline and their inhabitants largely stereotyped as dangerous in the media.


[1] A version of this paper was originally published on the interdisciplinary website Playgrounds in Prison: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Social Control in Bricks and Mortar: Governmentality in French and British Post-War Housing Estates’, Playgrounds in Prison, 12 December 2014, accessed 18 December 2022.

[2] N. Ettlinger, ‘Governmentality as Epistemology’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101: 3 (2011), 537–60 (537).

[3] M. Hollow, ‘Governmentality on the Park Hill Estate: The Rationality of Public Housing’, Urban History, 37: 1 (2010), 117–35 (120).

[4] Labour Party Manifesto (1945), accessed 25th May 2014.

[5] Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (London: Phoenix, 2004), 489.

[6] A. Smith, ‘Regional Government in France’, in Regional Government in France and Spain, ed. by A. Smith and P. Heywood (York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2005), 5.

[7] S. Rihs and K. Daniel, (2014). ‘The Evolution of Slum Clearance Policies in Paris and London’, UN-Habitat (2014), accessed 26th May 2014].

[8] N. Faulkner, ‘Blitz WW2 – The Battle of London’, Military History Monthly, 22 January 2011, accessed: 26May 2014.

[9] A. Power, Estates on the Edge: The Social Consequences of Housing in Northern Europe (London: MacMillan, 1997), 35.

[10] R. T. LeGates and F. Stout, ‘Le Corbusier: Editors’ Introduction’ in The City Reader, ed. by R.  T. LeGates and F. Stout, 5th edn (London: Routledge, 2011), 336.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Le Corbusier, ‘The City of Tomorrow and its Planning (1929)’, in The City Reader, ed. by R. T. LeGates and F. Stout, 5th edn (London: Routledge, 2011), 343.

[13] A. Forty, Concrete and Culture: A Material Culture (London: Reakton, 2012), 14.

[14] Hollow, pp. 117–18.

[15] Anon., ‘City’s “Super” Flats of the Future’, Sheffield Telegraph 16 March 1955 (Sheffield Archives: CA655/15).

[16] Sheffield Libraries and Archives, Sources for the Study of Park Hill and Hyde Park Flats (Sheffield City Council, 2010), 16.

[17] Sheffield Libraries and Archives, 18.

[18] J.L. Womersly cited in Sheffield Libraries and Archives, 10.

[19] E. Heathcote, ‘Park Hill: Urban Optimism Then and Now’, Modernism, Summer (2012), 30-34 (31).

[20] J. Austin, ‘Destroying the banlieue: Reconfigurations of Suburban Space in French Film’. Yale French Studies, 115 (2009), 80–92 (81).

[21] Power, 148.

[22] R. Sherwood, ‘La Muette’. HousingPrototypes.org (2002), accessed: 30/05/2014.

[23] P. A. Silvrestein and C. Tetreault, ‘Postcolonial Urban Apartheid’, Riots in France (2006), accessed 30/05/2014

[24] Ibid.

[25] A. Ravetz, Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (New York: Routledge, 2001), 187.

[26] D. Stilltoe, ‘The utopian estate that’s been left to die’, Guardian 5th March 2014, www.theguardian.com, accessed: 25May 2014.

[27] Urban Splash, ‘Park Hill’ (2011), accessed: 02/06/2014.

[28] Power, 167.

[29] Austin, 82.

[30] M. Soumahoro, ‘On the Test of the French Republic as Taken (and Failed)’, Transition, 98 (2008), 42-66 (45).