Transforming Paris: “Le Grand Paris 2030” as a Post-Kyoto Metropolis

© 2009, Paul Lukez,

The problem of city-making today is as much about making new cities as it is about transforming our existing metropolises, especially suburbs, and edge-city developments. The suburban metropolis is relatively young. We have yet to develop coherent strategies for transforming metropolitan agglomerations into urban configurations that are ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable while creating environments that are memorable and provide architectural delight. Recently, French President Sarkozy ambitiously addressed these issues by bringing together teams of internationally recognized designers, prompting them to develop bold visions for the transformation of Paris and its suburbs.

Images of Paris represent an urban ideal – a jewel in the history of city-making. A network of broad avenues designed by Baron Haussmann in the 19th century connects civic monuments and beautifully shaped public spaces. This network is overlaid on a rich urban fabric that has evolved over 2000-plus years along the River Seine. Pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are connected to an extensive metro system servicing the city’s 20 Arrondissemonts (or districts) located within the inner city’s boundaries.

Yet this urban ideal (which is not without its own problems) is largely contained within the limits of “le Périphérique,” the 33 km long ring road that circumscribes the city’s boundary. Only two million people live within the inner city, while more than eight million live in the suburbs. The suburbs have been the site of social unrest and riots. High unemployment, poor access to transit and poorly designed housing developments represent but a few of the pathologies plaguing Paris’s poorer immigrant suburbs. Other suburban challenges include addressing limited accessibility between suburbs and the city. In addition, as the girth of the city expands, the surrounding landscape and its ecology is threatened. What is to be done about these problems?

The Challenge: a Greener Grand Paris for 2030

Enter President Sarkozy, the former Interior Minister who witnessed firsthand the consequences of the 2005 suburban riots in La Courneuve. Sarkozy has endorsed the presidential tradition of taking on a Grand Project to improve and enrich Paris. Where Pompidou built a high-tech art museum in the heart of the city, and Mitterrand added a glass pyramid to the Louvre, Sarkozy has decided to focus on the suburbs in particular and the Parisian metropolis as a whole. In September 2007, he set up a commission to identify and select 10 architects to head up multi-disciplinary teams, including in some cases geographers, transportation engineers, social scientists, and even philosophers. The President’s charge was simple: dream up bold visions for transforming Paris into a model “Post-Kyoto Metropolis of the 21st Century.”

The Results

The results of these ambitious proposals are on display now as part of an exhibition “Le Grand Pari de L’agglomération Parisienne” shown at the Cité de l’architecture until November 2009. They are impressive in their scope and scale. Most importantly, they address problems and provide solutions that pertain not only to Paris but also to metropolises around the world. Therein lies the great promise of this undertaking, in that it can serve to advance this important discussion while providing a rich repository of solutions.


The proposals put forth by the design teams offer an illuminating analysis of Paris’s metropolis and associated problems. The imagery is often spectacular, especially the renderings by Jean Nouvel, Studio 09, Antoine Grumbach, and Studio LIN. The viewer is offered the physical translation of ideas into form, problem into solution, waste into opportunity. While a single paradigm or solution cannot possibly solve the complexity of the challenge of re-making the contemporary metropolis, there is nevertheless evidence of some re-occurring themes tested in the proposals.

For instance, some entrants focused on the densification and intensification of underutilized areas by layering new buildings, programs, and infrastructure onto the existing metropolis. These kinds of transformations often required the introduction of new building types or hybrid types (combined building types, different uses, even integrating infrastructural systems and landscapes). This strategy adds to the kit of parts available to heal the scars of past development patterns.

Many participants addressed improving connectivity through the integration of infrastructure systems as a way of reducing the time devoted to transit and improving metropolitan access. The integration of multi-modal systems and the overlay of new systems create more efficient and effective transportation networks.

The discussion of the sprawling metropolis cannot exist without addressing the role of nature and ecology. Inventive strategies for integrating nature into the metropolis were readily evident. The River Seine and its valley can act as a revitalized armature for urban development models that are ecologically sensitive. In other proposals, forests and farms re-inhabit the metropolis, pumping oxygen and recreational opportunities into the metropolitan domain.

The city is no longer a dominant center fed by secondary communities on its fringes. Instead, the metropolis operates as a polycentric/multi-nodal conglomeration. Recognizing this reality requires an infusion of infrastructural, urban, and architectural interventions to strengthen the dispersed metropolitan nodes and the connections between them. The metropolis can evolve into a meaningfully interconnected and layered network of nodes, each intensified with uses and amenities. Infrastructure plays a special role in this strategy.

A Sampling

While the space allotted here does not allow for a complete overview of the designs, some of the proposals and their concepts are highlighted below.

Sir Richard Rogers, Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners

The Rogers team proposed ten guiding principles for a metropolitan Paris, addressing its governance, economy, transportation network, and environmental footprint. The design strategy focused on creating a new metropolitan armature that helps to bridge the physical barriers of the city and create a new compact polycentric metropolitan city by strengthening transportation interchanges.

Transforming existing infrastructure systems into a new green armature helps overcome existing barriers between neighborhoods. The existing large swaths of rail lines segmenting the city are partially submerged. New multi-layered, multi-purpose parks bridge the rail lines and help to re-stitch the city’s fabric while providing water-purification systems, renewable energy sources, recycling centers, and other amenities.

Antoine Grumbach and Associates

This proposal builds on Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1802 concept of “Paris-Rouen-Le Havre” functioning as “one single city with the Seine as its main road.” It views city-making as a regional scaled enterprise. By overlaying a lattice-like system of infrastructure (high speed trains, public transportation, road networks, open space, and even art installations) onto the existing cities and villages that inhabit the Seine’s broad valley, nature and urbanity are interwoven as part of a higher order metropolitan network. This strategy gives greater accessibility to regional cities and creates greater clarity about the metropolis’s form and order. The question arises as to whether, in extending the reach of the metropolis, this strategy perpetuates sprawl, or whether it pre-configures the metropolitan form and limits its destructive tendencies.

Jean Nouvel

This Pritzker Prize-winning architect recognizes that the complexity of the project is so big that one can “only pick a few points of intervention.” One of Nouvel’s tactics is to transform the non-descript towers, slabs, and underutilized public spaces of the modernists’ failed housing developments. In his expert hands, the monotony of these structures is transformed into a rich and varied collection of hybrid building types. By selectively demolishing parts of buildings, altering unit layouts, re-defining entries, and adding building skins, the possibilities of a new identity for its residents emerge. He also proposes re-thinking the role of the surrounding landscape, its forest, and farms. Clearly defined green zones are brought into the city, to the front door of residences and neighborhoods, offering community farming and recreational opportunities. Nouvel’s renderings of crystalline towers, immersed in the transformed fabric of housing estates and re-constituted landscapes, are powerful in conveying a bold future for the metropolis.

Bernardo Secchi and Paola Vigano / Studio 09 team

Italian architects Secchi and Vigano think of the city as a kind of “porous sponge” with special attention centered on a system of waterways. They propose transforming the metropolis based on an understanding of the ecology of the Seine River and its supporting tributaries, as well as the network of canals and harbors. Their plan even anticipates the impact of global warming on the metropolitan topography. By layering future developments and systems, Paris is given a new “spatial structure without destroying the city.”

Finn Geipel, LIN Team

This subtle and sophisticated proposal calls for a full range of architectural and urban transformations. It recognizes that change will not be instantaneous and will take time. Time-lapse images show how neighborhoods and districts can change over time as part of a compact and multi-polar metropolis that “engages urban qualities and natural wealth.”

Winny Mass, MVRDV

The Dutch firm MVRDV calls for a “Paris Plus” agenda, promoting “more ambition, more density, more efficiency, more ecology, and more compactness.” Most interesting is MVRDV’s proposed use of its software and web-tool. The “City Calculator” (developed in collaboration with The Why Factory at the TU Delft) is a planning tool designed “to support sustainable planning.” This tool utilizes qualitative and quantitative parameters to develop design proposals that can evaluate the city’s “potential behavior” and performance comparable to other cities.

Next Steps

Since the architects’ presentations in March, Sarkozy has announced a major new $50 billion infrastructural initiative supporting “complimentary proposals” for improving and extending the subway network between suburbs and other destinations like airports. The more challenging problem of implementing the full range of ideas presented in these proposals is complicated by the economic crisis and decision-making processes governing the metropolis.

Yet this ambitious design initiative may prove to mark an important moment in Urban Design history, when significant governmental financial and political capital has been dedicated to re-thinking the very real problems associated with the metropolis and its suburbs. The negative impact of sprawling metropolitan design around the world can be tied to economic waste, environmental degradation, as well as social and health-related issues. Transforming the metropolis into more sustainable and higher order systems that integrate urban and natural systems is a challenge requiring continued attention by designers, politicians, and the general public.

Paul Lukez, AIA – LEED AP, is a practicing architect / urban designer, and author of Suburban Transformations (Princeton Architectural Press). He has taught at MIT and other universities in the US, China and Europe.

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