The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


'Monuments Métropolitains': how suburban landmarks complete our understanding of Grand Paris

Isabelle Guillon argues that Grand Paris is understood only when the suburban landscape beyond the Périphérique is absorbed into our concept of the city. She proposes a personal selection of landmarks that for her form part of the identity of the city as a whole.

Cities: Paris

Topics: Integrated planning, Arts and culture, Architecture and urban design

The Boule Domexpo in Coignières, which advertises a project home display village, but also marks the frontier between the urban and rural landscapes at the edge of Paris. Photo: Isabelle Guillon
The Khanh Anh Pagoda in Evry, the largest Buddhist pagoda in Europe. Photo: Olivier Le Garrec
Footbridge over the river Oise in Cergy-Pontoise, part of the Axe Majeur built by sculptor Dani Karavan. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera
The Pompadour highway interchange in Créteil, with two methods of construction visible: composite steel girder and prestressed concrete deck, and integrated prestressed concrete beam and deck. Photo: Noé Diakubama
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I have always been surprised by the images of Paris that circulate internationally, the same clichés, the same historical centre. Having always lived in the suburbs and crossing them every day, I fully appreciate the inequality of development between the centre of the metropolitan area and its surrounds. Of course historically this is due to the concentric structure of its urban growth and its transport network, going back to the old walled city. Nevertheless it has always seemed to me that the tireless attention given to the same historical central spaces contributes to a certain denigration of the suburbs, hindering a holistic perception of the metropolitan area necessary to the planning of Grand Paris.

For the majority of people I speak with, it is as if the Paris within the Boulevard Périphérique (the freeway that girdles the city of Paris) is the City of Lights par excellence, where the buildings are beautiful, the streets wide, the monuments worthy of interest; but that beyond the Périphérique reigns only boredom, ugliness and worse, chaos. Our vision of the territories outside the Périphérique needs to evolve, to understand that they are part of this Greater Paris.

To act upon the image of Paris ... is also to throw oneself against the sensibilities so peculiar to Parisians, who consider Versailles to be in the countryside and that no cultural life exists but within their walls!

To better promote the qualities of these places will allow us to value their local initiatives as well as the needs and aspirations of residents whose living environment we denigrate too often. These areas are rich, dynamic, beautiful, and powerful! And recognising this could contribute to the construction of a true polycentric metropolis.

To act upon the image of Paris and its peripheries is in my opinion to transcend the image of the petite ville-musée (little city-museum) that attaches to it, and to give it wings to soar into the 21st century. It is to transgress an international symbol — city of lights, city of romance, city of luxury — and so it is also to throw oneself against the sensibilities so peculiar to Parisians, who consider Versailles to be in the countryside and that no cultural life exists but within their walls! It is to act so that the entire urban ensemble be considered a single discrete entity, with multiple facets, certainly, but whose oneness is incontestable.

An identity founded in monuments

In my work as an architect, I chose to pursue the concept of monuments as vectors of communication for the places they crystallise. As artefacts of urban heritage, they are key elements in the process of identity construction: one is constructed in relation to where one lives, has lived, the landmarks and the places of memory one holds in one's mind. Everyone lives in a state of permanent tension between a reality in constant evolution and the need to maintain elements of coherence with the past. Monuments represent these elements of collective history which give a sense to the territories within which they are implanted. We associate with these landmarks and meeting places an ensemble of values and our sense of belonging to a common history or territory.

Using monuments to transform one's understanding of the urban landscape and reveal its evolutions is a method used time and again throughout the history of urbanism. Among the most interesting moments is Outlook Tower in Edinburgh, which did not gain its status until the Scottish planner Patrick Geddes installed a museum of the city there in 1892, leading visitors up the tower with an intellectual reading of the city before offering up a physical reading of the landscape from the roof.

In 1960 the land artist Robert Smithson declared a series of mundane objects along the Passaic River in New Jersey within the New York metropolitan area to be monuments, among them a pumping derrick, effluent outfall pipes, and a sandbox, creating an exhibit of them and transforming the riverside into a picturesque park.

From similar ideas was born the project Monuments Métropolitains which I have been developing since my dissertation at the Ecole Nationale d'Architecture, Versailles in 2008, in an effort to create a register of monuments of the suburbs, which one can add to the canon of Parisian monuments well known to the tourist guides.

The project is based on a series of workshops in which monuments are progressively identified by participants through a series of physical explorations, during which they are photographed and mapped. It seeks to construct a movement based on local representations of the environment by its inhabitants, offering a dematerialised platform for sharing these representations, including a website where people can propose 'their' monuments. With each inhabitant adding their stone to the edifice, as we say, an entirely different understanding of the metropolitan region can be built.

And just as we admire the technological prowess of the Eiffel Tower, let me also admire that of the Pompadour freeway interchange in Créteil.

A personal selection

To illustrate, allow me to share some of the monuments that comprise part of the identity of Greater Paris to me. One such monument is the Boule Domexpo, a sphere 3.5 metres in diameter composed of blue and white plastic panels, on which the logo of the company Domexpo is plainly visible. Lighting up at night and posed alongside the national highway number 10 in the outer suburb of Coignières, it does not simply advertise a developer of freestanding houses but marks the limit between the suburban fringe of the city and its agricultural hinterland. On one side lies commerce, railway stations, recreational institutions, and on the other, houses nestled at the edge of fields. This sphere signals the Parisian agglomeration in the same way that the Romanesque church down the road used to signal the centre of the town of Coignières.

If we are to admire Versailles, let us also admire Cergy-Pontoise. Both were new towns built with the objective of decentralising power from Paris: displacement of the royal court to better control it for the former, and decentralisation of the public sector for the latter. And both have a monumentality conveyed in part by the use of artificial axes. In Versailles, these were the three grand avenues — Paris, Sceaux and Saint-Cloud — that converge upon the château. At Cergy-Pontoise, the sculptor Dani Karavan has built the Axe Majeur, a work three kilometres in length of architectural and landscape interventions focused on a bend in the Oise River.

Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the symbols of the country, whose size and beauty make it one of the most visited monuments in France, perhaps in Europe. Yet the Khanh Anh Pagoda, which the Dalai Lama opened in the suburb of Evry in 2008, is the largest Buddhist pagoda in Europe, housing a statue of Buddha weighing five tonnes and covered in gold leaf. With its importance for the city's Buddhist community, its dimensions and its works of art, it should be monumentalised along with the better known cathedral and churches of the city centre.

And just as we admire the technological prowess of the Eiffel Tower, let me also admire that of the Pompadour freeway interchange in Créteil. With curved viaducts in composite steel girder and prestressed concrete deck built by incremental launching, and other bridges in integrated prestressed concrete beam and deck, it is a monument to the glory of the automobile and to progress which continued the history of the city's industrial advance.


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