Sunday, June 14, 2009

Le Grand Paris

Plans for le Grand Paris are the subject of an article in today's Times Magazine. The piece suffers a bit from its saturation in architectural megalospeak: these architects seem to think of themselves as designers of "social systems" in the mold of Marshal Lyautey rather than as draftsmen. The rhetorical inflation and evacuation of politics from the planning process are alarming. No wonder there is an elective affinity between these planners and the current president of the Republic. I am reminded of the scene in Zola's La Curée where Aristide Saccard looks down on the city from the heights of Montmartre and cuts symbolic gashes in its flesh with gestures of his arm. Still, worth reading.

Two comments to this post are important enough to lift to the main thread, along with my reply:

Jeremy Kargon: Although I agree with the general point of this post, I'm somewhat surprised by the comment "...rather than as draftsmen." Does Mr. Goldhammer really believe that all an architect does or should do is draw up schemes at others' direction?

That's usually what folks think here in the US, and as a consequence we suffer (usually) from a wretched level of attention to our environmental/urban design. In France, at least, my impression was that folks expect architects to contribute *ideas*.

That those ideas are bombastic and divorced from any real collaborative/community-based process is a different -- and, I agree, troubling -- issue...

Craig Purcell: Someone has to think about the big idea of what the City can be and we can hardly leave it up to the mission focused traffic engineers nor the state employed bureaucrats who are not in touch with the real economic forces of the street and hardly help with their complex sets of rules and regulations.

The architect as urban designer/theorist, planner, landscape architect & civil engineer + traffic engineer all rolled into one visionary decision maker can serve a useful role in giving life to an imagined future.

We realize decisions need to be made in a multifacted and integrated manner to achieve the best result. We architects do after all hire many consultants and balance the design of buildings and the spaces between buildings in an artful way that considers the city as "all of a piece".

Who else would we have to do this in a visual, realistic and tactile way with feeling and passion.

Certainly not the self interested developer who creates a pleasing image and then value (devalue) engineers it away & hollows it out for fun and profit -- nor the politican who balances constituent forces off against each other while they all grab for a bigger piece of the commonweal -- and then who generally responds to cultures of complaint and self interest.

Who cares enough for the built environment balanced with the natural world to set it all aside and make the final decision as to what is best for the City?

I would put forth the architect as artist is well positioned to care for the overall result in a way pleasing to all.

Me: Yes, I chose the word "draftsman" to be slightly provocative. I don't, however, mean to denigrate architecture as art. What I am questioning is the pretension that "artistic vision" can somehow substitute for political process. The architect as autocrat is no more to be trusted than the politician as autocrat. The symbiosis of political ambition with artistic pretension is an undemocratic way to proceed with what will, as I have said before, be one of the most important projects of the Sarkozy presidency.