The French President and Paris

The sustainability and urban design world is all abuzz about the results of a design competition sponsored by the French president. The charge to architects: remake Paris. You can see some of the entries here in a slideslow.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, from a scholarly point of view. This reminds me of the early days of model cities, where designers behave as though cities are as malleable as clay on a potters’ wheel. I’ve actually written about model cities: in particular, the Futurama and the Democracity from the 1939 World’s Fair, though it’s pretty far from what I work on now. The trouble for all of us with our models is in implementation–the difficulty associated with trying to manage incremental change into cohesive whole. It’s much easier to dispense with what’s here and start over. That would be keen. In my own efforts at self-reform, I would start over at age 24 and make myself a size 4. 🙂 And then there’s the autocracy. There’s nothing wrong with making models, per se, but how many places are there where we could even think about cities entirely remaking themselves, or cropping up as a cohesive whole? There’s Paolo Solieri’s Arcosanti–which is out in the middle of the desert because he couldn’t derive it in the middle of a functioning metropolitan region. Then there are the cities of the UAE, like the carbon neutral city, driven via rigid power hierarchies and volumes of liquid cash.

Which brings me to the point about governance. Can you imagine President Obama sponsoring such an event for an American city? No. The fact that the French president is acting like the mayor of Paris in some regards here is an interesting note on the centrality of cities to federal politics elsewhere in the world. In some respects, this president has been very smart: in highlighting one of the jewels among world cities, he’s basically used the same strategy as leaders in Dubai–he’s trying to sponsor the eco-city of delight–and in so doing, he’s gotten himself a lot of international ink. He’d never get such ink pursuing new federal health care reforms in France.