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London can learn from the Reinventer Paris competition

Hattie Hartman
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Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s ideas competition has set a green agenda for urban renewal and captured the public’s imagination, writes Hattie Hartman

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is widely credited with the ‘success’ of the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change last December, just weeks after multiple terrorist attacks ravaged the city. Hidalgo is passionate, adept, and determined to shed Paris’s image as a somnolent museum-city locked in its Haussmannian past. The mayor is also committed to tapping into collective intelligence, a very un-French, bottom-up notion. Just months into office, she established participatory budgeting, setting aside 5 per cent of Paris’s annual budget until 2020 for projects voted on by residents.

The results of another Hidalgo initiative, the Reinventer Paris competition, were announced earlier this month. Initiated in 2014, Reinventer Paris was an international call for multi-disciplinary developer-architect teams to put forward ‘innovative’ proposals for 23 ‘under-utilised’ city-owned sites across Paris. The imperative was to reinvent ‘ways of living, working, exchanging and sharing’, new paradigms for the Paris of tomorrow.

Raising more eyebrows in France than she would in the UK, the left-of-centre mayor proposed using the market to spur innovation. The places to be ‘reinvented’ include a mix of historic buildings, tired office blocks, a housing estate, numerous vacant lots, as well as two sites which bridge the Périphérique, the 1960s ring road which separates the city’s 20 arrondissements from its troubled banlieues.

Le Monde architecture critic Frédéric Edelmann observed that never has a French competition prompted such a craze. An audience of more than 4,000 turned up to hear the winners announced in early February. Urban greening initiatives with rooftop farming and vegetal walls abound, as do mixed-use schemes with hefty doses of collective space devoted to the sharing economy.

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners partner Stephen Barrett, responsible for the practice’s work in France (and a competitor for the high-profile Boulevard Morland scheme) notes: ‘The French are very fashion-conscious; almost every scheme includes co-working, fab labs and urban farming. Although the final schemes are likely to be diluted from the competition proposals, the result is likely to be a generation of above-average projects for Paris.’

David Chipperfield Architects, with Danish artist Olafur Eliasson as part of the team, has landed the Boulevard Morland project in the city’s 4ème arrondissement just east of the Marais. Described as a new ‘social and public landmark’ for Paris, the scheme refurbishes and extends a 17-storey municipal office block completed in 1964. The 40,000m² scheme, dubbed Mixité, includes housing, a hotel, youth hostel, offices, food market and panoramic bar.

Some critics have panned Reinventer Paris as a branding exercise replete with greenwash, full of ideas recycled from abroad. Though it is impossible to unpick the sustainability credentials from the flashy visualisations, most schemes are indeed awash with every imaginable green feature. In contrast with the delicacy of his Serpentine Pavilion, Sou Fujimoto’s Mille Arbres proposal (the only other scheme by an international architect) for the Pershing site is grandiose – and far-fetched. A curving groundscraper bridges the Périphérique with a tree-planted upper deck sprinkled with timber homes with micro-wind turbines.

Three weeks in, the Reinventer Paris exhibition has attracted more than 16,000 visitors. Greenwash aside, Hidalgo has put urban greening squarely at the heart of the debate about tomorrow’s Paris. (She has also alienated many French architects, who, accustomed to outright government commissions, decry the riskiness of working on spec for developers).

This brings us back to London, and Boris’s Garden Bridge, whose ambition pales by comparison. When was the last time an urban initiative in London – with the exception of Open House – attracted 16,000 people? As the London Land Commission prepares to release brownfield land for development, the city would do well to have a good look across the Channel.


Reinventer Paris is at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, 21 Boulevard Morland, 75004 Paris, until May 8

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