Most metropolises of the world deal with the question of what is to be done. No doubt each architect, property developer, and politician would answer to Lenin right away, each with his own idea, as would every person in every neighbourhood.

In Paris you can easily add-in the tourist’s point of view (This is such a lovely city!), that of the Minis- ter of Agriculture (On Paris’s doorstep you will find the largest quantity of agricultural land in the country), and that of the Minister of the Economy (In 2011, the economy of the Paris region was evaluated at 30% of GNP), as the agricultural world is fighting against the urbanisation deemed favourable by the service-based economy. Not to mention the forcible encounter between the luxury culture and the immigrants, refugees, and unemployed that are trying to survive, or between drivers and pedestrians, all of which are prevalent in most urban zones. Paris is where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born, and the city continues to recall that Baudelaire’s poem was the only successful attempt to reconcile the Spleen and the Ideal.

Boulevard Morland David Chipperfield Architects / Calq Architecture / Olafur Eliasson / Studio Other Spaces / Michel Desvigne © David Chipperfield Architects
The périphérique, a high-speed ring road, still belts this beautiful city, authoritatively stopping its expansion as well as any exchange between inhabitants from the city on the inside and the suburbs. Incidentally, residents of the latter trespass daily in order to get to work, coping with traffic, stress, and so on. But at the moment, Parisians are making the most of La Ville Lumière, participating in the rush hour so that they can re-join their mostly dull, local environment. In 2008, the government launched the ambitious Grand Paris project, assembling eight of the most prestigious architectural agencies in Europe, each of them in turn crossing the world to engage the best technical consultants and social sciences experts to provide ideas on how to open up the city of the future. On the day of disclosure at Palais Chaillot, 17 March, after many discussions and promising leads, the session concluded with the intervention of Christian Blanc, the politician responsible for this working group. He dared to thank everyone for their efforts whilst nevertheless unveiling his own programme, which com- prised of a new metro network connecting the ‘pole’ developments (polarised regions, ‘compensatory metropolises’), strictly focused on economic growth. As part of one of the research teams, I experienced a general sense of disappointment, as this transport scheme was not an outcome of the consultation but was prepared simultaneously and independently. Jean Nouvel called for Blanc’s resignation, which indeed happened one year later, though for another political disagreement that was conveniently covered up by a surplus of Cuban cigars bought with public funds.


Since then, the Atelier du Grand Paris hasn’t produced much else apart from cocktails, promotional brochures, and videos, and whenever it employed a consultant, s/he would engage another consultant, and so it went on ... until nobody knew which needs they were responding to anymore. On the City Hall side, the Deputy Mayor of Urbanism became the Mayor of Paris in 2014 and has since increased the level of input concerning the architectural renewal of the city. We must commend Anne Hidalgo on her interpersonal skills and her knowledge of jargon. She is definitely bold. Still, in order to maintain her own myth, she needs money. The contract with Decaux for bus shelters is a great idea: City Hall doesn’t need to pay a penny, and on top of that it receives royalties. But, as all magic comes with a price, Decaux has multiplied the cost of the advertising panels in the shelters and doubled the height of useless signage poles for the installation GSM towers serving to charge cellular devices. The result: blocked views and exposure to electromagnetic waves at first floor level, lack of shelter in bad weather conditions, and a saturated pavement. And that without addressing the senseless design itself.


Another brilliant idea sprang up at the end of last year, with City Hall launching Reinventer Paris. This consisted of asking architects for ideas as well as for their connections with investors and property developers, in an attempt to get rid of 23 unoccupied sites belonging to the City. The manipulative tactic of selling landed property will funnel money into the City Hall coffers (560 million euros) under the pretence of reinventing Paris. Again, Mayor Hidalgo didn’t spend a cent; by surrounding herself with important names to do the work on her behalf, she received lots of publicity. She and Deputy Mayor Jean Louis Missika (one of the few French people invited to speak at the Venice Biennale) are clever in business: they have sold landed property, avoided costly consultations, and lured big names into joining the teams. The Boulevard Morland site went to David Chipperfield Architects, Olafur Eliasson, and Michel Desvigne – the development includes a youth hostel, hotel facilities, office and retail spaces, and a market. And the Pershing site, with its glamorous Mille Arbres (1000 Trees) project, was allocated to Sou Fujimoto Architects, a project that again mixes several uses and also bravely bridges the traffic ring with a park. All of these ambitious do-gooder projects, full of greenery and ecological biodiversity, should be beneficial to the people – they are beneficial to the investors, are they not? No matter how loud the association of architects has shouted about the darkness of the procedure.


The Western world has the wisdom to freewheel within the capitalist system without forgetting good taste and good conscience. More than ever, we critics are allowed to comment, just as long as we accept one of the shams that has been proposed, as long as an ideological right-thinking network backs us up. Those who want the power know how to gather people under their name, and Nicolas Michelin (architect and urban planner) tries with his ‘making of the city’ manifesto, which highlights the discomfort in using financial logic. Signed by more than 120 people, it claims: “Everybody in the city planning department (elected local officials, contractors, developers, architects, landscape architects, lessors, and promoters) is stuck in a financial mould that wreaks havoc.” Correct, but still far from being new, and likewise the solution it is aiming at: participative workshops. Furthermore, when it comes to discussions among representatives from all factions, each of the partners is frozen in their own position – Follow my lead and then share! And there is not a clear answer from the architects when questioned about their individual capacity to say no when politicians, contractors, or lessors compel them to change their projects – Do as I say not as I do!

And as this bunch is busy verbally abusing the well intended plan, it is raining outside and people are packed under a badly conceived bus shelter; the homeless wonder about the deterrents designed into park benches and the forbidden access to public spaces, while demonstrators ask for a higher salary, and inhabitants of the suburbs, who don’t have local public transport, either take the car and keep overriding crosswalks and violating traffic rules in order to get home earlier, or get wet walking, cursing and contemplating the possibility of becoming a rioter or a terrorist. And simultaneously in Laos, Syria, and Somalia, people either survive or don’t.

This article appeared in DAM57. Order your personal copy.