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The exhibition dedicated to Grand Paris currently held at la
Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine untill November 22nd is a must see for whoever is interested in the future of Paris and its region.

grand_paris_cite

10 teams of architects were asked by President Sarkozy to present their projects for Paris in the next 20 years. This exhibition reveals the results of their intense cogitations. These teams are multidisciplinary and include architects, landscapers, sociologists, philosophers, research laboratories, etc. Three of these teams are international.

These proposals aim at finding creative solutions for the challenges that Paris will have to face in the near future such as providing a better transportation system, improving housing conditions, overcoming the boundaries that cuts Paris from its suburbs, reinforcing Paris weight in the global economy, and making it post-Kyoto compatible.

The spirit of this exhibition reminds me of one of May 68 catchphrase “l’imagination au pouvoir” (“let imagination rule“). The boundaries of Paris are certainly easier to identify than the limits of most architects minds. The good (and less good) ideas featured are so numerous that it would be vain for me to try to expose them all here. Instead, I will give a shortlist of my likes and dislikes.

Likes:

  • Creating a Central Park in la Courneuve (Roland Castro). I would feel like visiting Seine-St-Denis at least once in my life. In fact, I enjoyed listening to Roland Castro video presentation, both poetic and political, and I am quite seduced when he insists on finding ways to improve the sense of belonging to one’s place.
  • Building “vertical eco-estates” with mixed use (Jean Nouvel). I love scryscrapers provided they are elegantly designed and harmoniously set in the urban landscape. Unfortunately, many towers in France owe more to Stalinian architecture than to Manhattan towers.
  • Merging Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est into a new station in Aubervilliers and linking it to the historic center by a green route (Portzamparc).
  • A 7km Park between Gare du Nord and St Denis containing amenities and housing that crosses the Périphérique via landscaped or inhabited bridges (Richard Rogers). An interesting attempt to cure a city whose “heart is so separate from the limbs”.

grand_paris_jaime

Dislikes:

  • A new overhead metro running above boulevard Périphérique (Portzamparc). Why not just simply rehabilitate the Petite ceinture instead ?
  • Creating a continuous city along the Seine river between Paris and Le Havre (Antoine Grumbach). Though Napoleon himself stated “Paris, Rouen, Le Havre, une seule et même ville dont la Seine est la grande rue” (“Paris-Rouen-Le Havre: one single city with the Seine as its main road“), I am more prone to trust Bonaparte’s strategic skills than his sense of pre-surrealistic poetry.
  • Building a tower on square du Vert galant (Roland Castro). The mere idea of it is a crime de lèse-urbanisme !

grand_paris_rouen_havre_seine

All in all, I would say this exhibition is a very good way to stimulate your imagination and will provide a long list of subjects to feed your conversations de dîners en ville.

However, be aware that this event is successful. So if you want to be à la page, come early ! Indeed, the length of the queue waiting in front of the Palais de Chaillot last Saturday afternoon may indicate the concern of Parisians for the future of their city as well as their propensity to chose indoor activities during rainy weekends.

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When it comes to drawing a metaphorical comparison between Paris and New York City – though comparing these two cities is probably impossible -, my favorite literary image is that of Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his famous Journey to the End of the Night, describing his arrival in New York.

Figurez-vous qu’elle était debout leur ville, absolument droite. New York c’est une ville debout. On en avait déjà vu nous des villes bien sûr, et des belles encore, et des ports et des fameux même. Mais chez nous, n’est-ce pas, elles sont couchées les villes, au bord de la mer ou sur les fleuves, elles s’allongent sur le paysage, elles attendent le voyageur, tandis que celle-là l’Américaine, elle ne se pâmait pas, non, elle se tenait bien raide, là, pas baisante du tout, raide à faire peur.
Louis Ferdinad Céline, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, 1932

Just imagine, that city was standing absolutely erect. New York was a standing city. Of course we’d seen cities, fine ones too, and magnificent seaports. But in our part of the world cities lie along the seacoast or on rivers, they recline on the landscape, awaiting the traveler, while this American city had nothing languid about her, she stood there as stiff as a board, not seductive at all, terrifying still.
Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Translated by Ralph Manheim, 2006

With a few aesthetically questionable exceptions such as the Eiffel and Montparnasse towers, and in its peripheral areas – like the surroundings of Place d’Italie in the XIIIe and the Front de Seine in the XVe – Paris skyline is devoid of skyscrapers.

Urban regulations, dating from Henry IV have narrowly controlled the use of materials, shape and height of Paris constructions. These rulings first aimed at preventing fires as they forbid the use of timbers and bow windows considered to be more vulnerable to flames. Height limitations obey to rules depending on the geographic situation (strict limits apply in the historical center) and the width of the street (the larger the street, the higher the building can be). 20 meters being the maximum authorised height.

Synagogue rue Pavée par Hector Guimard - 1913

Synagogue rue Pavée par Hector Guimard - 1913

Architects have had to use their imagination to find ways to express grandeur while overcoming these physical restrictions. The picture on the left shows a synagogue built by Hector Guimard in the 1910’s. Its curved facade punctuated with columns of oblong twin windows creates a sense of verticality that conjures up the spirit of Manhattan houses when seen from below. Ironically, Hector Guimard, once a leading architect of the Modern style (Art Nouveau) emigrated to New York in 1938 where he died in oblivion in 1942.

In New York, developers can freely trade air rights according to the following latin legal concept Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad caelum et ad inferos (“To whoever owns the land, shall belong the earth to its center and up to the heavens”). The only limits usually being financial.

Today, most Parisians stand against the growth of new towers in their city. Few are the Parisians proud of Tour Montparnasse. Instead, they think skyscrapers would break the harmony and stillness of the capital. In Paris, history not only infiltrates the wall, but also hearts and minds. However the current city officials have recently unearthed plans to facilitate such projects. But who knows if such plans will ever be carried out?

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