Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Le Fait du Prince

I'm of two minds about Paris. On the one hand, I love the twisting, narrow, ancient streets, le dédale de petites rues, l'entrelacs d'époques. On the other hand, I probably never would have become so intimate with les quartiers perdus had I not been drawn in by the monumental grandeur, the commanding vistas, the artful deployment of space, spray, and stone that reflects nothing so much as the persistent will of the state to leave its stamp on the capital: le fait du prince, if you will. I have mixed feelings, of course, about Mitterrand's architectural voluntarism. What will come of Sarkozy's designs for "Greater Paris" remains to be seen. But the ambition is grand. Roland Castro, one of the architects who has been asked to reflect on the project, says that "it's an incredible event because there has been no reflection on a metropolitan scale in France since Haussmann."

Having translated Zola's La Curée and Higonnet's Paris, Capital of the World, I am well aware that the Haussmannian ambition had its dark underbelly. That goes with the territory. Already the ferment is extending to ever-widening circles:

Roland Castro a indiqué que sa propre équipe comptait "30-35 personnes" : philosophes comme Olivier Mongin, écrivains, cinéastes, acteurs du secteur privé, la présidente de Ni putes ni soumises Sihem Habchi, l'économiste libéral Guy Sorman ou le démographe Hervé Le Bras.

That's quite an astonishing array of influences. One hopes that it doesn't issue in a zebra (="a horse designed by a committee"). And Castro's is just one of ten teams contributing to the project. But I like the idea that the solicitation of proposals is not a competition but rather a "consultation," to use Castro's word. He sees the various teams ultimately "federating" their ideas. Perhaps. But since one consequence of the rising price of oil is likely to be a reconcentration of populations in extended metropolitan areas, a plan for Greater Paris could well be the blueprint for a "Politics of Civilization" of the 21st century. The much-derided phrase could turn out to have a significance after all. "Culture, let us be clear, is not le fait du Prince," I wrote in the essay linked above. I won't retract those words, written in the final days of Mitterrand's presidency, but I would now add, "And yet the Prince, almost inadvertently and in ways he cannot even imagine, can durably inflect a culture, for good or for ill."

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