The Great Bar Card Game

Far from constituting a gray and uniform world, the large social housing complexes built in the 1960s shelter an abundance of lives and memories, as Renaud Epstein shows from a large collection of postcards depicting them.

Renaud Epstein's book extends the artistic, political and sociological gesture by which this author, teacher-researcher Sciences Po Saint-Germain-en-Laye, refuses the stereotypical representations of large ensembles and the political choices condemning them today, for a part of them, destruction.


It all started in 1994 in a tobacco bar in the ZUP (Urbanize Priority Zone) of Trois Ponts Roubaix where I conducted my first research on city policy, he writes to introduce his new work (p. 9). There he found his first large-scale postcard among other greeting cards. He began collecting them somewhat randomly through his discoveries in the towns where his investigations took him, then more systematically by searching flea markets and garage sales. The accumulation of small boxes showing bars and towers no longer has the same meaning. If, at first, it was a bit amusing that Renaud Epstein grouped together these outdated clichés of neighborhoods like we no longer build, which have largely fallen into disgrace, their accumulation soon meets other objectives: it was no longer just a question of preserving images of the neighborhoods in which I had worked, like a tourist who wishes to bring back memories of his vacation spots, but of archiving the traces of a world in danger of disappearing (p. 9). The turning point occurred at the beginning of the 2000s with the new direction of the Urban Policy and the Borloo plan of 2003, which imposed the demolition of buildings everywhere as a solution to the problems encountered by the populations of large complexes.

A political collection

Gathering postcards showing the large groups then turned into a political act as much as a sociological one: popular archives of the Thirty Glorious Years (p. 10), for Renaud Epstein it is a matter of preserving them as so many traces of the period when the state massively built affordable housing, and of the social life which was taking shape in the new neighborhoods of which the accumulated maps still bear witness today. By his way of putting these postcards back into circulation, Renaud Epstein also transforms his collection into an artistic act of which Georges Perec seems to have been the inspiration: every day, since 2014, he has contributed to his series One day, one ZUPa postcard by posting a new large ensemble map on Twitter.

Obier (Nogent-sur-Marne)

This sort of photographic inventory of new cities in the 1960s generated, as the author explains, a continuous flow of comments

which testify to the contrasting and ambivalent relationships between French society and large communities, oscillating between rejection and attachment, and to the place these neighborhoods occupy in individual memories and the collective imagination (p. 19).

No doubt these postcards would not have generated so many comments if they had been distributed other than in this form borrowed from the artists. The constancy with which Renaud Epstein displays his maps, the daily meeting he organizes with a slice of France's recent urban history, the hope he gives rise to one day seeing a personally known neighborhood emerge, the stimulation of emotions he provokes through repetition of his gesture, the snub he addresses to prejudices about cities are all artifices favoring attention and the expression of feelings. The artists themselves have taken up the work of Renaud Epstein, like the German collective Kulturen Urban Initiative who produced an original creation exhibited in 2019 at the Rencontres d’Arles. The author's work has also been relayed in several newspapers such as Les Inrocks Or The world who underlined its innovative character as well as the capacity to explore history and memory as art manages to do.

The art of the sociologist

Published by Le Nouvel Attila in 2022, Renaud Epstein's work extends his artistic, political and sociological gesture in several ways. The artistic dimension of the book is expressed in its graphics and the quality with which the postcards are reproduced. The presentation text is reduced to around ten pages, the other hundred and twenty pages present a sample of maps, sixty-six in total, according to a classification method respecting their original tourist vocation. The tour of France of large groups offered for reading begins in Mourenx-Ville-Nouvelle in the Pyrnes-Atlantiques and ends in the Arlequin district, Grenoble, in Isre. The corpus reflects the location of the large complexes built in the 1960s, although it gives pride of place to the Paris region. The artistic conception of the book is also evident in the very diverse quotes which accompany the postcards.

Excerpts from legal texts, political speeches, sociological analyses, press articles, novels, films, songs, tweets, and in a very small number of cases from the back even postcards intersperse the work, in no apparent order, as if to symbolize the abundance, if not the overload, of comments and representations that the project and the realities of large ensembles, in very different registers and according to intentions that are themselves dissimilar, have aroused for half a century. These sentences can also be read as so many invitations to the reader to question the great cities, the utopias which gave birth to them, the social progress they have favored, the disillusions they have given birth to, the despair which is attached to them, the demagoguery which used.

Tournelles (Chelles)

An artistic work, Renaud Epstein's work is also sociological and engaged. Despite its brevity, the initial presentation is dense and informative. She first usefully recalls the reasons for the crisis of housing before the State becomes a builder and provides a solution to the millions of poorly housed people. It also recalls how the state was able to provide itself with the political and institutional means to carry out its massive construction project in record time: from 1959 to 1973, nearly 200 ZUP bringing together 2.2 million housing units throughout the national territory. Finally, she recalls how the state just as quickly put an end to its housing construction business by entrusting banks and private builders, at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s, with the responsibility of housing the people in the new peri-urban housing estates. The richness of this presentation lies in the link it makes between these moments of urban policy and the depiction of large complexes in images. From the launch of major reconstruction projects, the state has in fact put in place a visual policy (p. 11) in order to promote its action. The photographic and cinematographic services then favor aerial shots showing the modernity of the new neighborhoods and the place given to green spaces. Subsequently, the liberal turn in housing policy led the administration to produce other images reflecting, on the contrary, the bankruptcy of the great planning and building project of the post-war period. The images show the large assemblies seen from the ground. They then corroborate the discourse on confinement and architectural crushing. Cinema is experiencing the same evolution, moving from films celebrating the new cities to those reproaching them and then stigmatizing the large complexes that have become cities for poor and immigrant families.

Large group postcards are therefore part of a broad spectrum of images. Belonging to the iconography of promoting new neighborhoods, their edition continued until the end of the 1970s. Addresses of parents or friends, they will have, according to the author, brings large complexes into the privacy of French homes, well beyond the big cities and industrial areas where they were established in the landscape (p. 13). Used to provide news of loved ones, but also for functions now carried out by SMStheir use did not resist the spread of the telephone then the mobile nor obviously the social and architectural disqualification of large cities.

The diversity of cities

Uderzo and Goscinny, The Domain of the Gods (1971)

Renaud Epstein grants them a new function: that of sociologically documenting the diversity of the world of large complexes and the lives of their inhabitants. The postcards indeed offer a view of diversity from three angles. First that of geography. They show that large complexes are not limited to the suburbs that the media are so popular with. There are large city center complexes, others associated with suburban areas, and still others isolated in the middle of the countryside. A second angle is architectural: if the postcards reflect the internal uniformity of the large complexes, their juxtaposition also reveals the specific style of each, defined by the chief architect of the operation, but also by the construction standards and techniques which have continued to evolve since the first social housing estates of the 1930s. Finally, although the postcards do not directly show the large complexes from the angle of the stratification of their population, this nevertheless characterizes them: all of them bring together housing HLM and private co-ownerships and therefore groups of heterogeneous residents with regard to their economic potential.

The postcards also bear witness, through various types of texts on the back, that the large groups were at the origin of the spaces experienced, that is to say not suffered, which are not reduced to the metro-boulot-sleep and mass consumption with which critical discourses of the 1960s/1970s frequently associate them. Life develops there and is expressed through the news sent to family and loved ones and the reunions they organize. Dear parents and aunt, come pick us up on Sunday at the 9:20 a.m. train () is it written on the back of a map showing the towns of Fontbouillant Montluon, in Allier. Of all the 3,000 cards collected, none bears any trace of criticism of life in the new neighborhoods which are nevertheless multiplying in the cinema, in the press and in the words of residents collected by sociologists. Renaud Epstein mischievously notes that the less satisfied inhabitants undoubtedly used other cards for their correspondence, but we can also judge, with him, this absence of significant complaint of the social and cultural gap which already separated the producers of the (media and political) discourses. and the inhabitants of large complexes.

Bright City, Bordeaux

The sociological function of postcards from large groups is coupled with a political function. Recalling, with supporting maps, their geographic, architectural, socio-economic diversity and the fact that individual and family lives were housed there, is breaking the stereotypical image and stigmatization of large complexes, which reflects on their inhabitants and reinforces the discrimination of which they are victims (p. 15). It is preserving the memory of neighborhoods today condemned to disappear in part by government and municipal decision-makers betting on the return of the middle classes and French families to the new buildings built in place of the old ones. It is ultimately to fight against the constantly repeated error of the concrete solution when the problems find their origins above all in racist discrimination and inequalities of conditions which hinder, for employees and workers housed in the cities, the possibility of finding a job. employment and to make a normal living from their work. Renaud Epstein exhumes in his work a happy period of large ensembles. That is to say if misfortune is not intrinsic to them and if their demolition can be a waste.