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‘Paris is full of huge canyons’

Mike Davies of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners talks to Christopher Sell about its masterplan to mend Paris, commissioned by French president Nicolas Sarkozy

Last week, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSH+P) unveiled its vision for a ‘Grand Paris’ of 2030 to French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

RSH+P was the only UK firm invited to create a new masterplan for the capital, alongside six French architects including Jean Nouvel, Yves Lion, Christian de Portzamparc, Antoine Grumbach, Roland Castro and l’AUC, plus Dutch practice MVRDV, Germany’s LIN and Italy’s Studio 09.

Mike Davies, project director with RSH+P, told the AJ that the firm’s masterplan aims to eliminate the glaring segregation that exists in Paris. ‘There is an extraordinary lack of connectivity between the heart of Paris and the suburbs,’ said Davies. ‘The administrative areas are completely separate.’

So marked is this rift that, according to Davies, Richard Rogers commented: ‘I have never seen a city where the heart is so detached from its arms and legs.’

Just two million people live in the centre of Paris, while the outlying suburbs are home to fractured and isolated communities totalling around seven million people.

To integrate the city, RSH+P has proposed building over the railway lines that split up large tracts of the city as they wind through the capital to major termini like Gare du Nord and Gare de l‘Est. ‘There are huge canyons 150-200m wide running into Paris,’ said Davies. ‘New York is served by Grand Central Station, but the railways run underneath the city and do not carve it up.’

‘No one wants to live next to a railway or a motorway. Everyone wants to live next to a park.’

Building over these barriers, RSH+P would then ‘greenify’ the cityscape, creating corridors of public space. ‘No one wants to live next to a railway line or a motorway, and the property value is very low,’ said Davies. ‘Everyone wants to live next to a park and the price of land rises dramatically. The basic economics of the area change, especially if there are transport links.’

The practice also proposes creating a metropolis that is polycentric, with strong suburban nodes. This would strengthen the overall economy, and also ensure that less emphasis and dependence is placed on the city centre.

Ideas offered by the other design teams include Roland Castro’s plan to build a New York-style Central Park on Paris’ infamous La Courneuve housing projects, and Christian de Portzamparc’s elevated high-speed train.

The RSH+P team, with help from sociologists from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Sorbonne, spent six months working over the initial study before it was presented to Sarkozy.

‘One thing that helped was to suspect there was no simple solution. We looked at a whole range of issues,’ said Davies, who said the firm examined factors such as standards of governance, density distribution, transport, ecology and the environment.

RSH+P argued in its proposal that a new approach to governance will be essential for Paris. There are more than 1,000 mayors in les banlieues (the suburbs), and unlike the UK, the mayoral title in France comes with real authority. ‘We propose a restructuring, which will create boroughs of 50 to 60 mayors in total, representing large numbers of people,’ said Davies.

Davies is convinced that an overhaul of Paris is inevitable. ‘It will happen. There is no question. First, they must move ahead with the metropolitan transport issue, because that takes time and therefore must be agreed soon.’

A public debate on the proposals was held on Tuesday (17 March). All 10 proposals will be on show in a public exhibition at the Cite de l’Architecture in Paris from 29 April. Davies is confident that the firms involved will benefit from any work stemming from the ideas presented. ‘It is not a competition, it is a consultation,’ he said. ‘All will get work out of it.’

Comment: Joseph Rykwert

Competitions may be the bread of some architectural practices, but it is buttered seldom. Still, when you see that a number of architects are invited to work on one project, it is easy to assume it is a competition. The ‘Grand Paris’ project is emphatically not that. 

The promoters call it a ‘consultation’, and have invited 10 teams to offer their reflections. These have been discussed in a number of meetings, and will be shown to the public in a summer exhibition. 

What makes this consultation unique is its implications, involving two issues on the edge of architectural, even planning concerns. The first is the reform of the administrative structure of the Paris region; the second is making the operation of the city conform to the demands of the Kyoto Protocol. Not all the projects have taken on both conditions, and public reaction is sure to be sharp and vociferous.

AJ columnist and critic Joseph Rykwert is a member of the project’s judging committee

Comment: William JR Curtis

The demand for architectural and urbanistic proposals for the ‘Grand Paris’ project was made before the current economic crisis had overtaken world events, and the projects themselves, with their sweeping gestures, ecological rhetoric and banter concerning ‘citizenship’, arrive at a moment when the French are descending into the streets to defend their social rights, their public institutions and their jobs.

 However well-intentioned the individual architects and consultants may be, the timing could scarcely be worse from the point of view of the population at large. Irrespective of individual proposals, this project risks being seen as a huge ‘écran de fumé’ (smokescreen), masking political and financial manoeuvres concerning the future investment in land in the greater Paris region. The cityscape is reduced to a sort of video game where towers, monorails and launching pads can be made to pop up here and there. Then the whole thing gets coated in green salad or plastered with windmills to convince the sceptics that there is ecological concern after all (in addition to private profit, of course). 

At a time of economic chaos and social fragmentation, this operation risks being seen as a latterday version of Marie Antoinette’s cake for the people. The French citizens have many real, day-to-day needs and are unlikely to be taken in by a ‘Grande Illusion’.

Author and critic William JR Curtis lives in France

 

Readers' comments (2)

  • ‘Paris is full of huge canyons’

    ...it's not.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Smokescreen is now the daily bread of political communication. The best we can wait for in France about this "consultation" is: nothing.
    All these propositions are clearly empty of serious analysis of both social and urban context. No urban project can born from architect's imagination without a clear political and social background. The actual background is how to help investment to make money.

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