Paper dreams of the Parisian future
Le Paris des Utopies At the Hotel du Ville, 29 rue de Rivoli, Paris 1er Arrondissement until 3 October
Parisians are obsessed by the fear that their city is being left behind, that it is an Old World capital which has seen its greatness fade and will soon exist only as a magnificent relic infested with tourist buses and T-shirt shops. In other words, they fear that their city is being Romanised. Few Parisians want their city to be like Rome. They see London as the city that has usurped Paris as capital of Western Europe, while New York still reigns as capital of the world. Modern Paris, like modern Rome, would seem to be handicapped by its own magnificent past. There is no escaping it except in dreams.
This exhibition, ostensibly an examination of visionary projects for Paris, is what the French call lookie; that is to say, more a collection of nice drawings than a serious study. Images from the archive of La Ville de Paris that are pleasantly visionary - from architect's perspectives through Paris Match illustrations to science-fiction comic book sheets - have been blown up to wall-size panels. Interspersed among these are small sinister images of what a wonderful town Paris could have become if everyone had been a bit more open-minded. You have to squint at a tiny screen and a couple of small photos before you can recognise Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin from 1923. A computer simulation of how the towers would look looming over the centre of Paris gives us a taste of just what we're missing. Similarly, a glance at the various projects for Les Halles from the 1960s and 70s almost reconciles me to what was actually built.
If there is something common to all the Parisian visionaries since Boullee it is their obsession with the air above their heads. Projects for high- level railways, motorways and towers, towers, towers. Perhaps this is because of the almost universal seven-storey limit within the city, or perhaps because of the limit to horizontal expansion imposed today by the Boulevard Peripherique (and before by the city walls). Whatever the reason, the tower is the recurrent dream of the Parisian dreamer and Manhattan is, of course, the most common model.
But in Paris there is not the coupling of geographic straitjacket and economic miracle which made skyscrapers a matter of hard reality in Manhattan. This is perhaps what makes La Defense seem so unreal. The unbuilt projects too -even Nouvel's Tour Sans Fin -have the air of dreams. Not piles and girders but pencil strokes and watercolour washes, ever since Boullee. Glorious Gallic paper monuments . . .
Just a few of these dreams have entered into the waking life of the city, and often against all expectation. The consensus in 1900 Paris was that Mr Eiffel's tower should be politely removed as soon as the Universal Exhibition finished. Fifty years later there was much less fuss over the Tower at Montparnasse. In our own time we see how few demur at the Pompidou Centre or the Grand Bibliotheque. For whatever reason, Parisians like new buildings more now than they ever did.
There is some food for thought here. But bear in mind that Jean Tiberi, the present mayor (for how long?), has no interest in controversy and hopes against all hope to convince Paris that its administration is intelligent and human. That rules out most visionary architecture. The more embarrassing examples have been edited out or dressed down with disclaiming captions. Meanwhile the science-fiction illustrations give a pleasantly futuristic ambiance. Bring your kids.
Denis Connolly is an architect in Paris