After years of intense building production, but sclerotic in a language that combined the principles of the ” Athens Charter ” with heavy industrialization, in the last decade French architecture has radically changed direction, returning to play a role central to the European cultural landscape.
According to estatelearning, the current situation originates from the renewal of teaching following 1968: the replacement of the ancient Ecole des Beaux-Arts with the Unités Pédagogiques (1969) creates an environment favorable to the acceptance of architectural theories (formulated in Italy and Great Britain) aimed to re-evaluate the fabric of the historic city in its relationship between building typology and urban morphology. In the debate that follows in France, two positions are initially specified: one places historical investigation as the foundation of planning (B. Huet, M. and Ch. Devillers, M.-C. Gangneux, E. and O. Girard, L. Israël, France Laisney, J.-PJ Massenot, B. Paurd); the other part from positions of rejection of the production system claiming the primacy of exclusively designed research (R. Castro, A. Grumbach, Y. Lion, J. Lucan, France Montes, Ch. de Portzamparc, J.-P. Rayon). The activity of the Atelier d’Urbanisme et d’Architecture (AUA, 1960-85) which combines social commitment with avant-garde design. But the specificity of the French situation is given by the state bodies which, in the context of the economic crisis of the seventies, support a similar moment of reflection, seeking a connection with the new generation and preparing their reintegration into the changed production structure.
Thus the Ministère de l’Equipement et du Logement establishes the Plan Construction (1972) intended to relaunch the building strategy and professional activity through the launch of numerous PAN (Program Architecture Nouvelle) competitions for young architects: for each settlement over 100 housing in public areas, a competition is foreseen with concessions to entrepreneurs by the ministry for the realization of the winning projects. These comparisons, together with similar initiatives taken by the municipalities, favor the rethinking and criticism of the old models of development of French urban planning (competitions for the villes nouvelles of Isle d’Abeau and Marne-la-Vallée, 1974), or some exercises on the themes of urban renewal (Roquette block, 1974; Halles and Villette area in Paris). The general direction is thus oriented towards an overcoming of the rationalist architectural canons, trivialized in the Sixties (split between street and house, typological standardization, creation of compact volumes in vast green areas) to get closer to the spatial richness of the ancient city in the plurality of its sedimentations. This orientation should also be related to the revival of traditionalist and nostalgic ideologies (1,840,000 single-family houses were built during the Giscard d’Estaing presidency, 30% more than the seven-year Pompidou). State intervention gradually becomes stronger, Albums de la Jeune Architecture (1980), a portfolio of young designers distributed among entrepreneurs; CORDA (Comité de la Recherche du Développement en Architecture) also tries to channel the new demands into the cultural parameters of the Giscardian presidency.
With the abandonment of the intensive construction of social housing, public interest shifts to the great themes of urban renewal, involving Paris in the first place, on which much of the story of the Eighties is played out. The election, for the first time in the capital, of a mayor (J. Chirac, 1977) and above all the activity of the new head of state France Mitterrand (1981) are at the origin of a series of major interventions on Paris, aimed at consolidating its hegemonic role on the scene no longer only in Europe, but in the world.
The activity of the new municipality points decisively towards the definitive abandonment of the previous strategies, through the directives of the Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR) and the Direction de l’Aménagement Urbain de la Ville de Paris, which orient architects to type-morphological analysis of the Parisian fabric. The building regulations of the POS (Plan d’Occupation du Sol, 1974, 1977) indirectly sanction the return to Haussmannian principles (respect for the pre-existing envelopes and alignments; re- proposing the type of the mitoyen Parisian consisting of basement with basement, successive hierarchically distinct levels, retreat of the 5th or 6th floor), implicitly endorsing an idea of architecture linked to the temperate modernity of the Thirties (R. Mallet-Stevens, P. Patout, H. Sauvage). Other factors of renewal are given by the Régie Immobilière de la Ville de Paris which uses young architects for subsidized building works and public services: the housing policy of the municipality focuses on the ZAC (Zones d’Aménagement Concerté) which, through the expropriation and the right of pre-emption, favor the liberation and conversion of areas occupied by former public services (railways, gasometers), allocating them to residence, especially economic ones.
Mitterrand’s projects seem to be linked to the traditional politics of prestige of the French heads of state; the obvious orientation is to relaunch the ” cultural industries ” (museums, entertainment halls, international information and communication centers), symbols of a new idea of progress. These operations have been the subject of international competitions or consultations (with heavy interference from the central authority) which have often seen foreign designers as winners, favoring a further enrichment of the national debate. The return to the concept of monumentality appears constant, resulting however not from a particular typological choice, but from the expression of a formal system. The grands projets d’Etat had been preceded in this by the Center G. Pompidou (R. Piano and R. Rogers, 1977) which happily resolves the dichotomy between the role of ” monument ” and the relationship with the surrounding historical context, through the principles of architecture of technology (exhibited metal structure, kinetic variations in the perception of space, etc.).