A Grand Tour, Part 1: The Digital Flâneur

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Civic pride in the Marais. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

This is the first article in a four part series which totally geeks out on cities.

But many of us also breathe a sigh of relief when we come home to our Australian sanctuary.

One of the things Australians often say when we’ve spent a few days in a crowded, congested city in Europe or the United States: “it’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there”.

—Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia, 18 July 2010

The Critic: ‘A cynical populace, craven politicians and greedy developers, is that all you’ve got?’

The Urbanist: ‘That’s what I’ve got…’

—Lines conceivably spoken in a western about urban planning

“You are my density…”

—Geeky George McFly seduces his future bride in Back to the Future (1985)

Like cats chasing tails, all that is urgent in contemporary discussions of the city circles around the topic of density. While this makes it easy to define the shape of the boxing ring, it doesn’t set the rules of the fight, and boy oh boy is density ever a fight. Here in Sydney urban planning discourse feels like a nightmare dreamed in a fever, a chase scene in which it is impossible not to run in circles, slowly. As someone who cares deeply about Sydney’s future, it was a sweet relief to leave Smug City for a few weeks to see how they make cities in Europe.

For those interested in the urban form of Paris, an excellent place to start (or end) is the Pavillon de L’Arsenal on Boulevard Morland, not far from the Bastille. The permanent exhibit, which is free of charge, uses drawings, photos, models and films to document the evolution of the city from Roman times. Inevitably, it contains an overload of information and in the generous tradition of Paris museums, needs to be nibbled at rather than consumed whole. I read the labels dutifully and chronologically until I became fatally transfixed by a film of Le Corbusier projected on the floor(more than a few Parisians might take pleasure in stepping on the great man who proposed the demolition of much of the capital). For all my fascination with Corb and his work, I had never actually heard his voice. To judge from the short clip he would have made a perfect heavy in any number of 1940s film noirs and it’s a pity he couldn’t have had two careers.

Near the end of the exhibit comes the following fact: Paris is the densest city in Europe.

Density is contentious. Unlike architects, urban planners quantify cities. They quantify both because their political masters demand it and because they genuinely dig counting dwellings per hectare and jobs per square mile. Because there is no standard way of measuring population density, certain academics have been able to make some wild claims, for example, that Los Angeles is denser than New York (refuted here). These claims are often made by pro-sprawl academics in support of specific political agendas, and are of little value compared to that exalted activity invented in Paris, flânerie, which remains the only way to find out what is actually happening in a city.

Google Earth is vaguely sinister, but for those who like cities it carries the promise of a new kind of digitally informed flânerie, a reassertion of precision against those who would reduce cities to blobs on a map. To understand cities today we need to combine Google Earth with shoe leather. By any measure, Paris is denser than Sydney, but try the following exercise, which is fun and tells us much more than than any statistic. If you open Google Earth and draw a line fifty kilometers long starting at Notre Dame and extending in any direction, the line is likely to end in genuine countryside (illustrating the statistic that the eighty percent of Île de France is forest or farmland).

Paris and the 50km red line of truth.

Even in Milan, which seems to sprawl more than almost any other continental city, the fifty kilometer line ends up at Lake Como.

Milan and the 50km red line of truth.

If we draw the same line from downtown Sydney to the west (to the east, because Sydney developers have not yet figured out how to build McMansions in the ocean (Barangaroo’s egregious aquatic hotel notwithstanding) the Tasman Sea acts as a natural city wall which produces in the eastern suburbs several of the densest and most desirable neighborhoods in the city) we end up at Penrith, which is most definitely a suburb, connected to the city by a nearly unbroken carpet of development. The Blue Mountains, which rise just west of Penrith, are unfortunately too far out to form an effective wall (except, perhaps, for a future Sydney of 20 million people, God help us…).

Sydney and the 50km line of truth.

On the ground, the comparison is borne out by two train rides. Entering Paris from the southeast, along the Seine, the outer RER stops are tightly settled little villages surrounded by farms and forests. Approaching the city there is a belt of ugly but dense banlieu and suddenly, fresh as a jump cut in À Bout de Souffle (1959),you’re past the Périphérique and in Paris.

Bonfruit, 47.4km from Notre Dame.

Penrith, 48km from the Sydney Opera House.

The rider of a train from Penrith to Sydney, by contrast, has the strange experience of seeing more trees in inner city areas like Newtown than in the far flung suburbs people supposedly escape to in order to live amongst nature. Our two train journeys use the same medium — buildings and open space — to tell entirely different stories. The train from Italy winds up in Paris like a sudden surprise ending, while Sydney’s urban carpet resembles a three hour Altman film in which vaguely drawn patterns seem barely to exist. The pattern of the city, multiplied, creates the pattern of the nation, which makes former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit’s idea that the 21st century United States ought to be an “archipelago of cities cities in a sea of open landscapes” so evocative.

As the title of Eric Hazan’s Paris: A History in Footsteps indicates, he understands that cities are made by those who walk upon them. For Hazan, Paris’ history is a history of walls, the walls which have encouraged the city to grow like an onion, in a series of dense layers. Whatever the original purpose of the walls, defensive or economic, they have produced an extremely livable and sustainable city. Victor Hugo explains all in Notre-Dame de Paris (trans. Hapgood):

Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards, overflows, devours, wears away, and effaces this wall. Philip Augustus makes a new dike for it. He imprisons Paris in a circular chain of great towers, both lofty and solid. For the period of more than a century, the houses press upon each other, accumulate, and raise their level in this basin, like water in a reservoir. They begin to deepen; they pile story upon story; they mount upon each other; they gush forth at the top, like all laterally compressed growth, and there is a rivalry as to which shall thrust its head above its neighbors, for the sake of getting a little air. The street glows narrower and deeper, every space is overwhelmed and disappears. The houses finally leap the wall of Philip Augustus, and scatter joyfully over the plain, without order, and all askew, like runaways. There they plant themselves squarely, cut themselves gardens from the fields, and take their ease. Beginning with 1367, the city spreads to such an extent into the suburbs, that a new wall becomes necessary, particularly on the right bank; Charles V. builds it. But a city like Paris is perpetually growing. It is only such cities that become capitals. They are funnels, into which all the geographical, political, moral, and intellectual water-sheds of a country, all the natural slopes of a people, pour; wells of civilization, so to speak, and also sewers, where commerce, industry, intelligence, population,—all that is sap, all that is life, all that is the soul of a nation, filters and amasses unceasingly, drop by drop, century by century.

So Charles V.’s wall suffered the fate of that of Philip Augustus…

What Hugo captures in this passage is the cauldron in which cities are made. There is a force, in this case characterized as a liquid, which converges, encounters resistance, in this case a wall, and produces something interesting which we call a city. In the absence of walls, today’s urban planners do their best and their worst with zoning, blobs on a map.

Walls, as Hazan points out, create an inside and an outside. As a city overspills a wall, faubourgs are created which, though they inevitably become part of the city, predetermine how the expanded city ends up. Thus in a quartier like Charonne in the 20th arrondissement, which was a village until 1860, Hazard finds “what is most ‘away from it all’ in Paris: Rue des Marîchers that parallels the tracks of the Ceinture railway, with its wild wood, Rue Fernand-Gambon from where you look over the ruins of a Magritte-type station covered in ivy…” As this description implies, Paris is more complex than an expanding onion, it is intensely layered with historical circumstances which to the flâneur become readable in physical space – medieval streets, Haussman’s cuttings, the railways and, best of all, what Walter Benjamin called “the timeless little squares that suddenly are there, and to which no name attaches.”

A Half-Haussmanned Paris: the Corner of Avenue Rapp and Rue Saint-Dominique, 1877. Photo by Charles Marville.

Today’s Parisians are not just the lucky two million or so buckled within the Périphérique; something like eight million live outside this perhaps final city wall. The fascinating question of whether it ought to be the last wall was implicit in Le Grand Pari(s), Nicholas Sarkozy’s Grand Projet to plan the “Post-Kyoto” Paris of the future. The fact that this Grand Projet of 2010 is urbanist rather than architectural tells us a lot about the way cities have changed since Mitterand’s time, more than any Biennale can hope to encapsulate. Rather than commission the next round of Parisian monuments, in 2007 Sarkozy asked ten firms, French and international, young and venerable, to come up with ideas for greater Paris, “sans restriction, sans tabous.” The fact that Grand Paris (I will henceforward omit the parenthesis so loved by architects, from students to Pritzker Prize winners) was not a competition, but a search for ideas also tells us something about the way the design profession, asked to solve problems larger than a museum or airport, might evolve in the future.

The specific ideas they came back with a year later, and Sarkozy’s subsequent commitment to implement some of them in a big way, are beyond the scope of this article, but the process is something every city in the world ought to learn from. Grand Paris is, as Joe Biden might say, a very big deal. Back in 2004 I helped organize an event called SuperStudio, an urban design charrette which asked Sydney architecture students to produce big ideas for the city’s future over the course of a sleepless weekend. Incredibly, Sarkozy did pretty much the same thing, but with real architects, real time and real money. He engaged top people and gave them carte blanche in circumstances public enough to make it very hard for him to wriggle out of actually doing something. Back in the New World, urban planning tends to be reactive. In the face of greedy developers and uneasy residents, planners spend their days negotiating the least worst outcome. They take pride, and more than once have I heard a planner say this, when everyone ends up mad at them because it means that all “stakeholders” have made concessions.

The problem in Sydney is not that there are no visionaries, or that people are in denial about the city’s very serious problems. The problem is the way ideas are put away in a box. There is a weird self-denying, puritanical tendency to separate ‘Fun Brainstorm Time Walking in the Woods’ from ‘Boring Down to Business Time Rotting Away in Front of a Spreadsheet’ which is at odds with the city’s reputed hedonism. Decisions of real consequence are made at the big end of town by people in gray suits. Groovy architects are either rolled out at the beginning in half-hearted competition, or at the end when the pig needs lipstick. A project like Barangaroo takes on, through gritted teeth, for PR reasons, like a half melted M & M, the merest thin veneer of ‘fun’.

And then we have Paris, where fun is serious.

Consider the Vélib. In another city, a bike sharing program might have become one of those tokenistic urban baubles calculated to signify grooviness. In Paris, the ubiquitous and charming Vélibs have become, only three years after their introduction, as intrinsic a part of the city’s infrastructure as the Métro. The design of the bicycles and their parking stations combines practicality and romance in a very French proportion (somehow Parisians have gained a reputation for aloof sophistication which is a complete fabrication – one look at the adorable Vélibs, or the woman who wishes departing operagoers, dressed in everything from leisure wear to couture, “bonsoir” after a performance of Le Vaisseau Fantôme at the Opera Bastille tells you that there is a sweet, practical goofiness, and even an unexpectedly provincial aura, to Paris and Parisians which is completely bewitching).

Vélibs on the Left Bank. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Those Vélibs, they fulfill a need – Paris is the ideal scale for bicycles, flat and compact, but often just a little too big for walking – and inspire any number of flights of fancy, just as Anna Karina was able to imagine a trip on the Métro as a descent into hell in Bande à Part (1964) (whose famous Madison sequence is a perfect illustration of Parisian goofiness, simultaneously guileless and chic, the way a person looks when they ride a Vélib). Something about the Vélibs themselves, their solidity, their universal fit, their flowing lines, the patience with which they wait for a transient encounter with a rider, fires the imagination.  If the imagery of the Métro has produced its own heritage of urban daydreams, then surely the Vélib conjures a dream of the contemporary city, flowing, unpredictable, complex but readable. The Vélib seems already to have inspired rituals — a rider gains the trust of a prospective bicycle by pinching the tires, adjusting the seat height and stowing her burdens in the handlebar basket. As the day progresses certain parking stations fill up, while gaps open up in others; Parisians ride fast, especially at night, and no Vélib knows whether it will end up in Montparnasse, the Marais or Montmartre (unlikely, given the big climb). Without anyone being so explicit as I insist on being, the Vélibs are simultaneously both useful infrastructure and a profound expression of a Parisian spirit which is perpetually modern.

A Vélib waits for adventure. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Sydney’s Arthur Stace, the “Eternity Man”.

Some who live in the sprawling cities of the New World justify the seemingly unplannable chaos of their surroundings by luxuriating in what they choose to see as the creative mess of neo-liberal urbanism. In a good mood, on a nice day in Sydney you can almost squint enough to convince yourself that the city remains raffishly lovable, but Paris teaches us that good planning and building things properly is in fact a pre-requisite and not a hindrance to what Robert Venturi called “messy vitality.” While Sydney agonizes over whether to build a few wispy tendrils of light rail, Paris has nearly encircled itself with a modern tram line along the Boulevard of the Marshals (the T3). What that tram, the Métro, the Vélib, the Louvre or the Platonic ideal of a haricot vert all have in common is that they are the best of their kind. One could not imagine them being any better, and yet this is not the same as perfection, and the sensibility that produced these Parisian things is not perfectionism but a confidence that once a prosaic thing is done properly one can move on to poetry. Just as a lively, fine-grained, improvisatory city grows on a solid underpinning of public infrastructure, so the filigree tendrils of a city’s flânerie, its intellectual and artistic life, require some collective hunch that the city is eternal (I wonder if Arthur Stace, who spent 35 years chalking the word “Eternity” in copperplate script all over Sydney, actually intended the word as a plaintive question — “Eternity…?”).

You can only enjoy a night at the opera, or an endless afternoon of café chatter if you know that the Métro or a Vélib will convey you home with minimal inconvenience at the end of the day. If the experience of getting home is delightful or poetic as well as convenient and cheap then that perhaps is what distinguishes the great cities of the world. Louis Kahn said that the “measure of a city is the character of its availabilities” and this is the bargain of density; people are willing to put up with propinquity if in return they can enjoy both liveliness and the dignity of convenient access to that liveliness. Paris isn’t perfect, but its grubbiness is not filthy, dirty or unsanitary. It proudly wears the grubbiness of a well-loved house, cleaned only as necessary, and only between the permanent towers of old books and never-ending craft projects which litter sturdy wooden tables. This could be another road to functionalism, without glass walls.

Parisian fine grain: a shop devoted to finger puppets in the Marais. Could one imagine more charming finger puppets? Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

So one glance at Paris refutes the lazy idea that the city is nothing but a museum — there is a vision of the future city materializing before our eyes. It is implicit in the ideas produced for Grand Paris, whose participants independently sensed that the “Post-Kyoto” city might be delightful indeed – a city of bicycles, serenity, incredibly fast trains and trees. We need to forget about the nostalgic Paris frozen in time and learn from the city as it is. And what it is we may find provocative.

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Neutral Zone”), the Enterprise discovers an ancient spacecraft. Inside, frozen in stasis, are three twentieth century Americans. The one who, thawed, has the most trouble adjusting to twenty-fourth century life is a former financier:

CAPTAIN PICARD: Here is what I propose: you can’t stay on the Enterprise but I have arranged for us to rendezvous with the U.S.S. Charleston bound for Earth. They will deliver you there.

THAWED FINANCIER: Then what will happen to us? There’s no trace of my money. My office is gone. What will I do? How will I live?

CAPTAIN PICARD: This is the twenty-fourth century. Material needs no longer exist.

THAWED FINANCIER: Then what’s the challenge?

CAPTAIN PICARD: The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself, to enrich yourself. Enjoy it.

It is no accident that Captain Picard is French. As Robert Zaretzky writes, uncomprehending encounters over the nature of work are nothing new. Zaretzky discusses Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s book, Montaillou, in which fourteenth century Inquisitor Jacques Fournier travels from Avignon to the Pyrenean village of Montaillou to stamp out heresy. Fournier, who meticulously recorded his impressions, was appalled by what he considered the villagers’ laziness, and was even more galled by their pragmatic attitude to work, for they worked in order to live. In Australia and the United States, Montaillounianism remains heresy, and increasingly so. Consider Bobby Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas, delivered in March 1968, which would put him way, way to the left of 2010 version of the Democratic Party:

Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product…if we should judge American by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

In relation to the current demonstrations against Sarkozy’s proposal to raise the retirement age, the Sydney Morning Herald writes, and this could exemplify any number of recent editorials in the New World press, “Surely working a bit harder and longer will not rob the French of their essential je ne sais quoi?”, but a more interesting question is this: since when is working “hard and long?” the same thing as working well?

Long hard work: suburban Sydney, 4:52 AM. The city-bound train which arrived a couple of minutes after this photo was taken was already full of commuters! Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Often this discussion, which, given that it is essentially a conversation about the meaning of life, is an extremely uncomfortable one for most Americans and Australians, is defanged by phrases such as “work-life balance” (the balance of a dude who works fifty hours a week in a cubicle and wrecks his lower back in a 24 hour mountain bike race at the weekend) or a cute discussion of the way Spaniards are defending their right to a siesta, but the darkest implication, that hard work is wrecking our world, is more relevant today than in Thoreau or Kennedy’s time and will not go away. Most of us have certain favorite activities — the word ‘hobby’ is tout à fait affreux —  and know that, when caught in the flow of a thing, the correlation between time and productivity is extremely nonlinear.

For most architects and other design pros, hard and long work is worn as a badge of honor from student days onward. The worship of the all-nighter is not only unhealthy for its acolytes, it is the ruin of our built environment. So many times, to the point where it was almost ritual, I can remember talented architecture students reduced to blubbering uselessness by not just a lack of sleep, but a lack of loisir, or leisure, a much better description of the mentality of Montaillou than laziness. In an office, CAD software enables hundreds of drawing revisions to be issued, when in the old days of hand-drafting a tricky detail might be explained on site, pencil in hand, face to face with the builder. Many times when I was stuck on a project a walk in the woods or a bike ride would present solutions that no amount of long hard work behind a desk could achieve. That today’s model of architectural practice — and that foosball table in the corner of the office is a mere parody of what is required — allows no room for this type of contemplation has dire consequences for our cities. Great architecture is all about the elegant, lasting resolution of multiple complex problems, not the frantic spinning of plates so sadly readable in many contemporary buildings.

While writers and artists are expected to make time for ruminative leisure, architects are caught between that creative world and what used to be called the nine to five world of business. The mentalities seem impossible to reconcile: the novelist  works until his book is finished, the office worker sits in front of his computer until the guy in the next cubicle clocks off. Paris embodies what Star Trek calls ‘the third alternative.’ Those Parisian works of muscular and enduring excellence — the Metro, the Velib and a thousand others great and small — are the result of the former mentality applied to practical rather than artistic activity, the result of waking up and thinking ‘I will work to create this object. When it is great, then I will enjoy my leisure.’ This approach, and most of all the fact that it works, may provoke us Anglos, but we tend to love the result — Paris — instinctively.

The question of ‘how to build now’ seems more vexed than ever in 2010, not least because it has taken on a double meaning. First, the contemporary version of the Victorian question ‘in what style shall we build?’ is tougher than ever to answer, especially now that the word ‘style’ has gone out of style. The second, political, meaning – just how the hell are we supposed to build anything worthwhile? – is even more challenging. In the New World it is a weird situation. There is progress and despair. Sustainability has advanced to the point where nothing can be proposed without at least paying lip service to the color green. Everyone knows what needs to be built. Everyone knows we must build more public infrastructure than ever, and yet in biggest megalopolis of the the world’s biggest economy it is somehow impossible to build a perfectly ordinary project like a rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Everyone knows the best is possible and yet it is easier to keep giving in to the market and to those so-called urbanists who, with the mad compulsion of a cubicle-dweller, convert blobs on a map into people stacked up in boxes, fifty kilometers from the city, the density of their proximity a punishment rather than a delight.

Next week — “A Grand Tour, Part 2” asks whether Venice is a dead city buried in billboards or a green utopia.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

Readers Comments (4)

  1. Alan,
    Clearly we live in the same world.
    Tim Williams

  2. Alan, Refreshing commentary. I am frustrated by the inability of Sydney to get out of it’s own way, mired in second guessing, consensus, and box ticking mentality.

  3. Ian Richardson March 9, 2011 @ 19:25

    Thanks for a fascinating article. Loved the story about the leisurely people of Montaillou. It reminded me of the work of Austrian philosopher Josef Pieper (eg. ‘Leisure – The Basis of Culture’). Hopefully as more people develop an appreciation for architecture and urban planning we will succeed in beautifying our cities and rendering them fit for flanerie.

  4. Sean Turkington March 9, 2011 @ 21:43

    What a lovely and very true article. Reminds me very much of what I liked about france and the french when I was there.

    Thanks for writing it!

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