Social Hygiene and Architecture in France, 1870–1940


A review of Children in Glass Houses: Toward a Hygienic, Eugenic Architecture for Children During the Third Republic in France (1870–1940), by Gina Marie Greene.

In the wake of a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, the newly formed French Third Republic addressed the pressing problems of depopulation and infant and child mortality through a wide-ranging program of social hygiene. Against a politically charged discourse of French degeneration that equated population growth with national health and strength, the demographic decline appeared as both cause and symptom of France’s weakened stature on the global political arena. As discussed in Gina Marie Greene’s dissertation, Children in Glass Houses: Toward a Hygienic, Eugenic Architecture for Children During the Third Republic in France (1870-1940), these anxieties converged on the fragile body of the infant and young child, the future citizens and soldiers of a nation in crisis.

Building on the work of historians such as David Barnes, Ann La Berge, and Andrew Aisenberg, who have broadened our understanding of public hygiene in 19th-century France, Greene adds new perspectives to this rich field by interrogating the “hygienic dimension of architectural discourse, [the] architectural dimension of hygienic discourse, and the outlines of a eugenic project for which architecture proved instrumental” (p. 8). This dissertation thus enters into dialogue with the scholarship of architectural historians such as Anne-Marie Châtelet and Fabienne Chevallier, who have explored various spatial manifestations of the hygiene movement in France, through programs such as schools, hospitals, and workers’ housing. Greene expands on this body of work in two ways: first, by focusing her inquiry on a range of programs related to children’s health and welfare; and second, by studying the projects under consideration alongside early 20th-century architectural modernism. As Greene emphasizes, the “positive eugenics” of this period, comprising a constellation of ideas and practices aimed at the biological improvement of the body, was part of a modernist project that intersected with the design field (pp. 14–19). In demonstrating architecture’s critical deployment as an instrument of hygienic practice—one with therapeutic, symbolic, and propagandistic dimensions—Greene’s project makes a valuable contribution to the histories of both modern architecture and public health.

The dissertation is organized around five chapters that address the spatial solutions devised in this era to address the problems of infant mortality and children’s health. Greene covers a range of scales, from the glass enclosure of the incubator to new forms of educational architecture, culminating with a garden city project developed with a eugenic and natalist agenda. Through these case studies, Greene charts the changing relationship between society and state during the Third Republic, as the most private matters of family and the most intimate social unit of mother and child entered the public sphere.

Chapter 1 examines the development of the incubator in its material and symbolic dimensions. At a moment when advancements in bacteriology led physicians to introduce new practices of antisepsis and spatial isolation in the Parisian maternity hospital to combat puerperal fever among new mothers, the incubator addressed the concomitant problem of infant mortality. As Greene argues, the evolution of the incubator’s design from a wooden enclosure to a glass box served as a visualization of the principles of sterility and containment that the germ theory was introducing into medical practice. The material history of this medical equipment thus helped to articulate a plan for the modern, hygienic architecture to come—one based on principles of isolation, antisepsis, and transparency. The incubator also represented the first step in the state’s gradual encroachment into the mother’s traditional role as caregiver, a development that is expanded on in succeeding chapters.

Chapter 2 turns to the emergent science of infant rearing, puériculture, and the new hygienic programs it engendered. Originally developed by the obstetrician Adolphe Pinard, puériculture brought the preventative dimension of the hygienic project into an expanded social sphere, promoting the creation of baby consultation sessions at hospitals, depots for sterilized milk, nurseries for working mothers, and infant hygiene centers. Greene examines how architecture came to be recruited into this project, arguing that the visibility and transparency of designs for new institutions such as the Centre d’Hygiène Infantile, built in the suburbs of Paris in the early 1920s, served the practicalities of hygienic surveillance and care on one hand, and symbolically represented the state’s penetration into the private sphere on the other, as they attempted to rectify the perceived inadequacies of the working-class mother.

We enter the next stage of childhood development in Chapter 3, which traces the creation and development of a new educational institution called écoles maternelles (nursery schools) between 1881 and the 1930s. As part of the Republican government’s sweeping educational reforms, these schools served a trifold purpose: politically, as the ideological training grounds for future Republican citizens; medically, as hygienic centers of regular physical inspections and evaluations; and socially, as pedagogical realms where the state stepped into the mother’s traditional role and inculcated working-class children with bourgeois principles and practices. In describing the modernist architectural discourse at work in the design of these schools, Greene once again emphasizes the symbolic dimension of this new educational architecture. The hygienic aesthetic cultivated through their vast windows and enameled surfaces not only served a protective or therapeutic role, but ultimately, also helped articulate the very truth and existence of microbes, thereby providing a “compelling ‘object lesson’ in modern hygiene in and of itself” (p. 168).

Building on this discussion, Chapter 4 studies the eugenic aspirations brought to bear on the open-air schools, or écoles de plein air, that gained popularity during the interwar years. Intended for children identified as “pre-tubercular” by the medical inspections covered in the previous chapter, the école de plein air deployed architecture as part of its therapeutic apparatus, providing well ventilated and naturally lit environments where students would be continually exposed to nature’s benefits. In discussing the modernist architectural rhetoric of transparency and openness epitomized in key projects such as the school built in Suresnes between 1934 and 1935, Greene analogizes the spatial opening up of the educational setting to the medical desire to penetrate and make visible the opaque human body and its pathologies.

The final chapter jumps in scale to a garden city project built in Strasbourg in the 1920s, the Jardins Ungemach, where a eugenic and natalist agenda was put into practice. Founded by the successful industrialist and philanthropist Léon Ungemach, this urban development was intended for families committed to having three or more children, and enforced a series of regulations to promote the ideals of health and fecundity. For example, women were not allowed to work or hire domestics, and the cottage interiors were fitted up with the latest modern appliances to facilitate the stay-at-home mother’s labor. Greene describes the architectural planning and domestic rules enacted by the colony’s governing foundation as a form of social discipline, aimed at imposing “bourgeois standards of order, cleanliness, temperance, and obedience upon the inhabitants” (p. 253). In this seemingly traditional and nostalgic setting, with homes designed in the regional style of Alsace-Lorraine, the ideological agenda of the “house of glass” was enacted on a symbolic level, as the state’s surveillance intruded into the most private matters of reproduction and childcare. Through this case study, Greene demonstrates how a range of architectural forms, from the traditional and banal to the progressive and modernist, could be deployed in the service of a political project of racial regeneration.

This lucidly written and compellingly argued dissertation provides new perspectives on the architectural dimensions of the hygienic discourse and on the role of these modernist experiments in facilitating a eugenic project with political and social ramifications. Greene has drawn on a wide range of sources, including medical texts, instructional pamphlets, novels, architectural plans, and visual culture, to weave a rich history of the material and spatial implementations of the Third Republic’s agenda of social hygiene. This is a study that will interest scholars across a range of fields, from social and political historians of the Third Republic to historians of childhood, education, medicine, and architecture in the modern era.

Sun-Young Park
Department of History and Art History
George Mason University

Primary Sources
Centre d’Archives d’Architecture du XXe siècle
CEDIAS – Musée Social
Archives de l’Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris

Dissertation Information
Princeton University. 2012. 298 pp. Primary Advisor: Edward Eigen.

Image: A painting from 1887 depicting a French child being taught about the “lost” province of Alsace-Lorraine in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, by Albert Bettannier (1851-1932). From Wikipedia.

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