Can Paris burst its bubble?


Three years after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his plans for ‘Grand Paris’, how are things coming along? Announced in 2008, Sarkozy conceived of the ‘Grand Paris’ (‘Greater Paris’) project as an urban renewal plan which aims to improve transport links between greater and central Paris, to increase housing and produce a cohesive blueprint to take Paris into the 21st century.

While there was never any doubt that Sarkozy would follow his predecessors and leave his mark on central Paris, most assumed it would be with a monument – a la François Mitterrand’s Louvre pyramid or Georges Pompidou’s Centre. But Sarkozy set his sights much higher, asking ten different architecture groups from around the world to re-imagine the entire city of Paris and project it 20 years into the future. While he gave them “the absolute freedom to dream” he demanded they come up with concrete proposals to create the world’s most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis.

The Paris that most of the world knows – the elegant, romantic world of famed tourist attractions, endless glasses of wine, berets and baguettes – is a time-warped bubble of tourism and cliché. The real Paris is a far larger, far grittier and more socially problematic affair. This pervasive romantic notion of Paris is the result of one of the greatest — and most influential — urban achievements of the 19th century. When the city was destroyed during the Napoleonic era, civic planner Baron Haussman staged a vast and ambitious  remodelling of Paris. The wide boulevards, formal gardens, and beautiful sandstone buildings were a testament to civic order and his plans has often been emulated but never bettered. So good were they, Walter Benjamin once famously described Paris as being “the capital of the 19th century”.

But Paris didn’t undergo any further major work until the 1960s and 70s when politicians and architects aimed to modernize the city. Les Halles, the city’s old market area was demolished in 1971, hundreds of miles of new freeways were planned and, in 1972, the modern tower La Tour Main-Montparnasse was erected near Luxembourg Gardens causing a national uproar. Five years later all high-rises were banned from the center. The glittering office towers we associate with most modern urban downtowns were grouped in La Défense and soon it seemed that anything that deemed too unsympathetic  was banished to the city’s edges. Since then, it has only been the addition of the occasional contemporary building, but as New York Times Architectural Critic Nicolai Ouroussoff says “this is architectural fine-tuning. The city’s essential fabric remains the same”.

Paris has also historically had the separation of the famed centre from the outer-lying suburbs.  Haussmann’s grand city plan was not just an aesthetic feat– his urban plan also was also a feat of social engineering, pushing the poor out of the centre and into the outskirts. In 1919, there were three million people living in municipal Paris. Today there are only two million in the city; the majority — eight million people — live in the outer lying banlieues. The Peripherique –  an enormous multi-laned highway tracing  the edge of the arrondisements –  creates a tangible physical and social divide  between the bourgeoise city of Paris and its outlying sprawling suburbs. The banlieues are the side of Paris that is rarely seen –ugly public housing developments and concrete-slab office towers – this is where movies like La Haine are based, and were the sites of the violent uprisings in 2005. Richard Rogers, co-designer of the Pompidou Centre, once observed of this phenomenon, “I know no other big city where the heart is so detached from its arms and legs”.

So the challenge is not to reshape Paris, but to extend the beauty of its centre to the outskirts and draw them together under a larger, more encompassing umbrella of what Paris can become. By unifying the outer suburbs into the fabric of Paris, new developments, new buildings and new money can be attracted. The outer suburbs need to have new identity forged so they can become interesting in their own right, independent of the historic attraction of the central city

Sarkozy is astute here, showing his understanding of the rise and fall of empire and what keeps a city vibrant – the ability to adapt and be flexible. Berlin, since the wall came down has shown great adaptability in stitching together the two disparate sides of the city in a mishmash of old and new, capitalistic and artistic. Even London, that great, sprawling seething underbelly has always shown a remarkable ability to prevail because it can adapt quickly to changing times.

The proposed plans from the 10 architectural groups obviously vary quite considerably. French architect Christophe de Portzamparc put forth a proposal to build four economic buds in an archipelago around the capital while Roland Castro suggests transforming Paris into a huge eight-petal flower with a New York-style Central Park on the grim housing project of La Courneuve. To see all of the 30 minute presentations go here.

Since the presentations, little further information has come to light about the transformation of the city. No doubt, all the doom and gloom talk of double dip recessions and the possible collapse of the Euro has affected any major plans to reshape the city, but one thing’s for sure: The Grand Paris project represents a critical shift in how Paris is thinking of its own urbanism. The plans show that Paris is aware that what may have worked for the last 150 years is no longer good enough. The city needs to shift up a gear, if it wants to continue being one of the greatest cities in the world, and a truly 21st century metropolis.