Saturday, October 15, 2011
V&V Redux: au sujet de Paris (longue)
UPDATE: The post above shows the Phillipe-Starck-designed studio we rented in Paris last week. The photo below shows the place where I stayed on my first Paris trip by myself, for $3 a night. The hôtel is still there.
I was lucky. My parents took me to England and France when I was only 16, and I got to go back to Europe many times in the following decade. I have just come back from a trip that took me to Paris for the first time in more than twenty [this time 10] years, and it made me realize the obvious: it's easier to be a good urban designer if you know Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice. [I should have said "London" too.]
I was lucky. The dollar was king and I was young enough that I didn't mind staying in the type of Paris hotel that cost $3 or $4 a night. Thanks to Europe on $5 A Day (which was Europe on $10 A Day by the time I used it regularly) and Let's Go Europe, you could find these hotels in places like the Place Henri IV, on the tip of the Ile de la Cité (above).
I thought then that one of the virtues of Europe was that it was less modernized than America. I didn't want to be less modern myself, but as an American, it was interesting to see very different places, and you notice the situations that make the grass greener on the other side.
The cars were little funny things like Deux Chevauxs and Topo Gigios (the Fiat 500 named after an Italian mouse puppet that came with a 30 cubic inch engine at the time that Ford was putting a 427 cubic inch engine in its best selling car). The Paris subway cars had been designed in the 1920s and had wicker seats and rubber tires. And there had been few recent Modernist interventions in most European cities or the countryside: there were no highways in the cities, and the autoroutes and autostrade only covered a third of the route between, for example, Paris and Florence. The rest was on roads like the French National roads, which often ran as straight as an arrow for miles. When they did, you knew they were following the old Roman roads. They were two lanes wide, and had a constant canopy and the regular rhythm of rows of plane trees planted on both sides of the road. The first few feet of the trunks were painted white to reflect the headlights, and many had crosses painted on them where people had hit them and been killed.
Two things struck me the most when I first went back to Paris a few years ago: how beautiful it is, and, despite the devaluation of the Euro at that time, how prosperous it looked. The Left Bank is overflowing with galleries and boutiques and shops that offer a constant feast for the walker's eye. All the buildings have been cleaned, and they look great. And almost every square I visited has been rebuilt since I was last there, and they look great too. Parking has been moved underground, and the squares have been paved with stone and organized with bollards to control the cars.
I had a long list of things to see in Paris, but I hardly scratched the surface of the list, because just walking around the neighborhood was so enjoyable. The first night we quickly walked up to the Boulevard St. Germain and saw the dome of Institut de France glinting in the moonlight 1000 yards away at the end of the rue Mazarin. We walked to the institute courtyard facing the Seine, and then across the river to the Louvre, and through the courts to Pei's pryramidal basement entrance, which I had never seen. That was enough to turn me around, but we walked along to the Place Henri IV (where the three-dollar-a-night-hotel is being renovated into an undoubtedly more expensive hotel -- in the attached views, the opening at the small of the triangular square is at the end of the Ile de la Cité, with steps down to a wonderful park at the level of the Seine), and then along the river to Notre Dame. Then to the Ile St. Louis and back to the Left Bank and eventually to our hotel around one in the morning. In terms of distance, that was easily the farthest I got from the hotel until the last day, because the area around it was so seductive. We stayed in the 6th arrondisement, and usually I barely made it into one side of the 5th or the 7th.
Before Paris we went to Nîmes and Toulouse on the way to Bilbao, and then took one of the high speed trains from Bordeaux to Paris. Nîmes, Toulouse, Bilbao and Bordeaux all have beautiful streets and squares. Bordeaux in particular has an astounding collection of 18th century stone buildings on older streets and neo-classical squares. None of the cities are as prosperous as Paris, and parts were grimy and worn down in a way that made you realize why Europe wanted the freshness of Modernism.
The contrast with gentrified Paris was striking. In Paris, Modernism usually looks bad (this includes Frank Gehry's former American Center, Jean Nouvel's building that replaced the previous American Center, and Richard Meier's Canal Plus headquarters). But at the same time, the prosperity and well-maintained and cleaned buildings of Paris make it much more modern than it used to be. Or than Bordeaux and Toulouse are. The new subway lines, the new cars, the stores all make it sparkle.
I don't think Paris has ever been a better place to be than it is after all this modernization and gentrification. It reminded me of another obvious thought: that the anti-gentrification movement is often unwittingly an anti-urbanism movement. Opposing gentrification is not an effective way to secure affordable housing for the poor, and condemning people to live in neighborhoods with poor buildings and poor services and a surplus of the unemployed is not good for them or society as a whole. A beautiful city is an uplifting experience: a slum is a depressing and unhealthy experience.
Exactly one century ago, technology was threatening Paris with changes that already had them talking about the "Manhattanization" of Paris. Elevators and steel frames made it possible to build higher than before, railroads, subways and buses changed the concept of the neighborhood, the electric light alleviated the need for daylight in buildings. Buildings like the traditional Parisian apartment house -- a five or six story type with courtyards, gracious, well-lit stairways and shallow, naturally-well-ventilated apartments -- were considered obsolete in some quarters.
The future of Paris was debated in the French National Assembly. Codes were passed which still determine the character and look of Paris. One representative stood up in the assembly and said that the citizens of Paris have two rights, Justice and Beauty.
As we know, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier moved to Paris not long after that and tried to change everything, and since then a certain number of Modernists have tried as well. But on the whole, Paris is still a six-story stone city with sublime streets and squares. And, of course, the Seine.
Here in New York, we have shown that you can make a good city with glass and steel and ribbon windows. But it is so much easier with stone and stucco and vertical windows, and a masonry city is so much more substantial than a glass one. There is something in us that likes the perception of buildings that appear to respect gravity. It is very comforting.
In The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, Colin Rowe showed that Le Corbusier inverted every principle of traditional architecture. For load-bearing construction with discreet rooms, he substituted the steel frame and the plan libre. For traditional facades that expressed how they stood up, he substituted curtain walls with ribbon windows that clearly expressed the insubstantial nature of the façade. Then, for those who were too thick to notice, he raised them up on "pilotis": this was like saying, "Look, Ma, no hands."
He dissolved the traditional street, replacing it with a park. He put Main Street up on the 7th floor of the apartment house, and put the playground on the roof. He spent enormous amounts of time and office resources trying to convince the French that what they should do is tear down the historic center of Paris and replace it with a park and towers designed by him.
When Paris was poorer and dirtier and less modern, it was easier to understand the appeal of Modernism for Parisian architects. There is a 1920s house called the Maison de Verre which is an absolutely lyrical essay on the joys of electricity and plumbing. But within fifty years that devolved into the absolutely mindless Centre Pompidou: the oil refinery cum art museum. Rogers has said that he wanted the Pompidou to be futuristic, like a Jules Verne image. But Verne's images were from the middle of the nineteenth century, and Rogers' design was so dysfunctional that it had to be rebuilt within less than twenty-five years. How modern is that? [Now, 10 years later, it looks like they're rebuiding it again.]
The best argument against this mindlessness is Paris itself. It is more beautiful than it has ever been. It works better than it ever has. It is as modern as it has ever been. It is strong enough to stand up to the examples of Modernism like Mitterand's Grand Projets, but in its own modernism, it shows their weaknesses for what they are.
Paris is so beautiful today because the French National Assembly and French citizens agreed with the Assemblyman who said Parisians had the right to justice and beauty. We should be able to do as well.