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Why did this architect want to demolish downtown Paris?

The plan would have demolished an area which had descended into squalor, but is now one of the city’s most culturally significant areas.

A model of the planned district.
A model of the planned district.
Image: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / F.L.C.

WALKING THROUGH THE exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art of Le Corbusier’s work, you would be surprised by how many of the great modernist architect’s designs were never built. They were simply too radical, and none more so than his 1925 proposal to demolish two square miles of downtown Paris.

It’s probably a good thing the architect didn’t get his hands on Paris. The area he would have destroyed, including the 3rd and 4th administrative districts on the right bank of the Seine, is today among the prettiest, hippest, and most architecturally significant neighborhoods in the city.

What’s more, the replacement of organic urban areas with huge new developments has been criticised since the 1960s for sapping the vitality of cities.

All of that said, let’s take a moment to appreciate how impressive Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin would have been.

Demolishing central Paris

To start, demolishing central Paris made a lot of sense in the 1920s. The formerly aristocratic Marais district had fallen into squalor, characterized by poor sanitation, disease, and overcrowding, as chronicled by Marybeth Shaw in “Promoting An Urban Vision: Le Corbusier and the Plan Voisin“.

By 1921 in the Beaubourg area, 250 out of 276 houses were marked uninhabitable due to tuberculosis contamination.

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Beaubourg today (Image Credit: Flickr/carpediemparis)

“Plan Voisin” called for 18 cruciform glass office towers, placed on a rectangular grid in an enormous park-like green space, with triple-tiered pedestrian malls with stepped terraces placed intermittently between them. Extending perpendicularly to the west, there would be an adjacent rectangle of low-rise residential, governmental, and cultural buildings amid more green space.

The new development would be integrated with highways, train and subway lines, as well as an airport, making this area the first thing that most visitors to the city would see.

The design sounds beautiful, as described by the architect:

I shall ask my readers to imagine they are walking in this new city, and have begun to acclimatise themselves to its untraditional advantages. You are under the shade of trees, vast lawns spread all round you. The air is clear and pure; there is hardly any noise. What, you cannot see where the buildings are ? Look through the charmingly diapered arabesques of branches out into the sky towards those widely-spaced crystal towers which soar higher than any pinnacle on earth. These translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchorage to the ground – flashing in summer sunshine, softly gleaming under grey winter skies, magically glittering at nightfall – are huge blocks of offices. Beneath each is an underground station (which gives the measure of the interval between them). Since this City has three or four times the density of our existing cities, the distances to be transversed in it (as also the resultant fatigue) are three or four times less. For only 5-10 per cent of the surface area of its business centre is built over. That is why you find yourselves walking among spacious parks remote from the busy hum of the autostrada.

The new office district would be the business centre of the city, the country, and the world — while looking nothing like the “appalling nightmare” downtown streets of New York City. The adjacent housing district would be home to the world’s business elite.

“Paris of tomorrow could be magnificently equal to the march of events that is day by day bringing us ever nearer to the dawn of a new social contract,” Le Corbusier wrote.

Five-fold increase in land value

To pay for the project, Le Corbusier counted on investment from France’s business elite, promising a five-fold increase in land value. As for the denizens of the area that he wanted to destroy, the architect said these “troglodytes” could be relocated to garden cities in outer Paris.

As for concerns with leveling such a historic neighborhood, Le Corbusier insisted that the best architecture from the district — including the Palais Royal, the Place des Vosges, and certain townhouses and churches — would be saved.

They would be, as described by Shaw, “preserved like museum pieces in the green carpet of the skyscrapers and low-rises that one would come upon while walking the curved paths of the parks.”

Now, courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier, here’s a sketch of the verdant business district:

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(Image Credit: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / F.L.C.)

Here’s a close-up showing the green spaces between buildings, with hints of ground-level commerce and transportation access:

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(Image Credit: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / F.L.C.)

This model shows the business district and part of the residential, cultural, and governmental district extending west along the Seine:

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(Image Credit: Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / F.L.C.)

And here’s what the area looks like today:

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(Image Credit: Google Maps)

- Gus Lubin

Read: Paris tries to convince locals to be nicer to tourists >

More: Paris town uses CCTV cameras to catch people who don’t clean up after their dog >

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