Author Stephane Kirkland has a very rich post on how the industrial Parisian neighborhood of Bercy was reinvigorated through some responsible-sounding planning. In addition to the fact that many historic buildings - and even trees - were preserved as part of the process, two other items caught my eye.
The first concerns that part of Bercy that didn’t work.
The only part of the Bercy operation that failed was the part that was purely developed by the private sector, at the far east end of the site. 14 hectares (35 acres) had been set aside for business activities related to food and drink, partly to appease the industry displaced by the closure of the warehouses, partly also to ensure that there would continue to be economic activities and jobs on the site (keeping in mind that this was well before it was clear that the Cour Saint-Émilion would be built, much less that it would turn out to be such a success). The project was won by a consortium including major French companies BNP, Suez and Accord. They selected architect Henri La Fonta, an architect who has worked closely with bank-led developments and is responsible for some terrible corporate architecture all around the Paris region. The building on the Bercy site is an architectural atrocity that has also been unsuccessful commercially. Because of its great length, it is now acting as an urban barrier in the development of the Porte de Bercy neighborhood beyond.
Whoops! Why is this not surprising? On the other hand, I wonder if Paris would be willing to entertain a proposal similar to the Royal Institute of British Architects circa 2003 - the creation of an “X Listing”:
We suggest that a pilot study is carried out into the encouragement of the removal or radical remodelling of buildings or structures that are perceived to be particularly detrimental to the appearance and character of conservation areas. This would entail the identification of such buildings and structures on a statutory “hit list” – Grade X listing. Grade X listed buildings and structures would be eligible for demolition/alteration grants where it helps to tip the economic balance and is seen to help with positive and appropriate regeneration.
The interesting bit is that the X Listing was proposed as an addition to the existing continuum of historic building listings, of which there are 3 positive (ie, historical or worthy of preservation) grades. Like negative numbers, this is an innovation that is both emotionally satisfying and eminently useful. Probably every major city should have an X Listing.
What I really would like to know from Kirkland, however, is the following: while he makes it clear that coordinating architect Jean-Pierre Buffi studied what made other Parisian riverfront designs successful (eg, the Tuileries), I wonder what kind of studies were made about the movement of people in these public spaces. We all know how badly public spaces can fail, so I am curious to know how Buffi concluded that his design would create a dynamic, self-sustaining space. Perhaps the answer is in the second bit tat caught my eye, which concerns the crucial details of access and mobility; in Kirkland’s words, the neighborhood
only really started to come together in 1998 [ten years after the design was approved], when line 14 of the Paris subway was opened. Line 14 is an entirely automated, driverless line. It stops at either end of the new Bercy neighborhood, at the “Bercy and “Cour Saint-Émilion” stations. With the opening of this line, the early residents who had moved in when the area was nearly inaccessible suddenly found themselves less than 5 minutes from the Châtelet stop in the heart of Paris, with rapid direct access to two major railway stations.
The implication here is that, unless you can connect your design to the rest of the city in a decisive way, the design itself may be gravely harmed. Did Bercy have a close call with irrelevance? I don’t know - perhaps the train line had always been part of the larger plan. But this illustrates that a design never really ends when the designer reaches the edge of the page - the geographic reality surrounding the design is of utmost importance. Which makes various post-modern urban forms - those that pretend to not require this kind of permeability as a precondition of their success as spaces - so dangerous to the integrity of the city fabric, such as those outlined by Martin Murray:
'edge cities', gated residential communities and other privatopias, fortified office citadels, downtown renaissance zones, festival marketplaces and other enclosed shopping mall extravaganzas (p4)
In keeping with the theme that the Paris of our collective imagination was deliberately made and not just organically manifested, I’ll be looking forward to Kirkland’s upcoming book on Paris during the Second Empire and the “Plan Haussmann”.
Update: Stephane was kind enough to post a response to my questions. Since neither of us can figure out how to post comments to tumblr, here is the link to his comments, which he posted on his own site. Thanks, Stephane!
Getting from here to there
Eric Jaffee has a nice little piece in Atlantic Cities on the way in which city planners find themselves constrained in planning for better transit options. On the one hand, you have metrics, like Level of Service, that were more appropriate in times of heady growth, and when the growth of automobile traffic seemed desirable, or at least not detrimental, to the health of a city or community.
On the other - and given my Institutionalist leanings, I would argue that this is more important - the metric itself becomes a secondary obstacle, in the sense that it is anointed by the organization as a hard-and-fast rule. In fact, it is the history of adherence to this norm that becomes part of that institution’s identity, and gives rise to its intransigence, even when it finds itself at odds with other organizations, or its own mission. As Jaffee’s article points out, in the case of San Francisco, Level of Service has never had the force of a law or regulation, and yet it has led to not only poor planning choices, but outright conflict with the goals set by the city’s own 1973 policy that sought to prioritize non-automobile modes of transport. It is in this sense we shape our landscapes by the manner in which we choose to measure things, whether we are aware of it or not.
Charles Marohn, founder of Strong Towns, has quite a bit to say on the topic of standards-driven dysfunctionality as well. In a recent video, he channels Mystery Science Theater 3000 and delivers an evisceratingly funny voiceover to an engineer’s walkthrough of a “diverging diamond” traffic intersection. This design, intended to facilitate the flow of traffic without the building of overpasses, is also touted as being pedestrian-friendly, but the video is proof of quite the opposite.
Marohn has also posted an absurdist xtranormal video, where the conceptual bureaucracy of standards-driven design, concealed behind the rubric of “safety,” winds up creating anything but a safe environment for anyone actually inhabiting it. Unfortunately, it reinforces the stereotype of engineers as automata, which might be a bit unkind, as, after all, these are the people who build our solutions for us. One might consider, then, that the best we can do is give engineers the right problem to solve.
I disagree with this entirely: we should rather give our engineers - and planners - the capacity and license to ask themselves, What are the right questions we should be asking? Or, even better, what is the best outcome that we want to deliver? The ossifying processes identified by Institutionalism are always already ready to be present. In the case of San Francisco, they are attempting to replace Level of Service with other metrics. I wonder if anyone is asking themselves, What might be the unintended consequences of those?