Plans for the new Grand Paris should not smother classic street life, like this in the Marais. Photograph: William Albert Allard/Getty

Is Paris immune from destruction? History suggests that the French capital has been one of the most charmed, or lucky, cities of all times. It was occupied for long years by the perfidious English during the 15th century. It was the backdrop to the gory St Bartholomew’s Massacre of 1572, the Revolution of 1789 and the guillotine-driven terror that followed. It was surrendered to the Prussians in 1871 and to Adolf Hitler in 1940. As Allied troops drew close to Paris in 1944, Hitler ordered the city’s destruction. The German military governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz, ignored his commander-in-chief and surrendered the city at Gare Montparnasse to Free French forces, letting it come through the war more or less unscathed.

Destruction came only after the second world war, and then it was at the hands of politicians, technocrats, planners, big business and architects armed with big plans. Baron Haussmann’s mighty efforts to rebuild Paris for Napoleon IIIin the mid-19th Century changed the face of much of the city.Yet, they seem almost modest compared with the aggressive modernisation programmes that witnessed the destruction of Les Halles (the legendary food market fondly known as the “belly of Paris”), the construction of brutal arterial roads, and the creation of suburbs so hideous that they make London’s most banal outposts seem chic. Even Le Corbusier’s madly idealistic plan to demolish half of the city centre and replace it with high-quality, high-rise apartment blocks set in a new urban parkland look charming in comparison.

In the 1980s, I remember watching with genuine shock as the mass-produced, neo-classical concrete apartment blocks designed by Ricardo Bofill were piling high at St Quentin-en-Yvelines and Marne-la-Vallée. These outer suburbs were, in theory, to have been a kind of Versailles for the People, yet in reality they were monumentally scary places. These were the most urbane – if not the best– of the new Parisian suburbia created over the past twenty-five years.

Given the wretched divide between the Paris of our collective dreams and the Paris of underprivileged, excluded suburban sprawl, it’s hardly surprising that President Sarkozy and Mayor Delanoë wish to be seen to be doing something about a problem that can only cause ever more problems for Paris and France. They have asked for architects – ten of them, and big names – for grand plans. This is often said to be the Parisian way.

It’s here, I can’t help thinking, that Paris should be careful. There is a place in the city for modern grandeur and spectacle, as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano proved with the design of the eye-boggling Pompidou Centre in the 1970s. But surely what is needed is a way not just of improving the look of the poor parts of the city, and linking them to the centre with parks and green avenues, but also of creating and nurturing the education, the jobs, the businesses and the ways of life that will allow Paris to develop humanely while enhancing its character at the same time.

Recent plans for the city, championed by both Sarkozy and Delanoë, have been to bling the city up with a new generation of wilfully crass skyscrapers spelling the names of Global Brands and Big Business in letters that make the illuminated signs of Times Square look as demure as candles in a Surrey church.

Big plans mustn’t be allowed to smother Paris. No single architect can ever right the city’s wrongs, or come up with ideal, universal solutions. Plans on anything like a big scale will need the involvement of many different people and sectors of Parisian society if they are to have a chance of working. They need to be matched by hundreds of small plans that will allow the streets of Paris from the Marais to Marne-la-Vallée to flourish in a way that is all their own.

Jonathan Glancey