Henri Sellier. Une CitÖ© Pour Tous. Paris: Ö??ditions du Linteau, 1998. 267 pp. 150 FF (cloth), ISBN 978-2-910342-07-4.
Reviewed by Renaud Payre
Published on H-Urban (March, 1999)
Bernard Marrey has edited this collection of texts and speeches by Henri Sellier that could be interesting to scholars of urban reform. Who was Henri Sellier? Born in 1883 in Bourges, the fifteen-year-old Sellier joined a socialist group under the influence of Edouard Vaillant. He studied at the HEC, a French High School specializing in business. In 1906, he found a job near the Ministry of Work while he carried on his political involvement. Sellier was elected at the Conseil General of the Seine in 1910, and became mayor of Suresnes--a city close to Paris--in 1912. In 1935 he was Senator, and became Minister of Health in the Popular Front government of Leon Blum in 1936. He died in 1943 after being dismissed from all his positions by the Vichy Regime. This short biographical work emphasizes the preoccupation he had with Housing and Town Planning. He participated in 1914 in the foundation of the "Office HBM de la Seine," and belonged to many international organizations dealing with town planning, housing and municipal administration.
The book presents several texts illustrating some of Sellier's activities. Archives, minutes of meetings and articles are included. Through those different texts, we first discover the preoccupation of Sellier with the problem of unplanned urban growth. After this first group of texts, Marrey provides us with about 150 pages about the Office HBM de la Seine. In the end, he includes two texts showing how, according to Henri Sellier, town planning was linked to administrative and political reform: the first of these was published in 1920 and dealt with the teaching of town planning in France; the second one, the last text of Sellier's, was published just a few months after his death in 1943 and insisted that town planning called for a deep administrative modernization.
It is certainly useful to find all those texts put together in this book, but I felt a bit disconcerted by the presentation of the texts and by Bernard Marrey^Òs commentaries. Marrey decided to distinguish his own comments from Sellier's sentences by writing his commentaries in italic. It is confusing. The organisation of the book is also puzzling. By glancing through Une Cité Pour Tous, the readers may wonder about the coherence of the book. Some selections were made from the numerous Henri Sellier texts and interventions. Those choices can be considered as the hallmark of Bernard Marrey, and it is the genuine privilege of an editor to select them. But if we analyze those choices, we quickly realize that Bernard Marrey wants to portray Sellier as a town planner. We can regret that no text was chosen to illustrate the other faces of Sellier, as a politician, a mayor and, perhaps less known, as an internationalist. This last aspect of his activity deserves to be stressed as it has to do with the presentation Marrey makes of Sellier. Sellier belonged to international networks. He was active in the associations like the International Federation of Housing and Town Planning, the International Housing Association, and the International Union of Local Authorities. At the conferences and meetings held by these societies, he met and heard many great international planners, many European and American town councilors. What he borrowed from them is worth studying but also is crucial for the book under review. Sellier's membership in the Urban Internationale demonstrates the exceptional aspect of Sellier that Marrey is so anxious to stress.
Indeed, we can doubt whether the author wishes to adopt a critical posture vis-a-vis Sellier. Surprisingly, there are no long commentaries, no critical edition of the texts Marrey selected. We feel a bit disappointed to find no critical commentaries on some aspects of the activities of Henri Sellier. For example, the lack of representation of the tenants among the Administrative Council of the ^ÓOffice HBM^Ô raises questions. On May 7 1926, Henri Sellier stressed that some tenants had expressed the desire to be represented in the Administrative Council of the HBM. But until 1938, no solution was sketched. In December 1938, as some tenants refused to pay charges, so the Administrative Council decided to establish a Collaboration Committee. But a few months later, Sellier announced that the idea of establishing a committee was postponed. What was the stand of Sellier about the tenants? An analysis should have helped the readers to understand those stands of Sellier, stands representative of his conception of the administration of the "Office HBM." Was it the purpose of the book? Maybe not.
Curiously, Bernard Marrey invites us 'to go back to the roots' (faire un retour aux sources). What does he really mean? We can say without hurting his edition that Une Cité Pour Tous was probably not conceived as a scientific and academic book: there are very few footnotes and no trace of the important previous bibliography dealing with Henri Sellier^Òs life and work. Neither can the book be considered aimed to the general public. It is not a real biography. The texts published deal with very precise historical points about housing policies. In fact, Une Cité Pour Tous could be a kind of tool, a sort of anthology to help historians and sociologists in their inquiries of French Progressive Era. From this point of view, the book acquires real value. Better, we feel very grateful to Bernard Marrey for having established a very complete bibliography of Sellier^Òs books, articles, and speeches. But by considering this book as a mere heuristic tool, we forget that Bernard Marrey assigned it another purpose, a real mission. The book was published in order to lionize Henri Sellier.
In the introduction Bernard Marrey airs his ambition to remember the figure of Sellier and to show how exceptional the mayor of Suresnes was. He writes, "Henri Sellier's work was more than badly portrayed, really botched in many cases, and its modernity was not perceived when it was accomplished." The purposes explicitly formulated by Bernard Marrey tells us that his explicit purpose is to build a statue devoted to Sellier. But to consider a politician, a thinker, an author as a monument is the best way to forbid oneself from reading again his works. To rehabilitate Sellier, to picture him as a great man, to consider him with deference doesn't lead to dialogue with him, or to consider his work as really available for contemporary discussion.
We can regret that this book was published to show Sellier was exceptional, a real Great Man. Bernard Marrey refuses to analyze Sellier's work. He tries to portray him as a pioneer, as a visionary. Was it even necessary to rehabilitate Sellier? The former Minister of the Government, Blum, has not been totally forgotten in France. In Suresnes, for example, he is quite often celebrated him by organizing conferences and international meetings. But, to present Sellier as a great man who should be highly appreciated is quite dangerous. The risk is to make him overly heroic, to impose a way of reading him and, in fact, to impede to discover the richness of his work, to impede the understanding of his books and essays. It may be more interesting to read the texts of Sellier and to try to hold a lively dialogue with his "specter." We could listen to Jacques Derrida in Spectres de Marx: "Ils sont toujours là les spectres, même s'ils n'existent pas, même s'ils ne sont plus, même s'ils ne sont pas encore. Ils nous donnent à penser le là." [Specters are still here and then, even if they don't exist, even if they are no more, even if they are not yet. They make us think about here and then.]
. Bernard Marrey has worked on different subjects linked to architecture, city planning and urban engineering. Among his works are Les Grands Magasins: des Origines a 1939 (Paris: Picard, 1979); The Extraordinary Life and Work of Monsieur Gustave Eiffel, (Paris: Graphite, 1984); Un Capitalisme Ideal, (Paris: Chancier Guénaud).
. Bernard Marrey builds in the biography of Sellier included in the last chapter from Claude Pennetier, 'Henri Sellier', in Jean Maitron, Dictionnaire du Mouvement Ouvrier Français, 1914-1939, (Tome 41, Paris: Éditions ouvrières, 1986), pp. 219-225.
. Edouard Vaillant embodied the revolutionary segment of the French Socialist Movement in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
. "The French 'Conseil General' is the elected legislature possessing legislative power in the 'Département'" (the Département is an administrative and political division between municipalities and state).
. The 'Office HBM' is a public institution (living on subsidies of municipalities, 'département' and the French state), in charge of department public housing.
. Thanks the conservators of the Ministre de l'Equipement, Bernard Marrey had access to the minutes of the different meetings of the 'Office HBM de la Seine' Board.
. The Editions du Linteau were created in 1993 in order to publish texts by architects, builders and engineers, focusing on urban aspects.
. For example, Bernard Marrey could at least have mentioned Katherine Burlen, ed., La banlieue Oasis. Henri Sellier et les cites-jardins 1900-1940, (Vincennes: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1987).
. In an article written in 1990, Marrey had already insisted on the mishandled inheritance of Henri Sellier. (Bernard Marrey, 'L^Òhéritage Malmené d^ÒHenri Sellier', Urbanisme, n°242, novembre 1990.
. Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, (Paris: Galilée, 1993), p. 279.
Commissioned for H-Urban by Pierre-Yves Saunier, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Lyon, FRANCE, <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Renaud Payre. Review of Sellier, Henri, Une CitÖ© Pour Tous.
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