In 1915 an innovative scholar of city and regional planning, Patrick Geddes, used the term ‘world cities’ to describe “the great cities in which a disproportionate part of the worlds most important business is conducted” (Hall, 1984, p1). With the French economy now amongst the top few economies in the world, the nationally dominant Ile-de-France region, of which Paris is the heart, has recently gained international significance. Consequently, Paris is undoubtedly a world city.
But how has this position been reflected in the architecture of the city? And what urban designs have been utilised to promote this prestigious image further?
Architecturally, Paris is a feast for the eyes. The preservation of a host of magnificient historic buildings such as the Louvre, the Palais Royal, the Palais de Justice etc is a testimony of Paris’ will to become the cultural capital of Europe as much as its luck at escaping the ravages of war, fire and flood. However, whilst it would have been easy for the governors of the city to rest on these historic laurels, this has not happened, quite the reverse.
Over the last fifteen years a massive £12 million has been invested in a series of Grands Projets that has added contemporary and futuristic architectural styles to an already eclectic mix. Whilst unquestionably being “grandiose presidential gestures” (Rogers and Fisher, 1992, p53) from politicians intent on leaving their personalised stamp on the city, these projects also collectively symbolise the Gaullic notion of “la gloire de la France” and thus are standard-bearers of French national pride.
Additionally, the political decision to open the design of Grands Projets to international competition cleverly helped focus worldwide attention on Paris (which aided its claim to be the cultural capital of Europe) and, at least in terms of its cosmopolitain architecture, meant it could literally be deemed a ‘world’ city. Furthermore, though the architectural magnificence of some of these projects is most striking, it should not be forgotton that it was extraordinary French engineering feats that realised the designs. Thus the Grands Projets not only represent the emergence of the nation and cement its cultural capital claim, but they also act as publicity and marketing tools, that have a global and lasting reach, for French expertise in prestigious scientific spheres.
Individually, some of these projects also pursue a similar theme. One example is the giant glass pyramid that is juxtaposed with the classical Louvre. Breaking with convention, it promotes an innovative view of Paris and France that, once again, draws attention to its scientific and technological preponderance. Another example is the Pompidou centre which, when opened in 1977, was the first Grande Projet. Its radical ‘hyper-modern’ exterior, combined with the clock that counts down the seconds to the year 2000, blatantly projects the image of the city into the future and serves as another proclamation of French pride and self-assurance.
Two of the most recent Grands Projet, the glass pyramid (mentioned above) and the Grande Arche de la Defense, are also key elements of one of the most distinctive urban designs in Paris: the Grand Axe. This axis provides a backbone to the city and is symbolic of the ever present power of the French state. It thus transmits a message that has been intended for a national and international audience since the reign of Napoleon I (Winchester, 1993).
A further, less formal, axis is also under organised construction along St-Martin and La Villette canal in the north-east of the city (the area formerly known as the ‘red belt’). Here the process of gentrification, utilising the desirable presence of the canal, has pushed the rent of new and renovated housing so high as to price out the previous, generally working class or immigrant, occupants, leaving the area affordable to only the wealthy. From this foci of development subsequent waves of gentrification have rippled through the surrounding area and consequently, the decentralisation of ‘undesirable’ citizens beyond the boulevard peripherique has proceeded apace.
‘Cleaning-up’ the eastern area in this manner has served a number of purposes. Firstly it is far easier to sell the image of the city whose centre (within the boulevard peripherique) is without the rundown, impoverished squalor normally associated with major cities. Secondly, the redevelopment of such areas has opened up the city and uncovered a plethora of buildings and monuments with considerable historical significance which, protected under the Malraux Law (1962), have added to Paris’ image. And thirdly, the increasing diffusion of the wealthy throughout the city has begun to redress what was becoming an embarrassing east/west imbalance that effectively fractured the city in two. It has also meant that Grands Projets, such as the Cite des Sciences et de l’Industrie at La Villete and the Ministry of Finance at Bercy, also aimed at reducing the disequilibrium have a greater chance of succeeding.
Additional urban design strategies for Paris, promulgated to support its claim to be a world city, have included the expansion of local, regional, national and international transport links. At the local and regional scale many of these developments, predominantly based on Metro and RER lines, have been planned to tie marginalised redevelopment areas to the city’s hub of activity. Similarly, new RER lines are planned to directly link the city of Paris with the expanding Charles d’Gaulle airport, whilst new TGV links to England and Spain are to further increase its international accessibility.
To conclude, the city of Paris has attempted to promote its image as a world city via clever use of architecture and urban strategies. Architecturally, it has marketed itself as a forward-looking cultural capital of Europe and an innovative nation with considerable scientific station. Whilst urban planning initiatives have been aimed at heightening the city’s image via gentrification, preservation, widespread decentralisation of the ‘undesirable’ populace and increased local, national and international transport links. Seen in this way, the theories that place Paris outside the European Union core appear to be wrong.