Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
At least one local newspaper is questioning the city’s influence over a major architectural design competition.
The huge “Reinventing Paris” competition was the sort of opportunity most cities are lucky to get once in a generation. Launched by Paris City Hall last year, the contest picked out 23 key sites across the city and invited architects to think up brave, beautiful new uses for areas that were underexploited, unloved, or lackluster. Among the candidates were a bus depot, an old swimming baths, an electricity substation, and slivers of land cleared around the beltway but never built on.
While the winning designs came with attached funders who would pay for the projects, this was about more than just cash for land. Priority was supposed be given to environmentally friendly designs that didn’t just provide fresh welcoming spaces for a site’s new tenants, but also offered some general improvement for all Parisians—be it more housing, public amenities, or greenery.
Last week, the best 23 projects—one at each site—were chosen by a series of 22-member juries made up primarily of city officials. (These initial winners will be whittled down further into a best-of-the-best group that could win the chance to build their sites, with that announcement expected this summer.) The impression from the results so far: Paris appears to have totally botched it.
The winners lack a strong social concern
Overall, the competition winners seem uninspired. They’re mainly standard issue contemporary boxes with facades effaced by greenery, their bulk lurking behind verdant balconies and green walls of the sort that tend to thrive with greater lushness in renderings than in real life. Certainly there are some valuable touches—an urban roof farm here, a chunk of public housing there—but nothing that rises aesthetically above the mundane.
Looks don’t matter as much when a project offers something of real social use. On this score, the winning projects aren’t a total wash-out, but many of them are essentially hefty commercial projects covered over with a thin frosting of social concern.
Take the competition’s most eye-catching winner as an example. It’s a spaceship-style building intended for the site of a current bus station at Boulevard Pershing, a location where some of the Paris region’s most exclusive neighborhoods are marred by the passing of the busy, noisy Boulevard Périphérique beltway. The concept would bury the bus station under a huge building filled with apartments, office space, and amenities, including a new kindergarten. The terrace flanking the beltway would be transformed into a tree-filled park.
Certainly, there are things to like about the plan. Called Milles Arbres or “Thousand Trees,” the building’s new homes are designed to be 30 percent public housing and a further 20 percent rent-controlled—badly-needed affordable options in overstretched Paris.
If you look closely, however, most of those 1,000 trees (not actually guaranteed by the developers) will be entirely private, up on the roof. The small sliver of public park at street level would remain overwhelmed by the roar and fumes of the beltway directly below; the other proposals for this site wisely chose to locate the public garden away from the road.
The building’s steep saucer-like sides, meanwhile, seem mainly designed to create a huge roof space for private accommodation. On this roof will be a spacious, entirely private park filled with two-story single-family homes—up to 30 of them, according to renderings provided to CityLab. A genuine oasis inside Paris for their residents, these homes will be sheltered from street noise by trees but high enough to have clear views across to the Eiffel Tower.
These houses should be amazing. What they won’t be is evidence of a city imagining a bold new future for itself. The project essentially uses affordable housing, much of it exposed to a highway, as a pedestal on which to build something that looks like suburban Palo Alto up in the sky. Rather than looking forward, this proles below/rich above dichotomy seems like a throwback to the dystopian city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The project costs don’t make sense either. The developer would pay the city €143 million before tax and agency fees for the site, a price based on the commitment to sell the private housing for between €13,000 and €17,000 per square meter. For the rooftop homes this pricing seems, to say the least, on the low side. The current average apartment price for Central Paris is just under €10,000 per square meter—meaning the new houses will go for only €7,000 more than the average Paris price per square meter.
To recap, these are free-standing single family homes on two floors, surrounded by a unique stretch of calm, private parkland, but nonetheless in a very wealthy, fairly central neighborhood, at a height that will allow spectacular views across the city. If this price doesn’t go up on completion—making the project far more profitable than the initial payment to the city would suggest—then Paris could be about to get a clutch of the most affordable oligarch homes ever built.
Another fashion hub for a neighborhood full of them
The theme of commercial development masked as social utility continues with other winning projects in Reinventing Paris. Another key site, the Hotel de Coulanges, is a grand, 17th-century courtyard house in Le Marais that was once home to Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Montespan (the word “hotel” in its name retains the term’s original meaning of city mansion). This is an intensely gentrified area where so many regular stores for locals have been pushed out by expensive boutiques that it’s now arguably easier to buy an Issey Miyake blouse than a screwdriver or a packet of painkillers.
The winning project calls for essentially more of the same: a new fashion hub, where stores will be combined with gallery and co-working space, as well as an area where fashion students can devise and stage their own runway shows. This last aspect might sound promising, except that on closer inspection the student feature is an afterthought. A fashion concept store would occupy the entire first floor, with the upper floors devoted to co-working space. The students would be squeezed into just a third of the basement; their floor space for shows measures a total of 10 square meters (108 square feet), a token add-on that would scarcely be enough for a single model to turn around in.
What makes this missed opportunity more dismaying is that the project won against others that did more for the local community. A competitor project that also offered ample commercial space made the site’s existing public garden more easily accessible (at present it’s rather hidden away) and included room for a much-needed local pharmacy. Is opening a fashion concept store in a neighborhood that’s already full of them an example of a city reimagining its future? If so, that future may be a little less than bright.
Demanding more vision from a city-sponsored contest
That Paris has chosen predominantly commercial projects isn’t in itself a flaw. The goal of the competition was to find projects that could actually pay a good price for their chosen sites, so developers who assured commercial viability through private housing and retail space were always going to be part of the equation. But when a city-sponsored competition opens up such an impressive range of spaces, and bills itself as a quest to “reinvent” an entire city, then concepts with more vision are needed.
So why did these particular projects get chosen? Reports in the French press on the selection process, confirmed independently by CityLab, suggest the city itself may have placed some pressure on the selection juries’ composition and decision-making. Within each of the 22-member juries that chose the winners, only six members were not employed by the city. As the local newspaper Le Canard Enchainé (not available online) noted, Deputy Mayor Jean-Louis Missika actually threatened to overrule a jury’s decision wholesale when it looked like an alternative plan for the Hotel de Coulanges site might get chosen over his favorite—the one discussed above.
Paris officials of course have the right to make decisions on behalf of their electorate, but a jury of city officials that sits under threats isn’t really a jury at all. What makes the Coulanges decision yet stranger is that it was one of the least financially advantageous for the city at that site, and involved the most changes to a historic monument. In typical mischievous fashion, Le Canard Enchainé noted connections between Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the project’s sponsor, the designer Patrick Hazan, pictured with the mayor here. This project may have been about reinventing Paris, but the poor impression it has given so far is neither promising nor, sadly, especially new.