Friday, December 17, 2010

Le Grand Paris

This somewhat splenetic review of Bregjte van der Haak's documentary of Grand Paris sheds an interesting light on power, politics, people, and art. Annette Fierro writes:

All of these extravagant visions seem radically at odds with what van der Haak's film surmises at its outset, that Le Grand Paris was to address a Paris that is no longer the economic or political capital of Europe, in a France that has been downwardly spiraling in international and economic prominence since World War II. Even since the early 1990s, France’s economy has faltered and fallen far behind those of the UK and Germany, overwhelmed by its internal economic structures and the global strain upon them. Anyone at all familiar (who isn't?) with these daunting realities could not possibly expect that the most dazzling of visions given back to Sarkozy would be realized in any near or distant future. The film's conclusion is thus foreshadowed from the very beginning, seemingly anticipated by all but the architects involved. Despite all of the research and grand visions presented, at the symposium’s finale, Blanc announced that actual implementation would consist only of a fully automated new rail circuit connecting the banlieue, a foregone conclusion. Maas asked himself (somewhat petulantly) “Were we as architects used in this process?”

Certainly the architects were tantalized by adding their signature to the urban history of Haussmann and Le Notre as much as they were compelled legitimately by contemporary issues. It is hard to imagine, however, that architects of this stature, well-accustomed to the vicissitudes of realizing projects, especially enormously scaled ones, would be so deluded as to imagine that any one of their schemes would be built comprehensively. Certain also was the devastating effect of the sudden global collapse of credit halfway through the study, which dampened the initial enthusiasm of the government. The ambiguity of the intended outcome of the study is, however larger than these circumstances. Paris is, after all, a city that has demonstrated the will and resources to accomplish its own monumental reconstruction in the past.

In a sense, whatever the Grand Paris project may say about power and art, it can also serve as a metaphor for Sarkozy's presidency: occasionally soaring rhetoric, professedly grand ambitions, paltry or faulty realizations for which one can imagine a variety of explanations or alibis, and lingering latent possibilities.  And there is also the rivalry with one's predecessors, in Sarkozy's case not Haussmann and Napoleon III so much as Mitterrand and his Grands Travaux. It takes a historian or a journalist to compare le petit Sarko to Napoleon le petit; the principal himself thinks in terms of the more classically political categories of jealousy and revenge. And yet, and yet ... if some piece of the new subway line is built, eventually it will have important effects on life in greater Paris, long after the President and his architects are forgotten.


Mr Punch said...

Sarkozy is, to a disturbing extent, comparable to George W. Bush - the problem is not, as one might at first assume, lack of vision, but rather failure of execution.

Anonymous said...

That seems unnecessarily bleak.

Isn't the French economy larger than that that of the UK?

And Germany has had good news recently, but France is hardly 'far behind'. Malawi's far behind.

yabonn said...

Isn't the French economy larger than that that of the UK?

Now it is. Next time the UK passes France (happens every few year) it will be, again, proof that France Is Doomed (tm). In the meantime, France will still be doomed, because Germany grows faster.

Similarly, when the French work 35h, they are doomed. When the German work 32, they are productive.

Doomed, I tell you.

Mary Campbell Gallagher said...

Mr. Sarkozy's Grand Paris is much larger than just the work of the 10 starchitects, on which this film apparently focuses. It is also much larger than the proposal for a new Metro that the legislature approved this spring. The starchitects were props, and the Metro is just one element.

Grand Paris also includes moving certain academic institutions from Paris to Saclay, which many object to as weakening the intellectual life of Paris with no guarantee of creating another Silicon Valley in Saclay. And it includes establishing or strengthening nine centers of commerce in and around Paris.

The element of Grand Paris that I have noted in particular is Mr. Sarkozy's devotion to attracting international corporations, adding to the government's income, and blighting the Paris skyline, by adding towers. Mayor Delanoe is equally enthusiastic, and the Paris City Council has approved in principle not only raising the famous Parisian limits on building height but constructing six commercial tower projects at the gates of the city. The first of these is to be a 50-story glass triangle at the Porte de Versailles, smack in the line of sight of the Eiffel Tower.

The arguments Mr. Sarkozy and Mayor Delanoe give for towers in Paris are weak. They fail to disguise either the politicians' venal intent or the impending aesthetic damage. See my recent article in Planetizen, "Who Will Save the Skyline of Paris?" In fact, while these politicians are supposed to be guardians of the patrimony, they appear willing to sell out the Paris skyline to the corporations.

Anonymous said...

Delanoe seems weak and almost cowardly: after being duped in the Congrès de Reims, he settled with Chirac when a judge had suffered for 10 years to bring Chirac to justice, then he picked Bolloré's electric car for "autolib" even though it was being said it was the least savy choice.
With Le Grand Paris, it seems that his sole concern was that he would lose some power.
As for the high towers, if architects have a project involving 60% social housing (20% at each level - the middle percentage is for working class families, the top percentage is for middle class families) and 40% luxury/commercial space with plenty of recreation space, I don't see why not. Housing in Paris is impossible for 95% of the people and that issue needs addressing. Since there's no more horizontal space, I don't see why vertical space can't be explored, as long as it's well-done.