Saturday, 5 June 2010

La vie quotidienne

The theorisation of the mundane is really a French invention. This French critique of everyday life – or la vie quotidienne - emerged during the massive rebuilding of Paris in the so-called trente glorieuses, the thirty years of social and economic reconstruction in France between 1945 and 1975. During this period, the city forced out its working-class and immigrant populations through compulsory purchase and rent increases, and built elaborate transport networks to allow them to commute to work from suburbs and new towns. A key symbolic element in this restructuring was the demolition of Victor Baltard’s beautiful nineteenth-century pavilions, which housed the old food market at Les Halles, in the early 1970s. This market, which was clogging up traffic by handling one-fifth of the country’s meat and greengrocery, was eventually replaced in 1979 by a shopping centre-cum-interchange for the RER (the suburban express railway) and métro. A similar clean-up operation happened in Covent Garden in London around the same time.

Someone, perhaps a disgruntled banlieusard, wrote on a sign erected at Les Halles in the early 1970s: ‘The centre of Paris will be beautiful. Luxury will be king. But we will not be here.’ As Henri Lefebvre argued, city centres were increasingly given over to business, tourism and government and the poorer members of society lived out an impoverished everyday life in peripheral areas. With their carefully zoned housing estates, and long, straight streets that could be easily surveyed and patrolled by police, these new suburbs even replicated the layout of colonial towns in an effort to control their populations. The Situationists put it in typically emphatic fashion: ‘Everyday life, policed and mystified by every means, is a sort of reservation for good natives who keep modern society running without understanding it.’

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