The genesis of the Cité

Born from ideals of pacifism and concerns of public hygiene at the beginning of the 20th century, the Cité Universitaire was conceived as a “garden city” intended to attract students, researchers and artists of high calibre from all over the world and to bring them together.

by Lucille Testard de Marans

The plan for a “human relations school for peace”

Conceived both in reaction to the trauma of the First World War and as a response to the lodging crisis, especially for students, in Paris, the Cité Universitaire was born from the admixture of concern for public hygiene and for peace at the end of the Great War.

Its founders wanted to offer students from France and abroad decent conditions for living and studying, but they also wished to create a lifestyle, which would create opportunities to meet and to exchange ideas from many cultures in day-to-day life.

André HONNORAT, one of the founders, in a speech in 1936: “[one of the fundamental aims of the Cité is] to bring together some of the intelligentsia, who are our hope for the future and bring them to see that men, despite the diversity of the origins and traditions, which have moulded them, are not so different from each other as they have imagined.”

A territory to conquer

The land suitable for realising this ambitious project was situated in the south of Paris, on the Thiers ring of fortifications, erected in 1845. Their reclassification, voted in 1919, was intended to allow the city to expand: development of the area covered by the ramparts and land management of a belt of green spaces around the city (parks, gardens, sports pitches, etc.).

In 1921, after lengthy negotiations, an agreement was signed for the creation of the Cité Universitaire on 27 hectares of land, opposite the Montsouris Park. Under this agreement, only the sites of the former bastions 81, 82 and 83 could be built on, giving building land of 9 hectares; the area of the former military “zone” preserved non aedificandi status and was to give way to a vast park, a component of the “green belt” demanded by those concerned with public hygiene.


The “zone” at the end of the 1920’s (Fondation Deutch de la Meurthe in the background)

A “garden city” in the American style

From 1921 onwards, Lucien BECHMANN (architect) and Jean Claude Nicolas FORESTIER (landscape gardener) were tasked with designing the park for this “garden city” project, which was intended to create a harmonious blend of landscape and buildings, spaces for walking and sports pitches.

Inspired by the land management principles on the American campuses, which they had visited, BECHMANN and FORESTIER (and later Léon AZEMA) designed a park on a regular pattern, divided into distinct compartmentalised areas: a great avenue lined with lime trees, a vast central lawn and sports facilities on the east, west and south edges of the park. The work of land development, on a huge scale, continued for almost ten years (1929-1938).

At first, to the north of the space reserved for the park, the sites of the future buildings extended in two ranks along the boulevard Jourdan. The Fondation DEUTSCH DE LA MEURTHE (named after its donor), built in 1925, was the first residence built on the Cité. In a matter of very few years there followed the residences of Canada, Belgium, Argentina, the Institut national agronomique and Japan.

1925-1938: The extension of the estate

As from 1927, half of the estate had already been built on. To increase the Cité’s capacity to offer accommodation, the maximum height of the buildings rose from 4 to 10 storeys. In parallel, the Fondation nationale (which manages the Cité) took on the task of extending the initial estate, towards the east, the south and the north, to bring the total surface area of the estate to some 40 hectares in 1930.

The building work continued at the same intensity between 1925 and 1938: despite the economic crisis, foreign Governments, patrons and schools continued to lend their support to the work of the Cité by financing the construction of a residence to allow students from all over the world to live together. In less than 15 years, 19 residences had been built in this way, in styles, which reveal the eclectic architectural styles of the inter-war years and the melting-pot policy implemented on the Cité. On the eve of war, the number of residents had risen to 2,400, and represented 52 nationalities.

To find out more about the history of the Cité, its architecture, its tasks and its development, visit L/Oblique: a permanent exhibition, themed guided tours (on the architecture, the park, the artistic creations, the everyday life of the Cité and the development project) and innovative digital media will transport you through time and space on a voyage of discovery of this exceptional place.