The street riots that swept through France in the fall of 2005 focused worldwide attention on the plight of the country’s immigrants and their living conditions in the suburbs many of them call home. These high-density neighborhoods were constructed according to the principles of functionalist urbanism that were ascendant in the 1960s. Then, as now, the disparities between the planners’ utopian visions and the experiences of the inhabitants raised concerns, generating a number of sociological studies of the “new towns.” One of the most sophisticated and significant of these critiques is Jean-François Augoyard’s Step by Step, which was originally published in France in 1979 and famously influenced Michel de Certeau’s analysis of everyday life. Its examination of social life in the rationally planned suburb remains as cogent and timely as ever.
Step by Step is based on in-depth interviews Augoyard conducted with the inhabitants of l’Arlequin, a new town on the outskirts of Grenoble. A resident of l’Arlequin himself, Augoyard sought to understand how his neighbors used its passages, streets, and parks. He begins with a detailed investigation of the inhabitants’ daily walks before going on to consider how the built environment is personalized through place-names and shared memories, the ways in which sensory impressions define the atmosphere of a place and how, through individual and collective imagination, residents transformed l’Arlequin from a concept into a lived space.
In closely scrutinizing everyday life in l’Arlequin, Step by Step draws a fascinating portrait of the richness of social life in the new towns and sheds light on the current living conditions of France’s immigrants.
Jean-François Augoyard is professor of philosophy and musicology and doctor of urban studies at the Center for Research on Sonorous Space and the Urban Environment at the School of Architecture of Grenoble.
David Ames Curtis is a translator, editor, writer, and citizen activist.
Françoise Choay is professor emeritus in the history and theory of architecture at the University of Paris VIII and Cornell University and the author of numerous books and essays.