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.
The Île de la Cité has no excuse to be boring.
Given its incredible history, the Île de la Cité really should be more enticing than it is. An island in the heart of Paris that splits the river Seine like an elaborate galleon blown upstream, it has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. It houses two of Europe’s most beautiful churches—Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sainte Chapelle—one of the world’s best preserved renaissance bridges, and the former prison of Marie Antoinette. Despite this sheer tonnage of beauty and memory, the island still retains a perplexingly arid atmosphere, with little street life beyond the tourists in transit.
That could now be set to change. As the final gesture of his term, France’s President François Hollande has made a revamp of the Île de la Cité one of his key legacy projects. The plan, by architect Dominique Perrault, is detailed in an exhibition that opened at the Conciergerie last week. Still at the conceptual stage, it would see the island effectively redesigned to make it more vibrant and pedestrian friendly, giving visitors more things to see there, and, above all, providing a host of new facilities that would make the place more attractive to ordinary Parisians.
If the island is currently less inviting than it should be, 19th century planners should take the blame. When Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann smashed boulevards through Paris’ historic heart in the mid-19th century, his approach was brutal but unquestionably effective, providing Paris with the broad, elegant avenues it is famous for today. On the Île de la Cité, however, the effect was a bit like cracking a nut with a rock drill. Saving only one small section (explorable here on Google Streetview), Haussmann demolished numerous historic churches and houses to create wide, regimented streets, largely killing the intimate feel of being on an island. (That feeling is still very much present on neighboring Île Saint Louis.)
The tourist and legal quarter that stands there today isn’t ugly. Some sections are decidedly beautiful, but it all feels somewhat lifeless and monotonous. It certainly offers little in the way of places to eat and drink that would entice locals to cross the bridges to the island.
That could all be set to change. The new exhibition, called Mission Ile de la Cité, outlines some significant alterations (albeit still in speculative form) that could transform the island between now and 2045. Most dramatic of all is a plan to skin the square in front of Notre Dame of all its paving stones. This would reveal the crypt of the cathedral beneath, which could then be transformed into a glass-roofed gallery, probably filled with a visitors’ center.
A further public space would be created—again with more glass—in the courtyard of the Prefecture of Police, which would be capped with a new glass dome. In a move that could probably do more than any other to attract locals back, the entire southern flank of the island would be equipped with a new waterside pedestrian promenade, on to which pontoons and barges could be attached with new restaurants and bars. To increase the flow of strollers to these new paths, slender new pedestrian bridges leading to both banks would be added near the island’s western end.
Aware that altering anything in such historic precincts is likely to be a delicate process, the plan focuses on making the area more inviting without significantly altering its appearance. The new waterside walkway, for example, is down by the quay and thus will do little to change sight lines. The crypt gallery is, as the term suggests, subterranean, while the new dome at police headquarters covers what is currently an internal courtyard.
What the revamp really challenges is the semi-official zoning of Paris. It is no longer good enough to have a central neighborhood where only tourists and lawyers venture, one that’s alive at rush hour but dead after dark. These renderings aren’t reality yet, but they could do much to change the island’s current role as a pleasant but dull eye at the heart of an otherwise bustling city.