Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Too scared, too dull: why we miss the French connection
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Le Grand Paris, le Petit Sydney. Wouldn’t it be funny if, after all, fascism ended up not just running the world, but saving it? OK not funny exactly. But ironic, paradoxical and scarily possible.
With over half the world’s population now urban, the future of the city is the future of the species. So the race to city-greening is the new space-race, only instead of America and Russia frantically cultivating moon rockets, we have China and the West neck-and-necking it to a sustainable urban future.
It’s unclear who will win. China remains the world’s biggest polluter. Far from compensating people with children deformed by industrial poisons, it jails them, then jails anyone who says so, the Los Angeles Times reported. Dongtan, the much-touted eco-city, wilted and died, its site a fragile wetland, its proponent reportedly jailed. Hundreds of filthy coal-fired power plants are being built, construction time 21 months. And all of it under floods – genuine valley-drowners – of greenwash.
But China is also investing hugely in clean energy. It takes our spurned solar genii and funds them. It does population control by fiat, builds the world’s biggest hydro-generator on the Yangtze (displacing millions without a blink) and, after the Dongtan collapse, plans another, Wanzhuang eco-city, to house 400,000 by 2025.
Question is, can China sustain its jugular grip on its people through the coming affluence? Will the Red Army, and other totalitarian trappings, help the eco-race, or hinder?
Competition is stiff, or stiffish. It includes the Middle East itself, in the form of Masdar City, Abu Dhabi’s typically surreal, Norman Foster-designed “clean technology cluster”. Intended, with suppressed Orwellian giggle, to position the oil-emirate as a “global new energy leader” and with the Crown Prince as CEO, Masdar resembles some giant sci-fi desert shopping-town, just marginally less psychotic than Dubai’s nutty airconditioned beach.
Europe, at the other end of the freedom scale, focuses less on new, zero-carbon proto-villages – though these are happening – than on reworking the existing metropolis. This is more challenging, but also more exciting since the implication, if it works, is that we may yet survive with our history and our freedoms intact. And the most exciting is Paris.
Paris has a history of grand projects, most memorably Mitterrand’s, which included I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid, Jean Nouvel’s Arab Institute, Carlos Ott’s Opera de la Bastille, Bernard Tschumi’s La Villette and Gae Aulenti’s Musee d’Orsay. But they were buildings; classic political point-at-ables. What Paris proposes now, under (of all people) Nicolas Sarkozy, is both more sophisticated and more significant.
We don’t expect sophisticated urban thinking from Sarkozy, whom the press love to characterise as racist, reactionary and tyrannical, who promises to “karcherise” the Roma “racaille” (or rabble) and has tantrums so bad his staff divert his plane to stop him seeing the Eiffel Tower in Turkish colours.
But people didn’t expect urbanism from Napoleon III either, who (with Baron Haussmann) so transformed Paris as to make it not only the model for Europe and the New World (see Washington, Canberra) but also the reason, some say, Paris withstood the mid-century urge to sprawl. People loved being in the city so much, the theory goes, they just didn’t want to leave. (Could this be the real reason why French women don’t get fat?) So where the Anglos got birds and trees at their windows, Paris got, well, Camus, Picasso and Gertrude Stein.
But that wasn’t Napoleon’s motive. He wasn’t making artists’ cafes. He was making straight shooting-alleys to keep la racaille in hand. The Left Bank was a spinoff.
Fast-forward to Sarkozy. A remarkable (and widely unreported) speech in 2007, just four months post-election, called for a complete “rethink” of the city. This grand-scale project was, he said, “nothing like a classic urban design competition”. Rather, it was “a collective effort to understand what cities are” and to “save our planet from imminent destruction”.
So began Le Grand Paris, a study of post-Kyoto Paris. The 10 architect-led teams included artists, poets, philosophers, sociologists, the entire rive gauche racaille). Rather than competing, they were asked to pool their imagined Parisian futures.
This was big. They weren’t just French. Not just French men. But (mostly) French male architects – that’s a triple-whammy ego-load. We’re talking Jean Nouvel, Roland Castro, MVRDV, Richard Rogers and the like. Yet they did it, and in a manner that let Sarkozy applaud their “advice, wisdom and humility”.
The schemes, analysed and discussed in Sydney recently by the French-speaking Sydney architect Tim Williams, ranged from the intensely rational (Rogers) to the intensely poetic (Atelier Castro) but the stunner was the degree of consensus. More stunning still was the agreement to co-operate in a masterplan, revealed last month, with €25 billion ($33 billion) backing, just for stage one.
In Sydney, even if such a study happened, it would be (badly) exhibited, provoke uproar, collapse in a tangled heap of broken promises and end on a dusty shelf, while some backroom smoocher grabbed the land, surgically excised all ideas and, with it, ran to some developer mate to build some depressing piece of shite.
Yet, in Paris, Sarkozy insists it is time for collective action. He proposes new networks of rail and water transport to support a polycentric city, new governance regimes, a mix of social housing, 10 major new parks and building over the Peripherique. Most significantly of all, he also proposes to increase density, building 70,000 new dwellings a year within the existing footprint, with a green belt to stop sprawl.
Already, with 5.5 million people, Paris’s footprint is less than a quarter of Sydney’s. Yet while we year-by-year decrease density, sprawl over our last strawberry fields and squabble over a few bike lanes, Paris pushes containment. Sarkozy may need his inner fascist to enact his plan, but its potential spinoffs are cultural intensity, wealth production and, that small thing, survival.
DRAWING: BY EDD ARAGON