Working-class Housing in Roubaix-Tourcoing, FRANCE

In the 19th century, the cities of Roubaix and Tourcoing formed, together with the nearby city of Lille, the vibrant heart of France’s textile industry, a pivotal hub on continental Europe. Attracting tens of thousands of workers not only from France but also from neighbouring Belgium, these towns housed workers in a unique form of subsistence housing known as courées. These narrow cul-de-sacs featured small houses squeezed in behind existing terraced houses, creating a distinct morphology reflective of working-class life. Despite the wretched living conditions, this architectural form persisted well into the 20th century.

These humble ensembles are now critically endangered. Hygienic concerns and later the mid-20th-century recession in the textile industry led to the demolition of most courées through various urban renewal policies and private developer initiatives. Only a handful remain, still inhabited and, to some extent, in good condition. However, the current municipal stance, favouring demolition within a new urban renovation plan, poses a significant threat. Recent changes in local policies have removed previous protections and introduced compulsory expropriation of these small homes.

The courées embody the history of former textile workers and the heritage of their living conditions, integral to the larger industrial ecosystem of the region. Houses in courées were generally very small but rather correctly built. Life was very hard but – relatively – not much harder than elsewhere (for working class people). Courées were even places of social interaction and intense solidarity. They serve as “lieux de mémoire” for the area and the era, inviting comparisons with similar housing in different industries across the continent. They beckon us to interpret our shared European history.

The primary mission of the Roubaix-Tourcoing courées movement is to halt the municipality’s demolition project. An application for listing registration has been officially submitted to the Ministry of Culture.

Working-class Housing (courées) in Roubaix-Tourcoing, France

The nomination to the 7 Most Endangered Programme 2024 was made by the French non-profit organisation Association Métropole Label.le. The nominator is visioning the neighbourhoods as an attractive core for tourism but also as a model of a community-based lifestyle with low carbon emissions. There has been an increased support for the preservation and adaptive reuse of the courées in Roubaix-Tourcoing from citizens in the area and the wider region.

Both the French NGO TICCIH-France-CILAC (Comité d’Ínformation et de Liaison pour l’Archéologie, I’Etude et de la Mise en Valeur du Patrimoine Industriel) and the Belgian NGO E-FAITH (European Federation of Associations of Industrial and Technical Heritage) have expressed their support for the conservation and adaptive reuse of the courées in Roubaix-Tourcoing.

The Advisory Panel of the 7 Most Endangered Programme commented: “The courées in Roubaix-Tourcoing are one of the few examples of this architectural structure in Europe. A scientific analysis of the courées’ historic, social, political and urban significance would be important, especially in a time when more density is required in housing. The creation of a true policy of conservation and reuse and repurposing could set an example for elsewhere in Europe.”