C’est une stitch-up, Monsieur le President (V.O.)

Leon Krier takes issue with the choice of Dominique Perrault to lead the regeneration of the historic island at the heart of Paris

By Leon Krier 

 

Leon Krier

Dominique Perrault has been appointed by President Hollande and Mayor Hidalgo, to “reflect” on the future shape and use of the Ile de la Cité, the heart of Paris. The presidential ordre de mission correctly diagnoses the Ile de la Cité to be in an unsatisfactory state with a diminutive resident population. Occupying roughly two-thirds of its surface, the imminent removal of the institutional mastodonts, Palais de Justice, Préfecture de Police, Tribunal de Commerce and Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, faces the venerable island with a weighty historic change.

Over the past 20 centuries the island evolved from the scale of a provincial capital to that of an administrative centre for an imperial metropolis. Haussmann’s monumentalisation of the Ile de la Cité’s built and spatial fabric obliterated the monumentality of Sainte Chapelle and Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, demeaning their spiritual and physical preeminence. The ensuing drastic depopulation drained its economic and social vitality.

A global reflection on a possible future for the epi-central real estate is pressing.

The presidential declaration of intent could be interpreted as a wish of returning the Ile to a more civic future; the choice of Dominique Perrault, however, reveals François Hollande’s hidden intention. If his will were to invert the fatal historical trend and return the Ile de la Cité to a mixed-scale, mixed-use, mixed-activity, mixed-income, mixed-architecture affair, this choice of architect assures the exact opposite result.

Monsieur Perrault is not only the architect of the TGB (Très Grande Bibliothèque), but the sans-pareil of XXL-sized ground- and sky-scraping mono-use mega-structures. He is, so to speak the proconsul of über-scale, of an anti-civic machine-scale and -spirit. I witnessed him on a shared round-table solemnly proclaiming that his was a “mission nationale”. No less.

Perrault is expert at exalting mechanical repetition to a degree of otherworldly sublimity, cold, alien, exciting as anti-contextual abstractions may be, always deadly for the geographic or human context into which they are, with violence, unloaded. His experience with traditional urban fabric and architecture is non-existent.

Judging by the surgical embrace he performed in Luxembourg on the 1973 European Court of Justice building – the only remarkable modernist public building realised in the 60 years of European Union building activity in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg – he is not inclined to work in sympathy with given urban or architectural contexts, be they traditional or modernist. The emblematic Corten and glass palace on plateau Kirchberg, appositely named “Le Palais”, is now stripped of body and soul and entombed in an illegible clutter of tinted glass and metal.

The scandalous choice is a reminder that nothing has changed in French cultural shock-politics. The “fear of backwardness”, methodically injected into the body politic by Mitterrand and his cultural inquisitors, still permits no deviation, despite the sterile Grands Travaux, the still-born La Defense and the notorious failures of remodeling the Grands Ensembles, (except those of Plessis-Robinson by Mayor Pemezec with the architects Breitman and Spoerry.)

The last two mayors of Paris, Delanoe and Hidalgo compulsively declare that Paris needs to be reinvented. Even after the numerous referenda, pronouncing massively against high-rise, Hidalgo perforce propagates, permits and now erects scale- and character-breaking buildings within central Paris.

Since the powerful Commission du Vieux Paris was emasculated by Mayor Delanoe, citizen consultations and protests have become if not a farce, a futile struggle, their small wins regularly overturned by the Conseil d’Etat. Even a state minister is powerless against the calamitous trend: in 2012 Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira tried in vain to stop the construction of the 160m high new Palais de Justice mammut on the péripherique. She merely achieved a delay of two years. Once contracts are signed the ruinous projects can neither be stopped nor shorted like toxic investments.

The links between the giants of development, construction, finance, politics and administration are no secret. The astronomical cost-overruns at the Philharmonie de Paris, Santiago de Compostela’s Ciudad de la Cultura de Galicia, the Centro Congressi in Rome, and the hysterical expressions of the monumental follies stand as symbols of ethical and aesthetic corruption.

 

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