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.
After a criticized first installment, the city's design competition has a wider talent pool and a fairer distribution of commissions to redesign urban sites.
When a city’s transportation infrastructure undergoes a massive transformation, what happens to the obsolete hardware? Architects and planners in Paris have been seeking answers to this question over the past two years, as part of a competition launched by City Hall.
Called Reinvent Paris II, the competition invited designers to come up with uses for a list of subterranean and marginal sites owned (with two private exceptions) by the city, or its transit authority RATP. Paris has long had a good deal of these: its subsoil is a honeycomb of tunnels, garages, sewers, and catacombs, while above ground it has a fair few historic road and rail links now supplanted by alternatives. In recent years, however, pro-pedestrian, pro-bike policies have notably swelled the number of these spaces, as pedestrianization along the Seine quays has closed tunnels and policies steadily phasing out access for more heavily polluting cars have made parking less of a priority.
These recent policy shifts under Mayor Anne Hidalgo arguably reflect an ongoing drop in car use as much as they have sparked it. Between 1992 and 2017, the number of cars in inner Paris has dropped by 32 percent, while over the last 23 years a remarkable two-thirds of Greater Paris’s gas stations have closed. Faced with a city scattered with unused remnants of transit past, the city used Reinvent Paris II to offer up sites including a ghost Métro station, a road tunnel rendered useless by nearby pedestrianization, spaces under elevated RATP tracks, and an old garage near the beltway.
With the winners announced in January, work is nowunderway on eight of the selected schemes. Their success has been mixed, but there’s something distinctive about the competition and its winners. Bar a few impressive sites, most choices offered were fairly unappealing, consisting of the sort of ill-sited scraps and remnants of now-dead schemes that developers wouldn’t normally bother with. Most-discussed so far has been a plan to transform the ghost Métro station of Croix Rouge into a cocktail bar and restaurant, the first use of a subway station in this way anywhere in the world.
Lying unused beneath a street near Saint-Germain-des-Prés since 1939, the station will have its facing platforms transformed, according to a design from SAME Architectes into a twin bar and dining room looking at each other across the tracks. Once the novelty has worn off, it’s hard to see how this space would attract daylight customers, but it does have an interesting, theatrical twist. Trains on Line 10 will continue to run past the former ghost station’s partly glassed-in platforms, giving both straphangers and diners a brief, hallucinatory glimpse of each other.
There are some other eye-catching plans. Notable among them are an edible insect farm—something the European Union is still in the process of making legal—intended for the sunken plaza of an eastern Paris modernist housing project built in the 1970s, and a vineyard to be planted on the bed of an old reservoir whose wines will be matured in underwater chambers. Overall, however, the projects are quite sensible and understated. A former “automated parking lot” in which cars access via lift is becoming a storage unit, an outdoor climbing wall with an attached restaurant will appear under Line 6’s elevated section in southern Paris, and a former garage skulking beneath a northeastern feeder road to the Périphérique will be converted into a small, possibly polluted, urban farm and e-commerce depot.
These sites don’t need fireworks, and some winners are almost studied in their modesty. Along the Seine, one winning project sees a car tunnel which used to feed vehicles onto the now pedestrian quayside reimagined as a bike and pedestrian tunnel stepped seating and bikeshare stations. The wall will be punctured on the riverbank side of the tunnel, but otherwise not a lot will happen.
That’s no bad thing. If pragmatic projects like these don’t necessarily set the pulse racing, the competition is still an improvement on Paris’s recent record. Reinvent Paris II, as its name suggests, is the second installment of an already established redevelopment competition, one whose initial round gave some cause for concern. Offering a far more valuable and conventional set of city-owned sites, Reinvent Paris I’s lackluster results led to Mayor Hidalgo’s administration being accused of favoring large-scale developers with connections to power, selling off development land in a quasi-transparent process that delivered boring, superficially green-washed designs. These included an apartment building shown smothered in greenery that, it turned out, would rely solely on plantings by tenants, and a site with great potential near the beltway where applicants proposing public park spaces were rejected in favor of a design that used the building to create a private forest for luxury penthouse buyers.
The contest’s second round was initially dogged by fears of a repeat performance, but officials seem to have paid some attention to the criticisms. For a start, they’ve been picky. Of the 33 sites initially open to proposals, the city has only granted winning status to 20. That could be a reflection of the difficult sites offered, which meant fewer viable plans were submitted, but it at least shows that the boards examining the proposals didn’t just lie back and think of the money. Meanwhile, of the projects accepted, only 10 have gone to major developers, making for a wider talent pool and a fairer distribution of commissions.
Indeed, the modest choices could in themselves provide a useful template. As Paris refashions its transit, it is likely to become well-populated with outdated infrastructure made for private automobiles. In a city whose subsoil is already a honeycomb of sewers, tunnels, and catacombs, these sites don’t automatically require shock-and-awe urbanism, they just need to be gently re-knit into a greener, cleaner urban fabric.