Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Architects reveal plans to redesign Paris

Today, French president Nicolas Sarkozy will receive the ten architects selected to create Le Grand Paris. Richard Rogers is one of them. Earlier this week, they each gave a 30-minute presentation of their visions (see it here). The task is herculean, the mission quasi-impossible, but the challenge absolutely irresistible for any ambitious architect.

For he or she knows that, as Paul Goldberger writes in the New York Times, "politics and architecture have always been inseparable in this city". And that "Parisians, with their long and deep commitment to the idea that the city is in the most profound sense a public place, feel that Paris is very much their own possession."

The most visited city in the world, here is a capital whose great talent has been to interweave the grandeur of its official buildings with the everyday charm of its many quartiers. Or as ex-Parisian and writer Adam Gopnik puts it in his book Paris to the Moon: "Paris marries both the voluptuous and the restricted. It is not the yeses but the noes of Paris, not the licences it offers love but the prohibitions it puts in its way that make it powerful. "

The challenge however is not to reshape Paris, but rather to extend its inherent beauty to its outskirts, les banlieues – a web of small villages, some terribly grand and chic (Neuilly, Versailles, Saint Mandé, Vincennes, Saint Germain-en-Laye), others modest and provincial-looking (Montreuil, Pantin, Malakoff, Montrouge, Saint Gervais) and others still, socially ravaged and architecturally dehumanised (La Courneuve, Clichy-sous-bois). And also to link them. But how do you bring together so many different styles and the city's "enormous disparity", as Richard Rogers calls it, into one Grand Paris – especially when the city is so clearly defined geographically by its gates, shadows of former fortifications, and now le périphérique, the circular road encasing Paris? The simple answer is: by being bold. But also by understanding the fabric of French society and its psyche.

The different sketches and 3D renditions of the ten projects make audacious and compelling viewing (see them here). Antoine Grumbach proposes to build the Greater Paris along the Seine right up to the harbour of Le Havre. He may have taken inspiration from Napoleon who once said: "Paris-Rouen-Le Havre: one single city with the Seine as its main road." Water is also an idea the Italians Bernardo Secchi and Paola Vigano have developed: their Paris is laid out as a "sponge" in which waterways are the new motorways. Christophe de Portzamparc proposes to build four "archipelagoes" and create the biggest European rail station in the north suburb of Aubervilliers. Yves Lion offers the vision of a Paris engulfed in forests and fields where every citizen would cultivate their own vegetable patch. Richard Rogers offers to cover up railway lines that dissect the city by placing huge green spaces and networks above them. In the most brutalist, Le Corbusier-esque project, the Dutch practice MVRDV imagines a tower-block in place of the Sorbonne and motorways cutting through the heart of Paris.

As a Parisian born and bred, I thought the most convincing presentation came from Parisian architect and sometime presidential candidate Roland Castro. He seems the only one to really understand the Parisian mentality, the importance of architecture and politics, grandeur and charm, poetry and citizenship. He not only suggests moving the Elysée Palace to the tough north-eastern suburbs, but also proposes to create new cultural landmarks and governmental buildings, together with a New York-style Central Park on the grim housing project of La Courneuve. The idea is to inject grandeur (as conveyed by the cultural and official institutions) and if possible, beauty, to Paris's many environs.

SOURCE: Guardian UK

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