Must Paris Reconquer the Seine?

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La Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

La Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

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The global city is an oxymoron. No one lives there. Any decent-sized city is an intensely local argument generating machine and the way in which cities fight about architecture is as revealing as the materials of their curbstones. These arguments are unfolding history. It’s worth paying attention to whether they are depressing or enlivening, who participates in them and for what reasons. In the midst of relentless planetary crisis, these juicy little local fights can seem unimportant. A dispute such as the current one about the future of the banks of the Seine might seem indulgent until one remembers the hardly old but nevertheless a bit out of fashion adage about thinking globally and acting locally. Aside from what they can teach us, local questions provide a bastion of the real against all the gloppy, terminally imprecise words about global this and global that. At a certain point the urge to turn away from the virtual and toward the animal, the mineral and the vegetal becomes overwhelming and probably healthy. Perhaps the only way to overcome, or at least hide from the hegemony of numbers will be, like Laurel and Hardy taking the sea air in Saps at Sea (1940), to seek out familiar places where the discourse suits us.

Along with nearly every other city, Paris built a series of famous mistakes during the postwar years, les trente glorieuses. The city’s relative clarity makes these mistakes more noticeable than elsewhere; we are able to perceive the way their gravity either deepens or fades over time. Each is different. Some, such as the Front de Seine just west of the Eiffel Tower, look much worse in photographs than they feel on the ground. Some are more or less correctable while in cases where the culture of a neighborhood was at least partially destroyed along with its buildings, as in Belleville, the damage seems done.

Le front de Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Le front de Seine. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The Voie Georges Pompidou,the expressways built along the entire right bank and part of the left bank of the Seine in the 1960s, would seem at first glance both particularly egregious and eminently correctable mistakes. The road is the a relic of an era which proposed to slice up central Paris with expressways, including one on top of the Canal St. Martin. It was the spirit of the age, and since then such foreshore highways have been calmed or demolished in cities around the world. The voie is already closed each Sunday for the enjoyment ofrollerbladers, joggers and cyclists while events such as Paris Plage hint at how the banks of the Seine might be, as the current plan advocates, “reconquered” by human beings.

Les berges de la Garonne, Bordeaux. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Les berges de la Garonne, Bordeaux. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The city of Paris’ proposal for forles voies sur berges would partially pedestrianize the river bank. Though modest, at least physically, compared to the total transformation of the left bank of the Garonne in Bordeaux, it has nevertheless managed to spawn a pretty big and very interesting argument. Each bank would be treated differently. On the left bank, the existing scrap of expressway between the Musée d’Orsay and the Pont d’Alma would be closed to cars entirely, though at the behest of the préfecture de police, the road surface would be retained so that the changes could be reversed in case Week End (1967)-style embouteillages eventuate. Every day would be as Sunday is now except that the left bank would also be animated by a series of floating attractions, of which more below. On the right bank, where the freeway is continuous right across the city, the city wants to tame the voie into a boulevard by inserting six traffic lights along its length, including at such popular crossing points as the Tuilleries and in front of the Palais de Tokyo, where the opening of the Musée du Quay Branly on the other side of the river has created a new desire line for which the current pedestrian underpass is considered inadequate.

And what will people do along the liberated river? In recent decades the urban waterways of wealthy cities have become places of leisure rather than industry or transport. The benefits of increased public access and cleaner water are offset somewhat by unease about whether promenading is a good use for foreshores which in places like Paris made their city rather than the other way around. The Mairie’s plan has run square into anxieties about what Paris is to be, about the extent to which leisure, tourism and culture can support a city. The question of whether Paris can live off its charm is at least as old as the removal of Les Halles in 1969, a much graver diminishment of the city’s muscularity. Paris is not Venice or Las Vegas, but it isn’t exactly a city of broad shoulders either. Barges out of L’Atalante (1934) may be vastly outnumbered by a motley parade of hop on hop off tourist boats with patter in five languages but the Seine is not lost. The parc de Bercy and the parc André Citroën are two former industrial sites which have become examples of a golden age in French landscape design. In between, the banks of the Seine manage to retain some mystery in spite of their fame. The berges remain strangely unpeopled, perhaps because they are the one east-west path across the city where it is (nearly) impossible to spend money.

Like a child whose afternoons are filled with soccer practice and tuba lessons, urban space is never allowed to just be anymore. ‘Activation’ is one of the urban planners favorite words. To ensure that the newly liberated parts of the Seine are made to ‘do something,’ the Mairie proposes a series of floating pavilions for various purposes. Their sun dappled renderings are full of happy digital people playing volleyball, sitting at outdoor tables and watching a gently edgy film on a floating outdoor screen. On a recent edition of the France Culture program Métropolitains, one critic of the project, Emmanuel Caille, aptly described this very familiar contemporary aesthetic, complete with tasteful banners on every lamppost, as “commerco-ludique.” It is an extremely useful term for a tendency which, from the banks of the Seine to the foreshore of Sydney Harbour, is now widespread enough to constitute a new international style.

La Joconde, contrechamp. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Mona Lisa, reverse angle. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

(Considering that 27 million tourists visit the city each year, Paris does a good job, both by design and because of the city’s layout, of tightly corralling the worst aspects of international tourism — the scammers, the buses, the readymade crêpes, the perpetual festival of bad photography — around a handful of monuments we might call Paris agaçant. Even if it is possible to avoid tourists in Paris, it is difficult to avoid thinking about tourism. Contemporary mass tourism appears to be at a strange juncture; it seems with few exceptions to have replaced its tacky plastic wrapper with a veneer of sans-serif tastefulness. Bad t-shirts are hardly to be seen. Gilded Eiffel towers made in God knows what corner of the global south can still be bought through various semi-legal channels, but today’s tourist buys such an object with ironic intent. She carries an SLR rather than a point and shoot. The tension which arises when each of the millions yearns to be an insider, wants to discover their own secret bistro, demands a scrap of Paris insolite for themselves, creates a new kind of conformity. Harmless may be the sullen, bored teenager at Trocadéro who suddenly leaps with ‘oh what a feeling — TOY-O-TA!’ glee, face plastered with the rictus of an olympic gymnast, leaving the thin crust of the Earth for the 1/500th of a second it takes to convert the moment into ones and zeros, but this individual tourist is part of a crowd which demands more and more from its surroundings and wants to leave a mark. This may sound cranky, or at least tinted by dirt-colored glasses, but cross the Pont des Arts or the Passerelle Senghor (formerly the Passerelle Solférino) and what else but a provocation are the thousands of “love” padlocks which now litter these once-gracious structures? Where did this crap come from and why is it here now? The love they express is not for Paris. The city becomes another iconic backdrop against which to regard ones own eminently portable self-regard. You, me, everybody, we’re all meant to hear accordions in our heads when we look at the locks. We are meant to walk thoughtfully, as though through a memorial to some elegiac history, and say ‘how beautiful, look at all the love in this world.’ In such sites of intervention we are meant to stand far enough outside ourselves to situate our beings in the midst of a groovy now of grim but always self-confident play-work, the prevailing attitude of the virtual world jumped off the screen and imposed on a real city. Such mindless ‘interventions’ as the love locks are foreshadowed by the scale and repetitiveness of installation art and by the minimalist spirituality of contemporary memorial architecture. The locks are not an innocent happening but an aggression, an assertion that the visitor, no longer content to behave as a guest, wants the keys to your house. This is something new and different and bad. This is bêtise which leaves a stain. This is an assertion of ownership over Paris by those for whom the city is just a line on their bucket list. Now where did I pack my bolt cutter…?)

Les cadenas d'amour. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Love Locks. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Whatever one may think of the proposal for the banks of the Seine in principle or in its particulars, commerco-ludique space seems harder and harder to avoid. Though many such places belong to the countless millions of square meters identified by Rem Koolhaas as “junkspace,” the intentions behind commerco-ludique places are often good, a version of Jane Jacobs’ West Village distorted by the urban planner’s certitudes, a warmed-over architectural modernism and an economic rationalist mindset. Such places have their pleasures, at least at first — who doesn’t like bookstores and tasty muffins? The problem with beach volleyball on the Seine is that the element of surprise is completely lost. The experience of watching a movie on a screen floating in the river promises to be super smooth, a package deal, differing only in backdrop from the movies enjoyed by a white-collar audience on Sydney Harbour each summer (though I’m sure the tickets are more expensive in Sydney…). The commerco-ludique pushes surprise, adventure and flânerie elsewhere, out to the Boulevards des Maréchaux, where genuinely interesting and interestingly genuine urbanism is happening, or to Lille or Bordeaux. A laudable attempt to reconquer the Seine for human beings could end up plasticizing it, but it’s hard to tell from the pictures.

Le boulevard des Maréchaux, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Le boulevard des Maréchaux, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Opposition to the plan has taken an unexpected tack — a bold defense of the Voie Georges Pompidou as both a unique and thrilling urban trajectory for the motorist and a practical route into the city for banlieusards. The argument, best articulated in a recent essay, “Plaidoyer pour la voie Georges-Pompidou” by Emmanuel Caille, is harder to dismiss than it seems, especially when it comes to the right bank, which would become a fairly bland looking boulevard. There are practical problems as well. Paris has way too many cars and, to judge from the ones crawling into the city through places like Porte Maillot each morning, many of them are driven by single-occupants. The yellow-brown haze which results would not be missed by anyone (Erik Satie said that “Paris air is so bad I always boil it before breathing”). The day is surely coming when a comprehensive solution to the city’s traffic will have to be implemented, perhaps a congestion charge as in Rome and London, perhaps something more clever and parisian, but pedestrianizing the banks of the Seine is not a solution to that problem. In the absence of improved public transportation at a regional scale, such as the construction of the proposed Grand Paris Express, the proposal could well make traffic worse by pushing some of the 74,000 cars which currently use the roadelsewhere.

The last paragraphs of my own articles rarely surprise me, but I find the argument that this sixties relic adds to the richness of the Seine unexpectedly persuasive. The built mistakes of the past are part of a city’s history. It would be perverse to argue that they should always be preserved, but if we are thinking about ways to resist the rise of commerco-ludique space and its aspiration toward an exhibitionism which tries to reveal all and connect everything, like a built internet, then perhaps preserving a few bad things in places where they are interesting is one way to reassert a bit of complexity and contradiction, a bit of roughness lest things get too smooth. The banks of the Seine, the actual line along which mineral city meets fugitive water, is a special place, one which the city’s plan seems, and the renderings are so vague one cannot really say for sure, to turn into a recreational waterfront which happens have Paris as a backdrop. Perhaps the Seine should be a little bit elusive. The opposition the plan has aroused (and after the recent presidential election, the dispute between city and état which was the main obstacle to the scheme’s realization has vanished, deus ex machina style) suggests that it has not captured the public imagination as much as the river it seeks to transform already does. The most beautiful cities resist perfection.

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.

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