Does Paris risk being “frozen in formaldehyde”? The French capital’s strict historic building preservation has come under fire this month, after a major revamp of a Parisian landmark was shot down by the courts. The vast Samaritaine department store, looming over the Pont Neuf since 1869, has been shut for an extreme makeover since 2005, one that planned to replace three of its sandstone outer walls with an opaque glass shell. The rebuild’s lovers saw this proposed veil as "undulating, diaphanous." For its haters, however, it was just a "giant shower curtain." Demolition began and three facades came down, but this month the revamp’s opponents secured a court order blocking the changes (too late?). So now Paris neither has a sparkling new building, nor an old building clad in well-weathered sandstone.
This battle is about more than the shop alone. What is striking about the Samaritaine debate is the passionate reaction it has created among people who fear Paris is becoming (or has already become) a historical relic. In a letter to Le Monde, leading architect Christian de Potzamparc said that the only reason for halting the plans is to “declare the absolute authority of the past,” turning Paris into a “sad and dark museum.” Another Le Monde piece titled “Paris in Formaldehyde” compares Paris’ anti development stance wistfully with the development frenzy of London and Berlin. La Samaritaine’s owners, the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, have also chimed in, covering the site with an awning printed with favorable comments such as “Paris is not a museum and needs to be renewed.”
Feelings are strong because La Samaritaine isn’t just a regular store. With its central position in the city extending over several blocks, the building is a sight in itself, a Belle Époque/art deco hybrid that’s somehow halfway between a late Victorian casino and a 1930s ocean liner. The shop was a Parisian institution (think Macy’s, not Barney’s) until its building’s failure to meet current safety codes saw it closed in 2005. “You could buy something better at La Samaritaine” used to be a common Parisian put-down for people who were too proud of a new possession. The makeover always planned to keep the main, most recognizable façade intact, but this was never a building with which you could mess with impunity.
But is it right to mourn the plan’s rejection as evidence that a timid, reactionary Paris has lost its appetite for the new? Certainly, while largely maintaining its historic fabric, the city used to have some appetite for bold new projects – some successful, like the Pompidou Centre, others, like the Montparnasse Tower, very unpopular. Nowadays, anything this bold is kept firmly on the old city’s edge. Given Paris’ famous beauty, regretting this might seem almost insane when viewed from outside. From the inside, however, it’s understandable that not all Parisians want their city to be just a sepia backdrop to someone else’s Moveable Feast fantasy.
Arguments about this issue have another undercurrent: a sense that Paris’ place as a great world city may be slipping away. This month, a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey placed Paris for the first time outside the top five in a survey of the world’s most attractive cities, pushed out by a perceived fall in its economic power and modest growth. Someone living in PWC’s top-placed city – London – might well question the value judgments that have granted it a supposed attractiveness surpassing all others, but there’s no denying that such pronouncements knock Parisian confidence. Maybe the attitude that saw the Samaritaine’s plans dismissed shows that the city hasn’t truly woken up to the 21st century after all.
The problem with this argument comes when you look at the plan’s actual drawings. This was no groundbreaking new structure. It was a banal and rather familiar project that involved skinning the old building and placing it in a sort of architectural freezer bag. It’s hard how to see it could have been either a break from conservatism or a real adornment to its surroundings. If this was a stick to beat architectural reactionaries with, it was less a bruising rod than a flimsy tickle twig. In fact, the vocal support for the building from the likes of Potzamparc are persuasive in one (unintentional) sense. If this is what a landmark modern building looks like in contemporary Parisian terms, the city has indeed been starved of examples of good new architecture for too long.