“We’ll always have Paris”?

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Mary Campbell Gallagher is the founder of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris (ICPP) and continues to work with SOS Paris to save the City of Light from the barbarians already inside its gate, such as Mayor Hidalgo. Gallagher has written a brilliant cry of anguish from the heart. Published in France (and hence in French), she sent it (in English) as an email to the TradArch list. Here it is.

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How Paris was destroyed

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When the masked thugs of ISIS swing their sledgehammers through Iraq’s museums and dynamite Palmyra, the world gasps and screams. But what if the vandal is a chic Parisian woman wearing high-heeled boots and talking like a visionary? What if her target is the world’s most beloved and most-visited city? Does the world gasp, or does it not even hear what she is saying? “We’ll always have Paris,” Rick tells Elsa in “Casablanca.” Yet now, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says she will “reinvent” Paris. Without putting it to a vote, she will replace the uniquely harmonious city we know with something “modern” and “contemporary.” She will pierce the low horizon with a dozen skyscrapers, replace classic stone facades with rivers of glass, and bury the famous zinc and slate rooftops under new construction. Mon Dieu! Doesn’t anyone get what Paris is doing to itself?

Wake up, world! Mayor Hidalgo will march through Paris like Sherman through Georgia. Cooing soothing words from the lexicon of global capital, she will dot that low skyline with bleeding-edge skyscrapers in bizarre shapes, one a triangle, one a stack of glass boxes, one shaped into two leaning towers. That’s “reinventing.” Right now, Paris is a city of stone. Mayor Hidalgo will add the same concrete-glass-steel texture that has made so many cities worldwide into banal clones. That’s “reinventing.”

Is the world really so narcotized, so mesmerized, by the words “modern” and “contemporary,” so intimidated by the stars of international architecture and commerce, so distracted by the mayor’s elegant appearance, that it can value Palmyra and forget Paris?

And can anyone really believe the mayor’s claims? Can any solar-panel magic make these glass structures sustainable? Will corporate behemoths really flock to Paris once another skyscraper, like the much-despised Tour Montparnasse, looms over the city’s six- and eight-story buildings?

As U.S. liaison for SOS Paris, the French preservationist group, and as founder of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris, I know this battle is just a skirmish in a larger war for Paris. We honor humanity’s delight in the uniqueness of beloved cities, Paris among them. Out-spent and out-publicized, fragilely-funded Davids, we fight for urban traditions that reach through the long and tumultuous history of Paris, defending against globalized, standardized, architecture.

The Goliaths in this drama are the deep-pocketed international corporations, star architects, and politicians at City Hall. They are the city’s free-spending promoters, pushing for a glitzier Paris. They call it a more “innovative” Paris. But that turns out to be a Paris that looks like New York, Tokyo, and all the other corporate capitals.

The mayor scored a big win last summer, when the highest administrative appeals court in France allowed City Hall to depart from the planning code and issue a building permit that will rupture the beauty of historic central Paris. Giant luxury-goods purveyor LVMH, the court said, can plunk—if you can believe it—an enormous undulating glass wall among the rows of classic stone facades on a quintessentially Parisian street, the Rue de Rivoli. Seven stories tall, without doors or windows, and at 265 feet nearly as long as a football field, it will loom up like a spaceship in central Paris.

The appeals court stressed that this alien structure is “contemporary.” But as the lower court said, in this context, it is “dissonant.” Put it in a shopping mall near a highway, and it may be beautiful. In central Paris, the ideal of urbanity, that facade is the rowdy drunk who crashes the party. Now the Rue de Rivoli will lose its glamour by a thousand cuts, one facade screaming louder than the next.

Developers argue that without such intrusions, Paris will become a museum, like Venice. In fact, Paris is one of the liveliest cities on earth. Can a glass facade disrupting the Rue de Rivoli make Paris livelier? Attract international corporations? Show me how! We preservationists do not oppose development. And Olivier de Monicault, the president of SOS Paris, freely agrees that since we must continue to build inside Paris, “demolitions are unavoidable.” We want Paris to be vital and alive, to grow. In harmony with its traditions.

City Hall has traded French elegance for globalized disruptiveness. Let the world cry out as loudly for Paris as for Palmyra! Support the people of Paris.

It is heartbreaking to think what may be lost.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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14 Responses to “We’ll always have Paris”?

  1. L.M. Valdez says:

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    Like

  2. Pingback: Thursday 10/27/16 | Tipsy Teetotaler

  3. Will S. says:

    Reblogged this on Patriactionary and commented:
    Progs hate tradition, and try to kill it as much as they can.

    Like

  4. Pingback: Cry for Palmyra, not Paris? | Architecture Here and There

  5. barry schiller says:

    Seems to me French attitudes are very bipolar – often loving modern cutting edge stuff (SST, TGV…) but also can be deeply attached to traditional landscapes and patrimony. Since so many abhor already existing modernist intrusions (e.g. Pompidou Center, Tour Montparnasse – the latter subject to the joke it has the best views from the top since it is the one place you cannot see it – a variation of this elsewhere of course,) and the modernists were given a rather free hand in nearby La Defense and it can be observed that nobody ever much goes there unless they have to – there ought to be significant opposition to new modernist ventures in Paris (j’espere!)

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    • Perhaps, Barry, but modern architecture and technological advances in transportation are two sides of two very different coins. One is practical and the other is aesthetic. You can’t really be “bipolar” regarding the two. They are not on the same spectrum.

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  6. Nikos Salingaros says:

    No, we won’t have Paris for very long. Although I’m part of the group helping Mary in her valiant efforts, I’m less optimistic than James is (!). That’s because the average Parisian actually wishes to destroy the heritage and social capital he/she has inherited. Elected officials only execute what the popular culture approves and demands. The destructive urge comes from deep within contemporary French culture, and not only from terrorist attacks that can be identified as originating from “outside” a cultural boundary.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

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    • I don’t think that it is accurate, Nikos, to say that elected officials truly reflect the popular will when the culture is designed to manipulate the public into sheepishly supporting concepts that the public abhors, and would reject if it were put to them straightforwardly. It is the purpose of groups like Mary’s to try to counteract the popular culture by providing a clear alternative. SOS may not succeed, but that is not because the message of the culture need automatically be respected. The culture could change, and even the elected officials could change. But yes, the chances that the powerful elites who shape French culture today will lose their grip on it is slender, and so Paris is likely to wither on the vine, its lights going out one by one until there is only darkness.

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  7. The barbarians are looming on the far horizon in your lead picture.

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  8. Stephen J. ORourke says:

    We won’t always have Paris. The Middle East aholes are already fucking up the place.

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  9. Hard to say I hope you’re right!

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  10. Uccchhh! A horrible prospect, BUT the good news is that the global economy is headed into the tank and the capital will not be there to execute much more damage.

    Like

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