Before we left for Paris I read Leonard Pitt’s Walk through Lost Paris, a great, albeit opinionated, primer on the planning history of Paris. Beginning with Napoleon III and Baron von Hausmann’s transformation of the city from a Medieval cesspool to a dynamic 19th century metropolis, the book provides good background for the changes in the city fabric over time. The real power of the book, though, is in the loving research that Pitt conducted of the small sites that have remained throughout the many phases of demolition and reimagining in the city. He pored through photo archives and painstakingly wandered the city trying to find exact matches and clues to the past of a building, square, or corner. He will juxtapose historic and present-day images to show you how things have changed; the most valuable resource is a historic map of the city that shows how whole streets and districts moved over time. While I never walked the city with it open in front of me, I did love returning back to our apartment to review where we had been and see if there were any historic images of the sites that I could use to imagine what had been there before me. I highly recommend this book.
I say that it’s opinionated, though, because Pitt has a very clear agenda and point of view: new is bad, and the older the better. 20th century designs and plans are often dismissed for being useless, unattractive, or both. I find this viewpoint, in any context, to be off-putting because it villainizes the necessary transformation of the physical environment to accomodate the demographic and cultural changes of a city, and threatens to “museum-ify” the city and stagnate growth. There must always be a nuanced relationship between development and preservation, and this book unfortunately misses that. As it stands, Paris and the whole of France has an exceedingly thorough planning and development policy, regulated by the Plan Local d’Urbanisme. Building facades and heights in the historic center are tightly regulated, and all new development requires significant review.
Paris has seen great changes in the 2oth and 21st centuries. I won’t get into the religious and cultural politics of immigration here, but I think it is worth noting that President Sarkozy is engaging a bold rethinking of the Parisian cityscape. The competition for a new design of metropolitan Paris features entries that all address the fatally disjointed dynamics of the city and French culture as a whole. Some are radical and some are more incremental, but I think they are really interesting. I think it’s really important to keep both history and future imaginations in mind when visiting any city. And when looking at my pictures! These are photos of contemporary interventions of historic buildings, street art, and interesting cityscapes to reflect some of the interesting planning issues I talked about above