A Palimpsest called Paris
François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters’s Urban Fictions
In combining two complementary types of talent, a lot of magic can result. This is certainly the case with François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, whose collaboration began in the early 1980s with the well-known series of comic books called Les Cités Obscures, for which Schuiten draws the images and Peeters tells the story. As if to flaunt the already powerful alchemy created by the pair, an exhibition centred on unrealised proposals for Paris’s built environment over the past few centuries has been staged by the two gents, combining those historic, visionary projects with their own imaginative works.
Originally, a palimpsest was a sheet of parchment whose surface was scraped-off numerous times in order to allow new layers of scripture to be inscribed. The erasure was, however, never total, and archaeologists choose to study such a document for the multiple layers of history it has gathered on one object. This notion of a palimpsest can be perceived at the core of the vision proposed by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters in their current exhibition Revoir Paris. Here, the two graphic novelists mix speculative projects on the city of Paris from the mid-19th-century to the present era, with their own literary work that proposes visions of an imaginary Paris.
These visions from the 19th-century past to the science-fiction future are classically categorised, and the entire exhibition is conjugated in the future antérieur tense; in other words, visions of the future that originate in the past. Thus, we can admire many 19th-century etchings and newspaper articles depicting a delirious future where zeppelins would land on top of mediaeval buildings such as Notre Dame or the Saint Jacques Tower, where metropolitain trains would circulate on three-storey bridges across the city, where entire boulevards would be sheltered by gigantic cast-iron roof structures, and etcetera. The exhibition also features projects that were actually built, such as the great Hausmannian transformations, as well as the successive World Expos (1855, 1878, 1889, 1900) that took place there. These projects, despite their realisation, can also be considered speculative, in terms of the radicalism they embodied at the time they were implemented.
The fictional visions proposed by Schuiten’s drawings and Peeters’s scenarios also belong to the future anterior. Their pages find a place in the middle of the speculative 19th-century etchings, such that we are apt to suspect they have produced some of the latter themselves for the purpose of this exhibition! The city in which their stories occur is not a futuristic one in the usual progressive sense. In this regard, their literature belongs less to the realms of science fiction than those of steampunk. Inspired by Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne – some of Schuiten’s drawings in the exhibition are illustrations for Verne’s Paris in the 20th century – this fictional subgenre uses the 19th-century pictorial vocabulary to depict visions of a dated future, i.e. the future anterior.
As such, Schuiten and Peeters’s visions of Paris are particularly in tune with drawings from the 19thcentury, with which they develop a productive dialogue. But such a dialogue is hard to locate in relation to the other projects created in various parts of the 20th and 21st centuries, which are also exhibited. Although these documents and their chronology provide an additional layer to the Parisian palimpsest, they do not seem to find their place within this exhibition, with the exception of the Pompidou Centre irrupting in the narrative of the graphic novel L’étrange cas du docteur Abraham (1987). In comparison to Schuiten and Peeters’s literary work, the various architectural projects that are presented, from Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin (1925) to the recent consultation on the Greater Paris project (2009), appear institutional and technocratic. The advantage of fiction is that it proposes imaginary situations that are not based on axioms of economic or functional efficiency. This is not to say that novelists’ visions should take over the job of the politician, engineer, economist, or architect, but rather that problems as large as the spatial exclusion of important parts of the Paris suburbs and its working-class population, or the harmful spreading of urban territory, cannot be solved without a profoundly novel imagination, which creators of fiction provide.
With their Cités obscures series of graphic novels, Schuiten and Peeters have repeatedly envisioned places that challenge the absoluteness of urban designers’ schemes. Their stories dramatise a reality that technocrats do not seem to foresee. This reality is one of friction between the various layers of the urban palimpsest, as well as between architecture and the bodies who dwell in it. This friction does not find its proper format in architectural plans, engineering diagrams, or economic programmes; on the other hand, it does unfold its complexity in the fictitious work of novelists. Despite a few faults, Revoir Paris is useful in satisfying our wonderings of what the future of such a problematic city should look like. The subsequent layers of the Parisian palimpsest will not be added without causing friction with those of the past and thereby creating situations that will fortunately escape from the controlling power of the technocrats. ‹