Thursday, June 18, 2009

Paris, Rebooted

As part of The New York Times Magazine's recent Architecture issue, Nicolai Ouroussoff composed an article titled "Remaking Paris," examining the effort of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to improve one of the world's most iconic cities. According to Ouroussoff,
One of the first things Sarkozy did after he moved into the Elysée Palace was to convene a meeting of prominent architects and ask them to come up with a new blueprint for Paris. “Of course,” he said, “projects should be realistic, but for me true realism is the kind that consists in being very ambitious.” His job was to clean up the city’s working-class suburbs, and at the same time build a greener Paris, the first city to conform to the environmental goals laid out in the Kyoto treaty.
It's no secret that I'm fascinated by how cities work. I worked on compiling the index for the recently published Cities, Citizens, and Technologies: Urban Life and Postmodernity (a fine title, if I've ever seen one), and, more important, I attended a class taught by that book's author. That's really the extent of my formal training in architecture and city-planning, so many of the details described by Ouroussoff were lost on me. Also, I'm sure my comprehension of the various plans wasn't aided by the fact that I've spent a grand total of five days in Paris, with most of that time devoted to eating in restaurants and looking at things in museums. (Though, if you do want to learn more about what the various proposals would entail, there is a helpful narrated slideshow accompanying the article on the website; I would embed that slideshow here, if only The...Times allowed its videos to be embedded.) No, the really fascinating part of the article is Ouroussoff's conclusion, reproduced below for your edification:

Sarkozy has asked the 10 architectural teams working on the Paris plan to collaborate and produce a more cohesive blueprint for the future. The chances of a definitive plan emerging from such an effort seem remote — and even if one does, architecture won’t solve all the city’s social ills. Nonetheless, the Grand Paris project represents a critical shift in how we think of urbanism. The tabula rasa Modernist experiments of the 1960s and 1970s not only damaged cities across the world; their failure spelled the abandonment of visionary master planning. In places where large-scale urban projects did re-emerge, like China and the Middle East, older, poorer neighborhoods were often bulldozed to make room for new development at a frenetic pace, with little regard for how the pieces fit together.

The plans presented for Grand Paris suggest that it is possible to believe, once again, that government can play a decisive role in achieving a truly egalitarian city — and that architecture is essential to that transformation.

The goals of Sarkozy's project diverge strikingly from New York City's prime example of this type of city-engineering, that of Robert Moses's quest to incorporate large public works projects into the city and to improve automobile access in the five boroughs. The goals of the Paris plan --creating a city that is both egalitarian and green--are undoubtedly worthwhile and should be pursued. It might be because I've watched too much of The Wire in the past six months, but I find it hard to be optimistic that governments and its related bureaucracies can make decisions for the long-term public good, rather than for the short-term benefit of politicians. Time will tell if Sarkozy manages to pull this off. If he does, it might go a long way in allaying doubts about the effectiveness of what governments can do for cities.

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