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Architecture - Urban DesignEn France avec la Berkshire Review

A New Permanent Exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris (English Version)

Flower Tower (2004), ZAC Porte d’Asnières, Paris, Edouard François, architecte. Notez le eucalyptus dans le parc devant! Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.
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Le Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.
Le Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

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Pavilion de l’Arsenal, Paris

Paris, la métropole et ses projets, permanent exhibition

One arrives in a city and what to make of it all? Everything is either small or larger or noisier or quieter than you expected. In reaction, one seeks out the history of a place. In Paris, one of the best places to start to understand the city’s architectural history is the Pavilion de l’Arsenal, which has recently redone its permanent exhibition, Paris, la métropole et ses projets. One of the unique aspects of Paris is the way the many museums, at least the national ones, are meant to fit neatly together like Métro carriages. The Musée d’Orsay (freshly renovated) takes over from the Louvre in the revolutionary year of 1848, followed in turn by the Centre Pompidou and so on. But there are always pieces left over, with enough overlap to resist any amount of fist pounding. For Paris enthusiasts there is the Musée Carnavalet on the history of the city and for architecture and urbanism there is the Arsenal and the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine at the Trocadero. In comparison, the Arsenal is more contemporary, more open-ended, more Paris-focused and perhaps less concerned with monumentality.

Including as it does the entire metropolis, the story which snakes along its walls is almost more than can be absorbed in a single visit. Reflecting the Arsenal’s mission, it is heavily weighted toward the present day, with perhaps 50% of the panels devoted to the post-war period. This is the period visitors to Paris are, often understandably, most likely to filter out, at the expense of a lot of interesting contemporary architecture. Dutch, Scandinavian, Spanish and Japanese architects tend to get more press at the moment, leaving the today’s French architects under-studied and underrated. For those seeking an alternative tendency, or tendencies, in today’s architecture it is worth trying to understand their “French Touch,” to borrow the name taken up by a prominent group of young-ish French architects.

In Paris, most new architecture is in the outer arrondissements, where it wrestles with the grands ensembles of the post-war period. It is well known that an awful lot, and an awful lot of awful-looking architecture was built in and around Paris after the war. The great strength of the Arsenal exhibit is that it tells this story without editorializing. The well-chosen, sometimes rare images are supported by factual information, with the visitor is encouraged to draw patterns for themselves. Although the centerpiece of the space is a 37m2 maquette numérique (a screen bigger than many Paris apartments) based on Google aerial imagery and including existing and future projects, I would have liked to see a few more maps in the wall display, especially in order to locate those projects situated in less-familiar parts of the city.

The exhibition reinforces what is even more forcefully evident on the streets of Paris — repeated variations on a struggle between an urbanism of grand ideas and an urbanism of fine grain. This is nothing new, Victor Hugo articulated the whole dynamic in Notre Dame de Paris, a novel which is among other things an ode to the gothic and the sensibility it represents. In Paris, each period of major change seems to have been followed by a period, particularly fascinating, of reaction in which architecture returns to that gothic sensibility, if not to the style itself; back to building lot by lot, window-frame by window-frame, door handle by door-handle. An architecture which fascinates resists an architecture which overwhelms, or at least tries to enliven its leftover gaps. Haussmann was followed by art nouveau, then art deco (in a way one of the biggest projects of all, the Métro, begun in 1900, could be considered a reaction to the tyranny of the boulevards, since it allows them to be bypassed at high speed, underground, a kind of urban editing, a Paris with the boring bits cut out). Even Garnier’s Opéra, its urbanism the ne plus ultra of Haussmann’s moment, seems to me to project in its extraordinary proliferation of hors de catégorie detail a rebellion against straight lines and order. It is a building different in kind from other public buildings of the Second Empire, such as the rather chilly churches of the period (Église de la Trinité, Sainte Augustin…).

Flower Tower (2004), ZAC Porte d’Asnières, Paris, Edouard François, architecte. Notez le eucalyptus dans le parc devant! Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.
Flower Tower (2004), ZAC Porte d’Asnières, Paris, Edouard François, architecte. Try to spot the eucalyptus tree in the park! Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

The Arsenal exhibit unites many images one might not find anywhere else. The magnificently illustrated issue of Paris Match published in July1967, “Paris dans 20 ans,” is an extraordinary relic of delirious high modernism, gleefully envisaging a Paris laced with autoroutes and huge skyscrapers. It makes President Mitterand’s grands-travaux, which were the main game in town in the real 1987, look like sand-castles. It was not a fantasy; in 1965 the total renovation of almost all the outer arrondissements was considered. Most of the contemporary projects show in the Arsenal, we can be thankful, come out of a long period of reaction against such tabula rasa modernism, a new eclecticism which perhaps began most visibly with the Centre Pompidou (1977) and continued most effectively with the sensitive work of architects who came to prominence in the 1970s, such as Christian de Portzamparc and Roland Castro. They brought back a truly urban vocabulary of streets, squares and sometimes playful constructional detail which continues to characterize the best new French architecture while it protects French cities, mostly, from the urbanism of the unrestrained market which reigns elsewhere. Next week we will explore a good example, a project as exemplary as it is experimental on the rue Rebière in Paris’ north.

At the Arsenal (and at this link) an excellent map, 150 Architectures Paris XXI siècle, is available for those on the trail of the most interesting contemporary architecture in the city.

Alan Miller

About Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and holds a BFA in film from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. Alan Miller reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, and other sports in his letters from Sydney. He won the 2011 Architects’ Journal Writing Prize.

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