Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris: walking through one past, present, and future (?) of global higher ed

Near the end of my sabbatical year in Paris (and Europe more generally), I spent some time taking photographs on the grounds of La Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, which is located on a 34 hectare site in the 14th arrondissement of Paris.

I used to spend a lot of time on the lovely grounds of Cité Internationale with my two children as we lived near it. I also had a chance to visit one of the residences (La Fondation des Etats-Unis) where my eldest son’s cello teacher was based (courtesy of a Harriet Hale Woolley Scholarship).

The Cité Internationale “represents the largest concentration of residence halls in Paris and the Ile-de-France region: 5 600 beds in 38 residences”, in addition to a “whole range of facilities and services” for both the students and researchers who stay, as well as the general public and even tourists. Historically, and at the present moment, Cité Internationale primarily provides services for students and researchers from outside of France, though some students from regions outside of Paris have and continue to be welcomed.

In some ways the Cité Internationale is clearly of a previous era, marked as it is by an inter-national conceptual framework. This is because the 38 residences were primarily focused on supporting students from particular countries, or else distinctive regions (usually those with a French colonial complexion).

See this link for a link to home pages for all of these residences: Abreu de Grancher (Cuba), Argentine, Arménie, Arts et Métiers, Asie du Sud-Est, Avicenne (previously Iran), Biermans-Lapôtre (Belgian and Luxembourg), Brésil, Cambodge, Canada, CICS (International Center for Short Stays), Collège Franco-Britannique, Danemark, Deutsch de la Meurthe, Espagne, Etats-Unis, Heinrich Heine (Germany), Héllenique Honnorat, Inde, Industries agricoles et alimentaires, Institut national agronomique, Italie, Japon, Liban, Lucien Paye (Africa), Maison Internationale, Maroc, Mexique, Monaco, Néerlandais (collège), Norvège, Portugal (André De Gouveia), Provinces de France, Robert Garric, Suède, Suisse, Tunisie, Victor Lyon.

In contrast to today’s thinking, foreign students from the late 1920s on were placed within their national residences within the Cité Internationale, an approach to hosting that could not help but inhibit aspects of inter-cultural dialogue on a day to day residential basis. To be sure there was inter-cultural dialogue; indeed this was the logic behind the establishment of Cité Internationale in the 1920s:

The Cité internationale universitaire of Paris was created in the pacifist context of the 1920s to support exchanges among students of the whole world. The story starts in 1920 when an important French industrialist, Emile DEUTSCH DE LA MEURTHE, wishing to create an enduring gift to society, contacted Paul APPELL, vice-chancellor of the University of Paris. Worried by the difficulties of students’ housing, Appell suggested to him founding a university residence. André HONNORAT, Minister for Public Education, approved of the project and devoted all his energy for nearly the next thirty years to its realization

Yet the exchanges would have been focused upon scholarly matters for the most part, versus the social learning associated with the mundane (e.g., exchanges regarding shared cooking duties, or how to coordinate the cleaning of shared apartments, both hilariously examined in the 2002 film L’Auberge espagnole). In short it is hard to imagine any authority, these days, placing so many foreign students within their ‘national’ houses. Indeed most residences in Cité Internationale now welcome applications from students of any nationality.

Yet in other ways, Cité Internationale was and is decades ahead of the majority of current thinking about the handling of mobile foreign students and scholars.

First, Cité Internationale is a product of a higher education era where the philanthropists and industrialists were vigorously active, far-sighted, and more concerned with encouraging enlightened thinking and substantive change versus their being fixated upon their personal wealth or disbursing some of this wealth under the right tax conditions, ideally with a naming rights rider. As the Cité website notes:

The Cité was founded in 1925, thanks to the generosity of industrialists, bankers and foreign foundations. Under the aegis of the minister André HONNORAT, the first president of the Cité, the industrialist Émile DEUTSCH DE LA MEURTHE, the banker David DAVID-WEILL, followed by many others [e.g., John D. ROCKEFELLER Jr.], offered to the future elites of the five continents a place of exceptional welcome. Their goal was to promote peace, exchanges and friendship among peoples after the trauma of the first World War. This is a mission still germane today.

With considerable foresight they established what has been deemed a “private foundation of public utility”. Yet 83 years later, in 2008, the EU, most member states, and numerous stakeholder organizations are facing huge challenges trying to cultivate philanthropy with respect to higher education, dominated as it is by national and sometimes state governments, with some funding also coming from the supra-national EU level. Can you point me to a new higher ed space, of this scale, anywhere in the world (let alone Europe), that is the product of “industrialists, bankers and foreign foundations”, in partnership with multiple levels of government?

And second, despite some challenges associated with housing foreign exchange students in a designated space (a campus, and within residences), spaces like Cité Internationale reflect the production of a service space, a space for knowledge production, and a space for the formation of social relations, that is not associated with any one university, while also being designed to ground mobile exchange students in a different territory for lengthy periods of time.

Thus we see musicians like the talented cellist who taught my son living side by side with chemists associated with university X in the Paris city-region, fine art scholars associated with university Y in Paris city-region, and mathematicians associated with research institute Z in the Paris city-region. This may have been, and is still (to a lesser degree) an international space, but it is also an exemplary interdisciplinary and inter-institutional space that brings together international scholars associated with many institutions that are based throughout the Paris city-region. This partly explains why the Region Ile-de-France has played such an important role in the substantial renovations process (that has been underway for over a decade). Cité Internationale is thus a form of higher education for regional development in a globalizing era, though via an initiative framed back in the 1920s! Imagine multiple universities coordinating the creation of such a space in a city-region like Amsterdam, London, Shanghai, Sydney or Toronto, though in a manner that folds in more students from the host country.

The remainder of this entry is photographic in nature – a tour through Cité Internationale, especially the facades of the central meeting space (the Maison Internationale, financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr.), and the “houses” that were designed (primarily between 1923 and 1969) to theoretically reflect national cultures. Many of the architects (e.g., Le Corbusier) were national heroes with international stature. This is a landscape designed to be read, and it reflects a diversity of conceptual currents that were prominent at the time, including the notion of culture as trait (versus process), colonial visions and postcolonial adjustments, and especially the international modern movement (which is captured very well in the Brazilian and Swiss houses). Each house also has a distinct and evolving history, for the operation of national or regional houses often reflected national crises including wars, genocide, revolutions (e.g., Iran), decolonization and independence, and so on.

Recall that 5,600 residents are housed in the Cité with thousands more visiting the grounds on a daily basis. I’ll leave it to you to detect what nations or regions, if any, these buildings represent, though link here if you need some hints…


Kris Olds

Update: also see ‘Video feed: Chambre 124, Cité International Universitaire de Paris’ (dir. Fabio Brasil, 2006)

One thought on “Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris: walking through one past, present, and future (?) of global higher ed

  1. probably no where in the world so many nationalities share such a facility of student housing. Truly unique and I was fortunate to have spent my 3 yrs at cite, the best years!

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