Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Paralyzed City?

The following two stories are related. The first is about the possibility of the French Open leaving Paris for a suburban site, possibly near Versailles or Euro Disneyland. The second is about the wealthy residents of the 16th arrondisement—a western arrondisement close to the Bois de Boulogne—resisting efforts to bring HLM housing to their arrondisement (HLM housing is public housing at subsidized rates, to provide affordable housing for lower- to middle-class Parisians.)

So, why the potential move for the French Open? Well, it appears there simply isn’t enough space: Roland Garros has a 21 acre footprint, the smallest of the four majors. Historic Paris—what we love and what the tourists come to—is small, dense, homey, and very accessible by metro. Historic Paris seems, as you walk around and experience it, like the world’s biggest village, an urban village almost. Because there are almost no tall buildings in central Paris (save for the Tour Montparnasse), there’s none of the epic scale of Manhattan, and the feel of day-to-day life is a relaxed, almost languid one. The lack of tall buildings is one factor, but the profusion of very old buildings—some from Medieval days—that vary subtly is another. It has a very human and lived-in style: it’s the difference between those cold modernist apartments that you see all the time in movie depictions of Manhattan apartment life and a big rundown home. Paris has been lived in for so long by so many that it seems almost an affront to change it.

It’s that attitude that lies behind the stance against the HLM housing in the 16th arrondisement:
Though they reject suggestions that their zealous campaigning is focused on social housing as such, the locals of the 16th are happy to recite the litany of separate problems they have found in each of the housing projects. A large complex at the Porte d'Auteuil has been labelled an "architectural outrage". A smaller building of 31 flats has been subjected to a volley of legal objections. The architects behind the project of 135 flats – a stone's throw from 846 hectares (2,090 acres) of woodland – have been accused of environmental vandalism.

"Our position is that green spaces should not be built on, for private or public buildings," said Eric Lefranc, the head of the Quartier Dauphine Environnement, an association of residents which has fought relentlessly to stop the project. The consultant and photographer, who lives on a boulevard a short stroll from the building site, insists he would be happy for social housing to come to the 16th as long as it "integrates well". He adds that the project in question – designed by this year's Pritzker Prize winners, the Japanese architects Sanaa – is "an architectural aberration" that has set the taxpayer back millions. Why, he asks, are the authorities spending so much money on "luxurious" social housing?

Like Lefranc, other residents of the 16th are adamant they are not against HLMs in principle. "It's not that we don't want them," said Martine, a local walking past the La Muette site yesterday. "It's that these buildings … are horrible. I have a friend living behind one and she's horrified." Another, a man who refused to give his name, was slightly more frank. "Personally I live on the other side of the 16th, but if I lived here I would not be delighted," he said.

The Guardian article excerpted above characterizes the attitude as NIMBY, but I suspect not in Paris’s backyard is equally at fault. The city is just so dang pretty, you know? Why would you want to change it?

That’s probably one of the kinder impulses you can attribute. The other—and you might find this familiar—is what you might call prejudice if you’re being careful and racism if you’re not. Consider that the housing in question is being designed by a Pritzker Prize winner, and yet is considered an eyesore and is wasting money on overly luxurious housing. Part of this attitude is the French contempt for flash: recall that Sarkozy was nicknamed "President Bling Bling" for his overly flashy watches (and one of Carla Bruni's achievements was to make him a little less of a sartorial peacock, apparently.). But that's not all of the attitude.

The attitude might remind you of the white folk in this country who are certain welfare takes up a huge proportion of the budget, and that all governmental largesse goes straight to those lazy black people…The French, of course, have their own prejudice problems: rather than confine their social undesirables to the inner city, they exile them to the banlieu, the suburbs full of those ugly digits that so resemble our projects. Like the American inner city, the Parisian banlieu is isolated both from the economically dynamic portions of the city, but each banlieu is isolated from all the other banlieu. It’s more difficult, in many cases, to get to the banlieu directly to the east or west than to go to central Paris. Like us, the French are perfectly willing to embrace immigrant heroes (e.g. Zidane) but are suspicious of most. Hence part of the concern that the housing must “integrate well,” i.e. the residents of said housing.

But perhaps also the housing as architecture as well? The wrong modern architecture set among an old stand of housing can look wrong, without question. But the concerns are too variegated to ascribe too much to this interpretation.

The problems with never wanting to change are setting all your old problems in concrete. If you never want to allow new housing…well, you’re shutting off your city from new people. If you shut out from new people, so too new ideas. When you have no new ideas, you’re dead, aren’t you? I don't think it's an accident that the paralyzation of Paris's buildings has accompanied that paralyzation of French culture: there's something of a national freakout over France's declining stature in food, wine, film, etc., etc. Perhaps being more open would help, and being attached, even to a glorious past, can't help you be open.

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