This is the second in a two-part series reflecting on urban planning via La Grande Percée, the most extensive renovation in the history of the city of Strasbourg. The first half looked at the historical context of the event and the vision of its primary instigator, Rudolf Schwander. This installment will examine how this renovation led Strasbourg to become an early contributor to the Garden City Movement, for better and for worse.
Before La Grande Percée had done much more than leave a rubble-filled scar across the old city of Strasbourg, it contained a fundamental problem to be solved by its managers—what would be done with the thousands of people who lost their housing to the plans? The initial surveys to oversee the planning estimated that 3,460 people would need new housing after the demolition of buildings in the centre ville. Where would they go? Affordable housing units were planned along the route of the new thoroughfares, but it would take many years before that construction could be completed, and even then it wouldn’t be enough housing to accommodate all of the people displaced. Furthermore, if the goal of La Grande Percée was to help make the city not just more pleasant, but also more sanitary, then the population density of the city needed to be decreased.
The answer came to Alsace by way of England, in the form of an idealist urban planning concept made popular by Ebenezer Howard. At the end of the 19th century, with cities full to bursting following the massive immigrations to urban centers that characterized the industrial revolution, Howard, like many people, perceived a crisis confronting British society with two faces. On the one hand, the cities were overcrowded, dirty places full of hardship and sickness. On the other, the countryside was suffering from depopulation and the failure of the already under-developed infrastructure. What Britain needed, in Howard’s eyes, was a middle way, a solution that offered people the attractions of both the urban environment and the rural. Seeking to bring both modes of living together, he developed the concept of the Garden City in his 1902 book, Garden Cities of To-morrow.
Promoting what he considered to be a model for the ideal fusion of “town” & “country,” Howard developed a highly rationalized approach to urban planning. Greenery was a key element, of course, as one aspect of this ideal was to give the modern worker access to a natural landscape absent in the city squeeze. But even under the title of “garden city,” Howard’s guiding principle was more the ratio than the natural. His designs were infused with geometry, showing different zones of activity in concentric circles radiating outward from a central park.
The concept was well-received in an era where the problems of modern society seemed as obvious as the soot on a chimneysweep’s nose, and human ingenuity to resolve any ill was thought to be absolute by many leading thinkers. In short, the great planners of western society had learned the power of scientific rigor and practical application, but had not yet seen their streets bloodied by world war. And so, the Garden City Movement spread around the globe on the gusts of optimism that followed the Enlightenment, with adaptations of the concept attempted in Europe and the Americas, sometimes with great success. Forest Hills Gardens, of Queens, New York, was one example of the affluence that could come from the planned community. Later examples include the White City district of Tel Aviv, based on designs by the innovative Scottish planner Patrick Geddes, which has recently inspired the name for group of young Israeli musicians, Garden City Movement.
Perhaps what Garden City Movement the band has in common with the urban planning movement is the way in which the musicians attempt to bring together two seemingly different environments. The music fits into the realm of what many critics might praise for being “lush,” precisely because it gives a sense of the organic despite being built with high technology and the electronic instruments we otherwise classify, appropriately, as “synthesis.” Ebenezer Howard and his successors were seeking something similar in the synthesis of rural and urban life, and in those rarefied neighborhoods where affluence underwrote the ideal, like Forest Hills, we can feel the Garden City Movement also earned the right to be called lush. But not every attempt to borrow from Howard’s ideas met with success. Jackson Heights, in Queens, New York, not terribly far from Forest Hills, may be loved for many reasons, for example, but most people would not recognize it as something born out of a Garden City.
The same initial optimism found expression in Strasbourg, though, and city planners developed a project that was one of the first of its kind in continental Europe, La Cité Jardin du Stockfeld. In Alsatian, “Stockfeld” means something like “field recently reclaimed from the forest,” and it was the name of a rural satellite village six kilometers south of Strasbourg. At the turn of the twentieth century it was mostly agricultural, and relatively distant from urban life. It was here that the city planners decided to build 457 new housing units for the working class who were displaced by La Grande Percée, and to do so in the spirit of the Garden City Movement. In 1909 a competition was announced for proposals for developments that would include the required housing, as well as both common and private gardens, and all the basic amenities that a neighborhood would need to subsist, from a school to a local restaurant. An architect named Edouard Schimpf was chosen to lead construction of his project, named the “Howard,” after Ebenezer Howard, and building began in July 1910.
Schimpf’s project had all the ingredients, it would seem, for a success. The main structures of the development were designed in a style that borrowed heavily from local architectural traditions, with steep sloping gables and wooden shutters common to Alsace. So, in a sense, it was familiar. But it also offered the novelty of private gardens easily accessible from each unit, as well as the common gardens that could serve as social hubs for the new neighborhood. The interior spaces were simple, built to accommodate families of different sizes while retaining contemporary construction standards. The rents for the units were kept low by an association formed especially to run Stockfeld and, in order to attract working class tenants, the newly electrified tramline was extended to run as far as the village. Everything seemed designed to welcome the population the neighborhood was designed to house.
And yet nothing goes exactly to plan. A shift in power in the city government left Schimpf with only half of the original allotment to build on, and only six months to do it. The first phase of the Cité Jardin du Stockfeld saw only 363 units built, and when it opened, only 2,300 inhabitants moved in. Depending on the source consulted, these new arrivals were anywhere from 80% to 30% made up of the displaced working classes from centre ville. If we make an unsophisticated assumption that the reality was somewhere between the two, we can see that Stockfeld had mediocre success for its stated goal of helping relocate as many as 3,400 displaced people.
Theories abound: perhaps it was too inconvenient for working in town. Maybe it was too expensive even with rent controls. Perhaps they simply didn’t want a semi-rural life, being city dwellers. But the displaced people did not leave in droves for the idyllic Stockfeld. Whatever good intentions its planners may have had, they decided from positions of authority, and the people were not in complete agreement.
Stockfeld did enjoy a certain popularity for a while, especially among other working class people who wanted a lifestyle closer to that of a rural village. But for all its ingenuity, it never reached full capacity. When celebrating its centenary in 2010, officials saluted its recent renovation, and applauded the nobility of the social experiment. And yet every year it loses population and waits like a monument to those of the displaced population that didn’t come. The curving streets today carry an aspect of memorial for the optimism that struck so deeply a century ago, and so when the word “quaint” surges forward in the place of “lush,” it feels significant. The local restaurant, Au Coucou des Bois, still does a roaring business, but mostly with people looking to satisfy a nostalgia for an historical Alsace. The apartments nearby, though, continue emptying, and officials continue trying to find ways to attract new young couples as tenants.
It’s difficult, however. It’s hard to fit human life into geometries. Howard tried to establish liberalism in concentric circles, and if there are still some garden cities bearing that signature, the principle has otherwise been outgrown or perverted. Broken borders or gated communities. The Garden City Movement was an ideal built on a set of ideal rules. Its expression in Strasbourg may have only been one part of a much larger plan, as aspect of what made La Grand Percée a species of success, but it tells an essential secret about urban planning. However benevolent it begins in intention, urban planning is often conceived from on high, and its movements—even when proceeding with a studied irregularity—are ideal, which is to say mathematical. And however compelling the conceptions might be while under reflection, they meet their limits in the lived-in world. It is much like living by the philosophical discoveries of René Descartes, another great geometrician—the existence we know refuses to fit. Stockfeld, for all its progressive foundation, never quite fit the people it was designed to serve, perhaps because the genius of city leaders at the time kept them from consulting the people first.