Can Paris burst its bubble?

Three years after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced his plans for ‘Grand Paris’, how are things coming along? Announced in 2008, Sarkozy conceived of the ‘Grand Paris’ (‘Greater Paris’) project as an urban renewal plan which aims to improve transport links between greater and central Paris, to increase housing and produce a cohesive blueprint to take Paris into the 21st century.

While there was never any doubt that Sarkozy would follow his predecessors and leave his mark on central Paris, most assumed it would be with a monument – a la François Mitterrand’s Louvre pyramid or Georges Pompidou’s Centre. But Sarkozy set his sights much higher, asking ten different architecture groups from around the world to re-imagine the entire city of Paris and project it 20 years into the future. While he gave them “the absolute freedom to dream” he demanded they come up with concrete proposals to create the world’s most sustainable post-Kyoto metropolis.

The Paris that most of the world knows – the elegant, romantic world of famed tourist attractions, endless glasses of wine, berets and baguettes – is a time-warped bubble of tourism and cliché. The real Paris is a far larger, far grittier and more socially problematic affair. This pervasive romantic notion of Paris is the result of one of the greatest — and most influential — urban achievements of the 19th century. When the city was destroyed during the Napoleonic era, civic planner Baron Haussman staged a vast and ambitious  remodelling of Paris. The wide boulevards, formal gardens, and beautiful sandstone buildings were a testament to civic order and his plans has often been emulated but never bettered. So good were they, Walter Benjamin once famously described Paris as being “the capital of the 19th century”.

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