Ian Klaus is senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He is a co-author of Summary for Urban Policymakers: What the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C Means for Cities.
Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris documented the tumult, traffic, and street life of the French capital over three days in 1974.
Paris looms so large in the global cultural imagination—from Hugo to Hemingway, from Madeline to Moulin Rouge—that you don’t even need to be there to be looking at it.
At the Art Institute of Chicago, Gustave Caillebotte’s 1877 impressionist masterpiece “Paris Street; Rainy Day,” with its wet cobblestones, carriages, umbrellas, and one prominently featured electric lamp, functions as a kind of portal back to the City of Lights: That’s what Paris’s own mayor, Anne Hidalgo, found two years ago during the North American Climate Summit, when, thousands of miles from home, she almost inevitably found herself with a glass of wine and facing the Caillebotte’s Paris portrait. Wherever you go, there’s Paris, a shining metropolis full of romance and reverie.
Forty-five years ago this fall, the French writer Georges Perec spent three days on Place Saint-Sulpice, creating a portrait of a decidedly different Paris, one notable not for its monuments or cultural pedigree but for its simple, peopled everydayness. He sat in cafes and bars, noting the perambulations of his fellow Parisians, and catalogued their stuff: their cars, buses, dogs, kids, bags, newspapers, mail. Rather than celebrating Saint-Sulpice’s stately architecture or imposing church, his intent was to describe “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”
The result was An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, first published in the French journal Cause Commune in 1975 and as a small book in 1982. (Marc Lowenthal’s English translation was released in 2010.) It’s a pamphlet-length memento of the capital at the end of “Les Trente Glorieuses”—the three optimistic decades of prosperity and growth immediately following World War II. Nearly half a century later, it’s a remarkable document of what’s since changed, and also of what hasn’t.
The text doesn’t guide the reader, offering no narrative movement or historical sweep. Instead, it’s merely a collection of moments and details. “Rue Bonaparte, a cement mixer, orange,” Perec writes. “A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86 [bus].” Dropped into the Café de la Mairie alongside him, the reader is free to make his or her own decisions and judgments. Take it with you to any cafe in any city, and Perec will be both your drinking partner and your tour guide, drawing your attention to each little detail coming and going.
An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is hardly canonical—Perec, who died at age 45 in 1982, is not well known outside of fans of experimental fiction. He may be most famous for his novel La Disparition (in English, A Void), which was written entirely without the letter e. But make no mistake: The little book is a masterpiece of city writing. In Ulysses, James Joyce look more than 700 dense pages to explore 24 hours in Dublin; Perec uses less than 60 sparsely populated pages to document the better part of three days in mid-1970s Paris. Where Joyce gives you the ambitions and loves of his protagonists, Perec focuses solely—and much to the urbanist’s delight—on movement. There is no plot, no character development, no arc spread out over volumes or even chapters—only the persistent movement of the city around a sedentary observer. “People, in waves, continually.”
As Perec knew, the movement of people through a city space is its own kind of performance. In his final book, the French theorist and unintentional urbanist Henri Lefebvre claimed that city dwellers perform on the street like horses in a dressage competition. “Humans break themselves in like animals,” he wrote. “They learn to hold themselves.” Indeed, Stanford professor Ato Quayson, who has spent years researching and observing Oxford Street in Accra, Ghana, argues that no urban planner can legislate the interactions that take place on the urban thoroughfare. Strolling Ghanaians, he notes, rarely wear headphones, as dynamic interactions demand their full attention. Walking down Oxford Street, he says, requires improvisation; to walk there is to perform, to signal to others—merchants, motorists, other pedestrians—through “rhetorical codes” based on movement.
The French social scientist Michel de Certeau called these statements “pedestrian speech acts.” Swerving, stopping, even window shopping, he argued, transforms the urban spaces around us. Walking is much more than going from place to place—all of which sounds very theoretical until you’ve tried to walk across 6th Avenue at rush hour, navigate Shibuya Crossing, or, for that matter, read Perec.
In Perec’s Attempt, each observation is a snapshot of Parisians living their daily routines, but also performing for each other. “Most people are using at least one hand: they’re holding a bag, a briefcase, a shopping bag, a cane, a leash with a dog at the end, a child’s hand.” A man tries to enter a cafe but pulls rather than pushes on the door. Tourists stand taking photographs. “A man who just bought a pack of Winstons and a pack of Gitanes tears off the crystal (cellophane) envelope of the pack of Winstons.”
Even as they appear to be moving at random, these people are signaling to each other, and to the cars around them, in a physical language embedded in muscle memory by years of practice. “Automobiles follow obviously privileged traffic routes,” Perec explains; “it’s much less noticeable with pedestrians.” Indeed, the whole project can be read as a museum of Parisian walking styles and codes in 1974.
But Perec’s project also anticipated current research on a number of urban issues. In his 2013 working paper “The Kind of Problem a City is,” Luis A. Bettencourt, then of the Santa Fe Institute, develops a quantitative analysis around density and the value of—to deploy a non-technical phrase—people bumping into each other. Cities are shaped by transportation infrastructure and land use, he argues, but they are most importantly sites of social interaction. “The central idea is that cities are first and foremost large social networks. In this sense cities are not just large collections of people, they are agglomerations of social links.”
So while his experiment is a solitary one, Perec does not truly sit alone: He is still part of a larger urban organism. At one point he recognizes a face in the street, a “distant acquaintance (friend of a friend, friend of a friend of a friend)” who comes by to say hello and stays for a cup of coffee. And An Attempt at Exhausting Paris is a portrait not just of the Paris flâneur, but also of mobility itself—of the movement of people and vehicles of all kinds:
A small bus goes by: Club Reisen Keller
I’m cold. I order a brandy
A car goes by, its hood covered in dead leaves
A motorcyclist goes by, pushing a very new red Yamaha 125
For the umpteenth time the 79 rue de Rennes auto-driving school car goes by
A little girl with a blue balloon goes by.
He counts buses. Why? “Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: They cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable … The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic.” Of course, the interaction of the regular and the anarchic is at the core of the text, just as it’s at the core of the urban experience, then and now. Sit drinking a glass of bourgueil at the Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice today, and you’ll still see the 86 roll by at regular intervals—except during strikes!
On the other hand, Perec’s description of the square’s traffic may seem a curious streetscape to readers in decades to come. In his Paris of 1974, people share the streets with cars, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks and dogs; there are no signs of the bike lanes and car-excluding bollards that have become hallmarks of Mayor Hidalgo’s efforts to reclaim pedestrian space and reduce car traffic. Similarly, on San Francisco’s Market Street, Manhattan’s 14th Street, or around the Cerda’s superblocks in Barcelona, the preeminence—even the presence—of cars is in retreat.
This may only be the beginning. Even where different modes of transportation interact, the mix of speeds that give An Attempt its texture of controlled chaos may disappear. The mobility chapter of Sidewalk Labs’ master plan for Toronto, for instance, envisions streets separated according to speed of movement, including streets for autonomous vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians moving together at the same clip.
It may well be that, 45 years from now, the mayor of Paris will pick up Perec’s little gem of a book and not recognize the way people move about the city. But some generalizations, viewed here in their specificity, will hopefully still ring true. Perec ends his exercise in exhausting the great capital simply, timelessly: “Four children. A dog. A little ray of sun. The 96. It is two o’clock.”