Thursday, April 30, 2009

Greater Paris

What could be the most important decision of Sarkozy's presidency was announced yesterday at la Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine. We have nothing like that ubiquitous French word patrimoine in English. Patrimony, heritage, legacy don't capture the resonance of the ages in the French word, the sense of a common wealth of public goods combining, in the best of cases, utility and beauty, and transmitted through time.

The new train route, all 35 billion euros worth of it, will circumnavigate Paris, but, more than that, it will, if the planners are right, alleviate the centripetal pressure on the historic core and animate the burgeoning periphery, whose vast extent most tourists never grasp. Paris is a huge bassin of humanity, a complex ecosystem of new and old growth, and every so often the future of the agglomeration is altered by some ambitious new plan to modulate and reshape the chaos that every vital city encompasses and disciplines as best it can.

I recall some of the early battles over the RER, a project at once radical and conservative. The conservativism is evident in the convergence of lines in the cavernous station at Châtelet, as if it were impossible to conceive of a Parisian circulatory system that did not have its heart somewhere close to the city's historic center. The new line purports to have no center, yet its circumference certainly implies one. Still, it will move people tangentially, not centripetally, in recognition of the fact that the region has become a congeries of edge cities rather than a single historic city with suburbs. In that it marks a real new departure.

This is the new growth pattern everywhere, but it has been easier for other cities to adapt because they don't generally have the root-and-branch identification with centralism that Paris has. Le Grand Paris marks a revolution in mentalities as much as in motion. I don't imagine I'll live long enough to see its ultimate effect on my favorite city in all the world, but no doubt it will be as great as that of le mur murant Paris qui rend Paris murmurant.

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