In Noisy-le-Sec, in the eastern suburbs of Paris, there is a housing estate like no other in France.
Organised into two blocks separated by a main road (Avenue du Général Leclerc), 56 standalone properties were inspired by seven different countries and each is unique.
The estate, called Merlan, was the result of a post-World War Two reconstruction effort that for years went largely under the radar of historians and even people who lived near it.
It was known as the cité expérimentale, and was developed between 1946 and 1951 to provide affordable housing to families dispossessed as a result of repeated bombing during the war.
They took up residence in state-of-the-art furnished houses designed by an assortment of Swedish, Finnish, British, Swiss, American, Canadian and French architects.
The homes were largely prefabricated, assembled from kits delivered by boats and trucks, and contrasting sharply to typical French houses of the period.
Originally state-owned, they were slowly sold to private buyers in the 1980s, and many have subsequently been extended, renovated or demolished.
“The cité had the charm of an anti-war utopia,” said Hélène Caroux, historian and researcher at the Service du patrimoine culturel du département de la Seine-Saint-Denis (Ile-de-France), in reference to the architectural partnership of Allied countries that helped build it from the rubble.
‘Under the radar’
Dr Caroux has written a book about Merlan and is one of a small number of historians to have studied the estate.
Her interest dates from being asked to write an essay about it in 2008, when Noisy-le-Sec chose to pay tribute to Merlan as part of its Journées du Patrimoine (heritage days).
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“I wanted to give credit to a project that went too much under the radar, considering it has great historical value in terms of housing and reconstruction,” she said.
Disaster zone to modern housing estate
The rebuilding effort was already in most architects’ minds during the war, but the government used the opportunity to modernise the industry by bringing in new techniques, materials and ideas through state-organised competitions.
Noisy-Le-Sec was singled out for experimentation after suffering some of the greatest devastation in the Ile de France region from wartime bombing.
The town was declared a disaster area in August 1944 and the Ministry of Reconstruction and Urban Planning concentrated its efforts on two projects: apartment buildings near the station and a neighbourhood of detached homes in the Merlan area.
At the time, the state was looking for construction models that would allow for the rapid production of low-cost housing, while also improving living standards.
It launched experimental building sites where multiple manufacturing processes could be tested, to be reproduced on a national scale if successful.
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New techniques and materials
On the Merlan estate, each house was designed to be built using new techniques and materials and from different plans.
‘Maison CIMAP’, the first house built in Merlan, had a reinforced concrete frame.
The Canadian ‘Faircraft’, meanwhile, was built in wood and aluminium, the English houses ‘Unitroy’ and ‘Orlitt’ were built with concrete slabs, and ‘Maison STUP’ with pre-stressed concrete.
Likewise, houses were insulated with a range of different materials, from fibreglass and wool to hardboard.
Thermal and acoustic trials were conducted to test performance – unconventional and rare for the time.
Within metres of each other, Merlan featured Swedish and Finnish vernacular housing next to semi-detached British-inspired homes.
Dr Caroux rejects suggestions the estate shares similarities with Bournville, a model village in south-west Birmingham founded for employees at the nearby Cadbury’s factory, or the Familistère de Guise (Meuse), another well-planned philanthropic settlement for a workforce, built in the mid-to-late 19th century.
It did mark a huge departure from traditional French housing projects, and the international influences would have been eye-opening for the first residents.
Jean-Pierre Savoldi, owner with his wife Suzanne of the ‘Guelain’ house since 1996, said: “Having a house eight metres from the street was a difference.
“Our house is not as open as those in the United States, but it was arranged in ways we had never seen in the region around Paris.”
Merlan accommodated 224 people from 42 families by October 1, 1948, mostly working for the state-owned SNCF, and they enjoyed the latest furniture styles and domestic appliances.
Every house boasted a fridge, fully equipped kitchen and bathroom, and electric heaters.
Residents reported a convivial ‘village’ atmosphere in the 1950s, with children playing in parks and neighbours helping each other out, according to historical documents.
The estate even had its own pageant.
The atmosphere and demographic changed, however, when the state started selling off parts.
Philippe Prénat, owner of ‘Maison City Lumber 17’ since 2000, said: “Merlan reminds me of Le Petit Jardin.”
He is referring to one of 1970s singer Jacques Dutronc’s songs, which tells the story of an idyllic plot of land transformed into a concrete parking lot.
The comparison is exaggerated, of course, but there is some truth in it. New building rules introduced in the late 1980s meant some owners were forced to replace original materials, including roofs and cladding.
Other houses were demolished, reducing the number of original properties from 56 to 43, and extensions, including terraces and additional floors, have also changed the neighbourhood’s aspect.
Dr Caroux has no good explanation for why the estate is not better known by Parisians or French people generally, even though houses were designed, from the beginning, for exhibition.
Until 1951, tenants agreed to let their homes be visited to collect opinions on urban planning.
Visitors filled in a questionnaire of their observations afterwards.
The visits were organised two afternoons a week, during which residents had to be present and the property was expected to be clean.
One occupant recalled eating meals in the entrance hall so as not to dirty the dining room.
These days, Mr Prénat keeps up the tradition in a small way by offering tours of his house for France’s Journées du Patrimoine.
The cité has benefited from a recent surge in popularity after being listed among France’s Monuments Historiques in 2000, which pushed prices up.
These days, properties in Merlan sell for around €5,000/m² – slightly higher than the average in Noisy-le-Sec.
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