Constructing the Commons:
The Norms and Forms of a New Public Realm in Toulouse-le-Mirail.


The new urban district Toulouse-le-Mirail, the biggest ZUP (Zones à Urbaniser en Priorité) in France, was in 1961 planned for 100,000 people. It was located on a farmland on the southwest side of the historical city center of Toulouse (200, 000 inhabitants). Instead of using the much used urban design principle of the ‘mass plan’ (plan-masse) the architects Georges Candilis, Alexis Josic and Shadrach Woods conceived Le Mirail around: „a basic structure [that] may be determined: this structure or stem includes all the servants of the homes, all the prolongements du logis; commercial, cultural, educational, and leisure activities, as well as roads, walkways and services“. The sinuous figure of the stem followed the characteristics of the terrain, positioning itself at the highest points of the terrain and relating to the different historical elements on the site (parks, gardens and castles). As a linear concentration of urban activities the stem was conceived as a newfangled collective pedestrian zone and the car traffic was placed at the edges of the site.

This lecture will use this canonical example of French post-war urbanism as a case-study to talk about one of the much forgotten aspects of post-war urban planning: its radical innovative articulation of a new regime of common spaces. Departing drastically from the age-old and well-known figures of publicness such as the square, the street or the passage, the post-war urban projects suggest a landscape approach to the commons. This radical change in the conception of the collective realm is certainly one of the aspects of post-war planning that is under-evaluated and ill-understood.

This lecture is an attempt to reassess the rich conceptual and formal apparatus of modernist public space that was developed for French housing estates during the 1960s. It will take as its point of departure the work of French landscape architect Jacques Sgard, who introduced in 1958 the idea that the modernist city did not only consists of the 4 CIAM functions (dwelling, work, recreation and transport) but also encompassed a fifth function; la fonction espace vert.

Sgard pointed with its fifth function to an important feature of the numerous new housing estates (grands ensembles) in France that was articulated by landscape architects as Jacques Simon, Michel Corajoud and Bernard Lassus, but also by architects as Fernand Pouillon, Marcel Lods and Candilis-Josic-Woods. This lecture will illustrate through the case-study of Toulouse-le-Mirail that in postwar French housing estates by these designers new notions and forms of the commons emerged that were informed by three main considerations: identification and participation of inhabitants with their dwelling environment, the democratic appropriation of public space and the role of public space—considered a productive landscape—as a basis for autarky.

Tom Avermaete is full professor of architecture at Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. He has a special research interest in the public realm and the architecture of the city in Western and non-Western contexts. With the chair of Methods and Analysis he focuses on the changing roles, approaches and tools of architects. His research examines precedents—design attitudes, methods and instruments—with the explicit ambition to construct a critical base of design knowledge and to influence contemporary architectural thinking and practice.

Avermaete is the author of Another Modern: the Post-War Architecture and Urbanism of Candilis-Josic-Woods (2005), The Balcony (with Koolhaas, 2014) and Casablanca-Chandigarh: Reports on Modernity (with Casciato, 2014). He is a co-editor of Architectural Positions (with Havik and Teerds, 2009), Colonial Modern (with von Osten and Karakayali, 2010), Structuralism Reloaded (with Vrachliotis, 2011), Making a New World (with Heynickx, 2012) and Architecture of the Welfare State (with Swenarton and Van den Heuvel, Routledge, 2014). He is the editor of several books and the curator of several exhibitions.