Here comes French President Sarkozy heralding massive plans to construct a “Greater Paris.” His goal is to link the central city with the outskirts, where there has been incidents of civil unrest in recent years. During a nine-month-long competition, prestigious architects from around the world came up with ten presentations.
The key question is will the French go for a transformation of their capital city? As of now, President Nicholas Sarkozy’s proposal has been met by most people with a resounding thud.
Sarkozy, who has been compared to Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s greatest contribution to the history of megalomania, is giving the Emperor of France more than a little competition—which is one reason some people refer to Sarko as “President Bling-Bling.”
Sarkozy feels Paris “is not only the capital of France but also rivals London, New York, Tokyo and Shanghai. But, Paris can lose her standing if we aren’t careful.” Sarkozy said last April when he inaugurated an exhibition of ten architectural and urban planning proposals at the Paris’s Museum of Architecture and Heritage.
It’s too late to extend Paris’s official borders and the 20 Arrondissents that compose the approximately 41-square-mile large city. The French would never agree to expand its boundaries since it would be considered sacrilege. Critics doubt it can be achieved without dissolving the political boundaries between the city of Paris, which has 2 million inhabitants and the banlieues (suburbs) which house another 6 million people. Jean-Paul Huchon, the Socialist president of the Île-de-France region, fears the new entity could become an “ungovernable monster.”
But Sarkozy still hopes the project will cause the current boundaries to gradually fade in order to permit the formation of a larger region. His view is that it will facilitate improved housing and transportation. Sarkozy is also aiming for Paris to become a major arts center. There would be innumerable ramifications, most especially when it comes to infrastructure. But Sarkozy feels adamant that Paris would and should outshine other capital cities.
Denis Baupin, a Green Party official in the Paris’s city hall, calls Sarkozy’s plans grandstanding. Others feel the project would require money the country simply doesn’t have and the President has assiduously avoided answering the question about where the French government would find the funds to create the world’s first “post Kyoto” city — referring to the treaty regarding climate change and how cities should be developed or be retrofitted to conform.
There hasn’t been such a heated debate about how Paris should look since 1922 when the architect Le Corbusier proposed knocking down much of Central Paris — mainly the area around Beaubourg and Le Marais — that he wanted to fill with Stalinesque high rises, all the same.
While applauding the projects proposed by the panel of architects, Sarkozy approved a new, robotic-driven, 24-hour-a-day Métro system to help integrate the suburbs. It is expected to cost more than 24 billion euros. In addition, Sarkozy approved the construction of a number of skyscrapers and a pyramid designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel stipulating they must be “beautiful and fit compatibly with the existing urban landscape of the city.”
Each president appears to want to leave an architectural legacy. In the end, it is suspected that planning and political constraints will oblige Sarkozy to settle, as his predecessors did, for one or two “great works” instead of a “Greater Paris.” Socialist François Mitterrand had his Louvre pyramid. Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy’s predecessor, put up a museum for primitive art.
Georges Pompidou’s legacy has not fared quite as well. A recent survey showed that Parisians wouldn’t care if La Tour Montparnasse, the tallest skyscraper in France, were torn down.
But changing Paris always causes anxiety. The French are “extremely attached to their past, to their heritage,” the French Academy’s Jean-Marie Rouart said. “The Frenchman is a revolutionary who is extremely conservative. You have to respect our way of life. We’re not like the Americans or the Japanese.”
Others believe the French aren’t that conservative and the younger generation will be more responsive. They are attached to their inherited treasures, but at the same time, they want a new contemporary city and are in search of a new balance.
What’s your take? Is the city of Paris as we know it ultimately to be a thing of the past? Why can’t planners and architects create new cities such a La Defense outside the borders of Paris? Perhaps it’s not forward-looking, there are a huge number of people, French and foreign, who like the City of Light as it is today.
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