Thursday, June 18, 2009

Le Grand Paris

I spent several hours today at the exhibition about the architectural contest for Sarkozy's self-aggrandizing project (every French leader since Napoleon has to have one) of the Parisian metropolis of the future (thanks Mimosa!).
9 or 10 (I lost count after a while) architectural firms presented projects, among them Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc. It was extraordinarily interesting to see how each team conceptualized and solved the problem. It was also inspiring to see how big you can dream to try to make life better for the citizens of a metropolis. Some projects seem undoable, or too vague, others, like Jean Nouvel's, spectacular, and cunningly likeable, but it was all heady food for thought.
For a more journalistic but shamefully incomplete article you can turn to the NY Times. Here you will read about my own Napoleonic suggestions:

1. Destroy the offensive Tour Montparnasse and rebuild something gorgeous in its stead. Jean Nouvel imagines a spectacular golden structure on the top, but I say it's throwing good money after bad. Dynamite the eyesore and do something fabulous, as befits the area and the city.

2. One of the studios proposes a redecoration and renovation of the Place des Fetes, a few blocks away from here and a perfect example of condescending, ugly public housing for the immigrant poor. I second that emotion. Raze this horror to the ground and build a livable, beautiful, community space.

3. Destroy the Les Halles shopping mall and put a new central market there again. As one walks in the heart of Paris, thinking that this seventies monstrosity used to be the amazing central market of this town, one feels like sending whoever is responsible for this mall to the guillotine. I imagine Les Halles became untenable, but what they did is unforgiveable. I am no fan of the Pompidour either, but I'm letting it live for the time being.

4. As in New York, je vous propose to curb, limit and discourage the use of private motor vehicles as much as possible. Cities with great densities and mostly flat terrain (particularly cities with many narrow streets) have no business allowing cars anymore. More bikes, better subway cars, electric buses, minitaxis and trams, and voilá.

As for the outskirts, most of the teams concurred that they are dangerously cut off from city life. Paris is surrounded by an ugly freeway that functions like a moat, a demarcation line. Even with trains going to the banlieue, the poorest suburbs are ugly and neglected (and bad enough to spark riots, remember?). Many of the architects reimagine the balance of power between the center of the city and the outskirts, Richard Rogers in particular. They propose to end the isolation of the suburbs and make them into part of the city. I am all for the abolition of suburbs everywhere and the creation of cities of different sizes, where, as one of the architects noted, life does not have to depend on the automobile.

There was a wonderful quote in one of the projects. I paraphrase:
A city is not about a place in space, it's about drama in time.
In all, the contest is a fascinating opportunity to dream, and an example of the kind of projects the government should support. Many major cities should think in terms of this kind of long term planning (Are you listening, Mexico City? New York?).

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