Reviving the Utopian Urban Dreams of Tony Garnier

During the four years he lived at Rome’s Villa Medici as a recipient of the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome, Tony Garnier spent hardly any time on the study of isolated ancient monuments, as was required. Instead, the young architect from Lyon, France, focused his energy from 1899 to 1903 on what would later become his theoretical chef d’oeuvre: a utopian plan for an industrial city.

“If our structure remains simple, without ornament, without molding, bare everywhere, we can then dispose of the decorative arts in all their forms,” he wrote in Une Cité Industrielle (An Industrial City), published as a book in 1917. The book is a detailed collection of avant-garde designs for a socialist city of 35,000 people. This hypothetical city is heavily industrialized and zoned, divided according to four functions: housing, work, leisure, and health. Garnier advocated for the use of concrete in building, as well as the importance of greenery, natural light, and collective social amenities.

An Industrial City was a bridge between the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier and the Garden City idea of Ebenezer Howard, on one side, and Modernist city planning on the other.   

Another view of Garnier’s speculative city of 35,000. (© Musée Urbain Tony Garnier)

In 1919, Garnier received a letter from a young admirer named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who had just encountered An Industrial City. “It is a milestone clearly delimiting a past period and opening up all possible hopes… In ten years, [your book] will be the foundation of all production and be the first rallying sign,” he wrote.  

Today, Garnier is not nearly as well known outside of France as Jeanneret (or Le Corbusier). But “one could say that Garnier is to Lyon what Antoni Gaudí is to Barcelona,” said Catherine Chambon, director of the Tony Garnier Urban Museum, an open-air museum devoted to the architect in Lyon, France’s second-largest city. There’s not a neighborhood in the city where his presence isn’t felt.

This year and into 2020, the city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Garnier’s birth. The Tony Garnier Urban Museum has put up an exhibit; the municipal archives has, too, focusing on the fruitful professional relationship between Garnier and former Mayor Edouard Herriot. The city’s Renaud Foundation will display Garnier’s paintings, drawings, plans, and photographs.

Garnier, a son of canuts or workers in the silk industry, was born in the working-class Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon on August 13, 1869. Growing up in modest conditions where people worked and lived in the same space led Garnier to consider the social aspect of housing from an early age.  

His youth also coincided with a crisis in the textile industry. Small workshops shuttered to make way for big, mechanized factories. With these economic changes came pulmonary illnesses, to which he lost his mother and two aunts. Sanitation and hygiene came to assume great importance in municipal projects during Garnier’s tenure as city architect.

Schooling was not compulsory at the time, but Garnier’s father insisted on educating him. He revealed himself to be a talented student and made it to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After spending four years on scholarship in Rome and one year traveling around the Mediterranean, Garnier returned to his home city. The mayor, Victor Augagneur, gave Garnier his first assignment in 1905: the construction of a municipal dairy. Augagneur then warmly recommended Garnier to his successor, Edouard Herriot.

It is impossible to talk about Garnier’s work without mentioning his decades-long collaboration with Herriot. “Here is a visionary architect dedicated to social progress. And here’s a radical socialist mayor, who has great ambitions for his city in terms of health and housing. They didn’t see eye to eye on all subjects, obviously, but their ideas about Lyon’s future converged,” said Chambon.

Garnier completed about 80 projects over his career, most of them in Lyon. Herriot commissioned what are now seen as hallmarks of the city’s architecture: the popular Halle Tony Garnier, which was originally built as a cattle market and slaughterhouse; the Grange Blanche Hospital, now known as the Edouard Herriot Hospital; and a stadium, the Stade de Gerland.  

The Edouard Herriot Hospital, one of many architectural projects by Garnier around Lyon. (© Noémie Delaire MUTG)

One afternoon in Lyon this past July, Elodie Morel, who works for GrandLyon Habitat, a social-housing management company, pointed me to a five-story building. “Come up,” she said. We visited a sunny two-bedroom apartment with a balcony, overlooking an open space planted with trees. We were at Cité Tony Garnier—a housing estate of 1,500 apartments with 3,000 residents in the Etats-Unis neighborhood.

In the early 20th century, this part of Lyon was neglected, so “the municipality decided to use it for a public housing project for workers in factories nearby,” said Morel. Garnier, an established architect by then, was hired for the job, and finished the estate in 1933. It was a model of social housing with the latest comforts. Every apartment had running water, a gas connection and a toilet, luxuries that were hard to come by in working-class neighborhoods at the time. For the sake of convenience, each building was standardized with only one type of apartment—one, two, three, or four bedrooms—and the buildings were organized in islands served by a network of orthogonal streets and courtyards.  

This new district was as close as Garnier came to his ideal city. “However, he could not include all the public amenities he envisaged, such as a swimming pool and a library,” Chambon noted. “The habitation was also more dense [than he initially planned], owing to economic constraints between the two wars.”

Toward the end of the 20th century, Garnier’s legacy was forgotten even in the housing complex that bears his name. The specter of demolition also loomed, because the buildings were run-down. Long-time residents got together and decided to try to save the estate.

Elsewhere in Lyon, a group of young artists and architects had just established CitéCréation, an initiative to create large-scale urban murals, inspired by Diego Rivera’s work in Mexico. Together, the residents of Cité Tony Garnier, the muralists, and OPAC du Grand Lyon, a social housing company, launched a major rehabilitation project in 1985. Today, there are 25 murals on building walls in the area, drawing thousands of tourists a year. Some of those murals showcase Garnier’s visionary designs.

During a recent walking tour in the neighborhood organized by CitéCréation, a group stood in front of a huge mural. A car slowed down and a man told them: “I live here. I know about these murals.”  Other local residents share his pride in this chronicle of their history and homage to Garnier, who once wrote: “There is enough ideal in the worship of beauty and benevolence to render life splendid.”

‘An Industrial City’ adorns a housing block in the neighborhood that Garnier planned. (CitéCréation)
Garnier himself is depicted in this CitéCréation mural. (CitéCréation, photo © Michel Djaoui)

Powered by WPeMatico