University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Ed Welch (University of Aberdeen), “Spatial Planning's Time Machine: Spaces of Speed in a Modernized France”

November 5, 2021

Spatial Planning's Time Machine: Spaces of Speed in a Modernized France

Edward Welch, University of Aberdeen

Register here



During the presidency of Charles de Gaulle (1958-1969), France’s look and feel began to be transformed by an extensive programme of spatial planning and modernization (aménagement du territoire). Unfolding over the subsequent decades, aménagement du territoire produced New Towns, holiday resorts, motorways, airports, rapid rail networks and other forms of infrastructure. Yet while modernized space was the most obvious outcome of their work, France’s aménageurs were perhaps even more preoccupied with time. More specifically, they were obsessed with the future. Even, on occasion, they gave the impression that planning was somehow from the future.


Writing in 1965, Oliver Guichard, director of the newly created DATAR spatial planning agency, suggested that ‘l’aménagement ne vit pas dans l’époque présent: il doit toujours la devancer, projeter sur l’avenir’ [spatial planning doesn’t live in the present: it must always be one step ahead, projecting into the future]. Being ahead of its time, planning’s job was to return to the present with insights from the future, and use them to propel the country towards its destiny. Guichard’s comment comes in his book Aménager la France, and is a moment of time-travelling brio in an otherwise relatively sober account of the aims and requirements of French spatial planning. It is also a glimpse of some of the more striking philosophies of time and history lurking beneath the planners’ administrative and technical discourse. In particular, it betrays the influence of the philosopher Gaston Berger, whose notion of la prospective as anticipatory thinking would guide their work during the 1960s and early 1970s.


This paper explores how France’s post-war spatial planners think about and negotiate time, and the complexities which emerge as they do so. At stake is their understanding of time, speed and acceleration, as well as the sorts of spaces they create, and how those spaces transform the lived experience of time. One of the key aims of aménagement was to improve circulation, mobility and productivity by means of infrastructure. Spatial planning thus became a form of machine designed to shrink the French hexagon by engineering time-space compression, and an example of how technocratic states sustained the ‘dromocratic revolution’ diagnosed by Paul Virilio (1977) as the driving force of western civilization. One of its most notable and visible outcomes was the development of France’s system of motorways (autoroutes). In order to think about the nature and consequences of modernized France’s infrastructure spaces, the paper explores the presence of motorways in some French texts and films, including Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop’s Les Autonautes de la cosmoroute (1983) and Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), considering how they at once depict and interrogate the peculiar temporalities and modes of being motorways bring with them.




Edward Welch is Carnegie Professor of French at the University of Aberdeen. His research explores modernization, space, and change in post-war France, and their representation in literary and visual culture. Publications include France in Flux: Space, Territory and Contemporary Culture, co-edited with Ari Blatt (Liverpool University Press, 2019); Contesting Views: The Visual Economy of France and Algeria, co-authored with Joseph McGonagle (Liverpool University Press, 2013); and François Mauriac: The Making of an Intellectual (Rodopi, 2006). He is currently completing a book on spatial planning and modernization, provisionally entitled Making Space in Post-war France.

Homer Statue
10:00 am