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When London had a wobbly bridge, we did everything in our power to tame it.
The mildly thrilling sensation of the Millennium Bridge‘s metallic deck undulating beneath our feet was apparently too much to bear – it was closed, two days after opening. 20 months, 90 dampers and £5m later, it reopened, with the leaden stillness of a concrete road bridge.
The French, it seems, are a little more adventurous.
Plans unveiled by Atelier Zündel Cristea could see an inflatable trampoline bridge let you bounce all the way across the Seine.
In their response to an ideas competition for a new bridge in Paris, which called for “a new icon or landmark” to add to the 37 bridges that already span the Seine, the architects wrote:
“It appears to us that Paris already has the bridges and passages necessary for the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic across its waterways. Our intention is to invite its visitors and inhabitants to engage on a newer and more playful path across this same water.”
After a renovation that nearly tripled its size, the revamped Palais de Tokyo swung open its doors Thursday, inaugurating what is now the largest – and perhaps dustiest – contemporary arts center in Europe.
The dust is not a mistake. It’s part of an unfinished look meant to inspire artists now allowed to run free within its walls.
About 50 artists began a 30-hour stint of around-the-clock creation to celebrate the center’s new life at the imposing Art Deco building on Paris’ Right Bank.
The renovation, that cost some (EURO)20 million ($26 million) over 10 months, opened up a dizzying 22,000 square meters (nearly 237,000 square feet) of space. That’s more than three soccer fields.
Visitors stepped with trepidation over the center’s four floors on Thursday, past dusty columns, partially painted concrete and exposed cables.
Was the renovation incomplete?
The unfinished look, so said the center’s President Jean de Loisy, is deadly intentional.
“The landscape here is different from any other center in the world,” de Loisy told The Associated Press. “Nothing is perfectly clean, nothing is perfectly painted on purpose. It is so important in art not to control everything. It’s all in favor of creativity.”
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.