The theories of Le Corbusier have much to answer for. The once fashionable French architect believed in vertical cities that echoed the dehumanized life of the modern world: "We must create", he wrote, "the mass production spirit." In the city of his dreams, people would live in huge slabs of high-rise housing. To see how this has worked out in practice, take a twenty minute train ride from central Paris to the most complete embodiment of his ideas: La Courneuve, a vertical city par excellence. Some thirty years after its much ballyhooed construction as the best exemplar of modern urban life, the place is a mess. The high-rises are shabby, the limited park space ill-maintained. Most of the shops are boarded up, graffiti the only decoration. The train station is a fair walk away, and the bus service limited.
It is, in short, an excellent example of the problems of what France knows as la pŽriphŽrie. While America's blight tends to be concentrated in the core of its central cities, in Paris and other French cities the problem is generally in the inner ring of suburbs, most of them built, with the highest of hopes, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. If ever one wants to see how good intentions can pave the road toward a kind of living purgatory, La Courneuve and its many architectural clones are prime exhibits.