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Why Sarkozy's Paris doesn't cut the mustard

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The French capital has its charms – but a revolutionary city it is not, says Joseph Rykwert

Recent French presidents expected monuments in their honour. Georges Pompidou did well enough, but François Mitterrand is associated with the anti-urban Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1996) and the insipid L’Opéra de la Bastille (1989), while Jacques Chirac’s reign is commemorated by the ungainly Musée du quai Branly (2006).

Current president Nicolas Sarkozy and his advisors have set about things differently. His Ministry of Culture summoned 10 groups of architect-planners to involve themselves with what they call Le Grand Pari de l’Agglomération Parisienne or the ‘Great Wager of the Paris Agglomeration’ – the French for ‘wager’ being pari. In official translation this means ‘Designing the Future’ and the rider is that this project will develop the post-Kyoto Protocol metropolis.

The 10 teams are not in competition, but are collaborating to produce studies for the Île-de-France – the region or ‘agglomeration’ of which Paris is the heart – as well as for the city proper. The teams include geographers, environmentalists, sociologists, and even traffic engineers. One of them, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, is British, while MVRDV is Dutch, Bernardo Secchi and Paola Viganò are Italian, one or two more are international, and the rest are primarily French, including Jean Nouvel.

Their preliminary studies and proposals have been discussed in seminars and presentations, and are to culminate in an exhibition intended to provoke a response and reaction from the interested public. What form that input might take became clear last week, in a debate in the public hall of a cultural centre near the Gare de l’Est. Members of the planning teams were present, alongside elected representatives, mayors and councillors of the districts that form the Parisian region – Garches, Cergy, Nogent-sur-Marne and others.

Figures like the bearded goatherd who grazed his flock around Paris, and whose cheeses I used to buy in the 1950s, have long disappeared

Almost four hours of debate were watched by a large crowd; the hall was packed. The audience was meant to participate, but the platform was so crowded and emphatic that there was little time left for this – nor was it particularly edifying. As would be the case in London (and, I suspect, everywhere else), private interventions from the floor were along NIMBY lines. But what was impressive, and perhaps specifically Parisian, was the informed engagement of civic functionaries with architectural issues. Nor did they stick to local problems, but ranged freely over the whole Parisian debate.

This suggests that Paris works much better than other cities. It doesn’t, of course – although the city centre has kept its charm. Paris still offers a model of savoir vivre and remains a fashion capital. It has one of the best and cheapest inner-city transport systems, but lacks public green spaces. In spite of civic planner Baron Haussmann (or perversely because of him), many boulevards, first laid out under Louis XIV and later widened for thick streams of traffic, have kept their trees. But figures like the bearded goatherd who grazed his flock around the Gobelins, and whose cheeses I used to buy in the 1950s, have long disappeared.

Paris’ overbearing problems are in the outlying districts, where infrastructure is often wretched even though most suburban dwellers depend on the city centre for their living. The large-scale housing projects, the grands ensembles of the 1950s, are the tinderboxes for outbreaks of communal violence among their ghettoised populations. Sarcelles, the area just north of Saint-Denis, became so emblematic of this that social malaise came to be called ‘Sarcelitis’. The five new towns that were built around Paris during the 1960s and ’70s were not planned to be self-contained (unlike the British new towns), but depended on the centre for employment and were, on the whole, architecturally unfortunate.

Those post-war developments have remained untouched by any Kyoto-like concerns. A consistent and effective environmentally conscious planning policy, involving much construction and reform, might make a more impressive monument to Sarkozy’s tenure of office than any ‘iconic’ building.

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