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Department of Architecture


Claire Lévy-Vroelant (Professor of Sociology, University Paris 8 Saint-Denis)

Who cares about Public baths? Paris, 1890-2016

Domestic standards of comfort currently exclude situations such as not having water at home. It is therefore “abnormal” to use public baths. Still, in Paris, such “public amenity” has survived the generalized internalization of domestic equipment. Parisian public baths are supposed to deliver –gratis - about one million showers a year. The idea of the research is that the sector is potentially an excellent laboratory to explore the changes that have occurred in social, urban, migratory and sanitarian policies. As for the various forms of temporary accommodations which have housed generations of newcomers, public baths are reflecting the ambivalence of State governance: are such amenities useful in the context of the “global city”? Is the State retreating or reconfiguring the forms of its intervention? To what extent are local authorities developing their own path to provide (or not) public goods (in this case, hot water and a space for intimacy)? What kind of accompanying message is delivered to justify action or abstention? In the case of conflicting interests, who are the supporters and who are the objectors?

The presentation will start with an historical approach to the sector in Paris, from the very end of the nineteenth century. I will then report on a collective survey conducted in the Parisian municipal public baths by students of Sociology at Paris 8 University, under my supervision. The analysis, based on selected pieces of field works diaries and interviews with users and employees, focuses on the performativity of interactions. Public but also private, because they are dedicated to bodily care, such establishments appear to be regulated by tensions between three principles: anonymity, hospitality, hostility. The research underlines the ambiguity of these spaces, deeply vulnerable and at the same time bringing solidarity and even a spirit of resistance. Finally, I will give some insights on a new survey, in partnership with the City of Paris, which is expected to offer a precise portrait of users and usage of these establishments. As for my previous research about transitory housing for migrants, it is expected that the outcomes also highlight the challenges involved: the emergence of a right (to housing, and now to water (promoted by EU and recently by French national Assemblée)); the management of poverty and public health; the migration issue, the restructuration of social care provision, and finally the City’s urbanity itself.

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Claire Lévy-Vroelant is a professor of Sociology at the University of Paris 8 Saint-Denis (France) and researcher at Centre de recherche sur l’Habitat (CRHLAVUE of CNRS) where she is part of the Scientific Committee. Her work intersects the fields of Urban, Migration, Housing, and more recently Memory Studies, with a particular attention to long term approaches – due to her background as an historian. More precisely, she deals with questions of housing policies and social issues in a globalizing context. She has recently published a book about Parisian furnished hostels as “Lieux de mémoire” for migrants. She is working currently on the meanings of hospitality. She is member of several international editorial boards (Housing Studies, International Journal of Housing Policy, and European Journal of Homelessness, Citades Communidades e Territorios). She is the director of the collection “Habitat and Sociétés”, L’Harmattan (Paris). She is consulted as an expert in the field of urban changes, housing and marginalization. She is in charge of the Program “Penser la ville contemporaine” of the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Paris Nord. 

These sessions form part of the City Seminar series theme for the Michaelmas Term 2016: Shaping Cities for the ‘Nightwatchman’ State

The intention of this seminar series is to explore the way in which we shape our cities in the context of the more limited role played by the State in many western countries since the beginning of the 1980s. These are issues that have direct relevance to current debates as cities across Europe and North America find themselves unable to deliver the employment, housing and health that all citizens should have a right to expect. 

More information, including the full term card can be found here or on the City Seminar Facebook Page

Enquiries may be directed to:

Eve Avdoulos, Department of Architecture

Ahmed Hussein, Department of Architecture

Marcus Nyman, Department of Geography

Tuesday, 22 November, 2016 - 17:30 to 19:00
Event location: 
Boardroom, Department of Architecture