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.
A groundbreaking architectural competition returns to Paris. Are its critics right to fear another fiasco?
This summer, Paris is poised to show cities around the world how to make the most out of neglected, hard-to-deal-with urban spaces.
To do so, it’s inviting architects to go underground. As part of a new competition called Reinvent Paris 2 (Réinventer Paris 2 in French), the city is asking urban designers to come up with innovative uses for 34 pieces currently unused or under-used city-owned plots—most of which are entirely or partly subterranean. Among the line-up are disused “ghost” metro stations such as Croix-Rouge, various basements of historic buildings, tunnels freed up by the banning of cars from the Seine’s lower quay, unused reservoirs, subterranean parking lots and former abattoirs.
Winning projects for these sites will then have the right to buy the plot from the city. Coming up with sustainable innovative uses for these spaces could provide a highly useful template for other cities, most of which are peppered with these kinds of apparently superfluous, inefficiently used sites
So far, so great—but a question hangs over the entire procedure. Is Paris City Hall ready to give the contest an honest effort? Reinvent Paris 2 is the second round of a competition whose first outing’s results were far from impressive, pervaded as they were by a whiff of low ambition, superficial design, and mutual official backscratching.
Such is the skepticism around the competition’s return that a group of local architects has launched a satirical counter-contest called Réinventer Pourris, a hard-to-translate pun that replaces Paris with a word meaning rotten or corrupt. Promising an award to whoever submits the most ludicrous lampoon of a current Parisian grand project, the spoof competition shows a highly skeptical attitude toward the city’s call for proposals. The story of how an optimistic-seeming attempt to revitalize neglected scraps ended up provoking such skepticism is still somewhat murky.
The problem is partly that Reinvent Paris 1 was a call for innovation, but ended up delivering nothing of the sort. The scheme, designed to find good uses for somewhat complex city-owned plots, ended up working well enough as a fundraising exercise. Selling off the land netted the city a not-inconsiderable €600 million. Design-wise, however, it was a dud. Most of the winning proposals were shallow in the extreme, delivering indifferent architecture and the flimsiest of public benefits.
They included green-clad towers where the actual greenery featured in renderings was not factored into the construction budget, but left to tenants’ discretion. Elsewhere, a co-working space set aside a space for fashion students’ runway shows that, on closer inspection, turned out to be in a basement and scarcely large enough to swing a cat in. A winner promising to grace the boundaries of the Périphérique beltway with lush gardens turned out to be a project mainly designed to create an entirely private rooftop park dotted with inaccessible luxury housing. Reinventing Paris turned out to be akin to reinventing the wheel as a rectangle. In some ways, this was a political masterstroke—dressing up a sell-off of city assets as a bold voyage into innovation.
There’s more, though. Reinvent Paris’ first round wasn’t just a case of lackluster choices. Sources involved in the judging expressed fears to CityLab that the selection juries were rigged, stuffed with city officials whose choices were dictated to them by a forceful deputy mayor, Jean-Louis Missika. Billed as a collective inquiry into how to better use urban space, the contest ended up looking like a backdoor sell-off of valuable assets, frittered away to host projects that showed the thinnest veneer of social concern. (Reinvent Paris did not respond to a request for comment.)
The same mistakes might not be made this time. Subterranean spaces of the sort offered for Reinvent Paris 2 can’t necessarily be called valuable assets. Many of them are distinctively difficult sites, unsuitable for housing, hotels or offices because of the lack of light. Indeed, Yann Legouis, one of the organizers of the Réinventer Pourris counter-competition, suggests that the contest is partly about clearing out municipal dead wood.
“It’s a strange form of dumping,” he tells CityLab. “They’ve found a way to get rid of their most complicated sites, the ones they don’t have any ideas about. The competition comes across as a way of getting money fast by offloading difficult plots.”
This actually sounds like a smart move: using the architectural hive mind to brainstorm what to do with old garages, then skimming a little extra money for state coffers off the top. The problem with this approach is that it’s inherently exploitative of smaller firms on the make. Like many architectural competitions, the contest demands large amounts of unpaid work from architectural practices only to frequently end up awarding contracts to the usual suspects. Yann Legouis suggests that this cosy closed-shop attitude typifies much official procurement in France.
“They call for proposals, but in the end the authorities go for exactly the same 10 or 20 major companies who tend to monopolize public commissions in France,” Legouis says. “It’s not that these companies are necessarily bad, but they’re not innovative either.”
Something like this happened in Reinvent Paris’ first round, where hundreds of architectural practices were encouraged to jump through an unusually arduous, expensive series of hoops only to see the same familiar names repeated on the winners’ sheet. So Dominique Pérrault Architects, already charged with creating a major official makeover for the Île de la Cité, was part of the team awarded the contract for two of the 23 first-round winners. Three further winning projects involve the Compagnie de Phalsbourg (also currently constructing two new Studio Libeskind buildings in France), a developer whose projects are developing a local name for tokenistic greenwashing.
Reinvent Paris 2 has the potential to show other cities how difficult sites can be reused effectively. If it’s truly going to become the beacon it seeks to be, however, it will need to create a procurement process that is less exploitative, more open—and more genuinely innovative.