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Last letter from Europe and thanks to all blog commenters

July 10th, 2009 · 9 Comments

Before I post my last couple of days of observations, I just have to thank everyone who has posted comments while I’ve been gone. It’s been a total pleasure to read people’s comments, additional information, disagreeing posts, lengthy descriptive essays, and just everything. I hope everyone reads all of the comments because some of them are, as the Brits we’ve been talking to here would say, “just brilliant.”

So we’ve spent the final two days of our big circle tour through France-Spain-Italy back here in Paris, which can sometimes be exciting and sometimes can feel overwhelming, dirty, tiring, noisy, annoyingly hipsterish or trendy, expensive, and filled with cigarette smoke. We felt some of the latter as we come to the end and are tired and longing to sit in our own garden.

But as always, a few experiences help remind us of what we like. Out for dinner along Canal St. Martin on Thursday night, we ended up in a small Basque restaurant, the kind where you end up talking to the people at the neighbouring table and then the people next to them. It turned out our neighbouring table were a couple of artists from New York/Boston, Howard Goldkrand and Beth Coleman, who are in Paris until September working on an art project. (And the people next to them were a couple of midwives who were impressed with the couple’s baby and their home birth nine months earlier.)

Being modern-art klutzes, we didn’t totally understand what the project is ultimately going to look like — Beth and Howard said they’re looking for special sites in Paris to create psychogeographic pieces that will involve, at each place, an installation plus some kind of film or video that people can get on their cellphones when they’re at the site. Beth was saying it’s a little difficult to find fresh places in Paris, because so many parts of it have been so fetishized, and the two of them are looking for “anti-monumental” sites in order to avoid the picture-postcard syndrome.

All part of a special fellowship they got in order to create art in Paris. Does Vancouver have anything like that? (By the way, Howard visited Vancouver — and loved it — when his installation, Mirror’s Edge, was at the VAG a few years ago.)

Other thought-provoking adventure — my visit to the relatively new architecture museum at the Palais de Chaillot. Besides being the best place ever for a panoramic view of the Eiffel Tower, the museum also is a shrine to France’s obsessions with certain key aspects of its architecture. When I was there, they had exhibits on rooves (complete with fresco reproductions), church sculpture (with reproductions of columns and doorways from churches around France) and … social housing.

As I read the texts describing this or that pioneering new project in Rennes or Bayonne or Paris, it became apparent to me that France sees its social housing as a chance to undertake architectural experiments of the most radical kind. It was interesting to see that the whole focus of the exhibit was on the buildings — no people ever appeared. Instead, it was all about the design, which ran the gamut from futuristic to neo-modern.

If there’s anything the French seem to love more than preserving their heritage, it’s blending ultra-modern buildings into their fabric. No surprise, really, since Le Corbusier pioneered the grand apartment towers that social-housing builders of the U.S. admired and emulated with disastrous results.

One final exhibit at the City de l’architecture was the 10 proposals for remaking the city of Paris that were the results of a competition initiated by Sarkozy. The introduction to the show began by noting how impossible it is to re-design cities because they grow organically and have no system of governance that seems to be completely able to control them. Cities are typically divided into all kinds of separate fiefdoms that essentially prevent any one body from being able to have any effective authority over the whole urban organism.

In spite of that, the 10 teams took a run at massive re-designs. Anyone going to Paris who’s interested in architecture or design should really go to see it, as it’s impossible to describe. Each of the 10 teams has designed complex exhibits with renderings and animations that perform amazing visual feats. One image that sticks in my mind — one of the teams imagined new urban hubs around the periphery, with cities made up of clusters of tall, thin, glass pyramids.

One thing they all had in common, though: They all were concerned about Paris’s disconnect from its suburbs (so they planned massive new transportation networks). They all imagined a much denser Paris, with new floors and infill drawn in. They saw it as needing more green, with gardens and walkways everywhere. And they planned in all kinds of new spaces for human interaction and activity, with civic squares and walkways and you name it.

Sound familiar? I thought so.

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  • “The introduction to the show began by noting how impossible it is to re-design cities because they grow organically and have no system of governance that seems to be completely able to control them.”

    Well, actually there is a system, it’s called habitual.

    Picture this: the Mac Daddies decide to swarm a chunk of land, their enviro-friendly ladies cycle to work to save the environment, cell-talk and make rules ’til the future is decided, then hey presto we have a meeting: shut up and listen.

    As for the city, well . . .

    There is a better way . . .
    . . . oh well another time . . .

    Cynical . . . yup!

  • PS . . . so we settle for Bogey and Bacall under the bridge . . .

  • Talking about titivating Pacific Boulevard. I’m not digressing Frances: I’m talking habitual, as opposed to “organically controlled”, city.

    “Organically controlled!” You must be kiddin’!

    Michael, we discussed this a year ago and so far nowt! Remember! And huh, just what does Alan Jacobs intend . . .

    May I suggest you, Frances now you’re home, and the gentleman who questioned my “nowhere-to-nowhere” comment, start the Boulevard from Main or wherever else it, sort of, connects by a mass of, take your choice, on/offs.

    . . . and drive.

    Your first experience will be under a suffocating and confusing mass of gray daunting, no sky, ramps and under ramps swirling around whatever at the east end of the stadium: noisy and threatening. Don’t ask me how we got there, my daughter was driving: this was just the other day.

    The mass of unrelated concrete stumps defies all sensibilities. Do people actually pay good money to live in those creepy hulks? Do people intentionally design such rampant dystopia?

    We eventually hived off onto the corner where Jimmy P has that over priced in-your-face emporium.

    And where does PB eventually end up . . . well you’ve got to get under the Granville grotesqueries of gray matter, then under the ditto, Burrard, eventually ending up on Pacific which is not designed to take that kind confusing mess of traffic.

    “There is no there, there” . . . thanqxz Gertie . . .

    At least three alternative routes will get you from somewhere to wherever: that wasteland is ripe for pedestians . . . much healthier than watching some grotty b and w under the ramps . . .

    Sorry Michael, AJ will be just another itinerant take-the-money-and-run out of town expert.

    Sorry Frances, too, we need fewer nice, polite, talented goodhearted ladies like you and a few more nasty impolite old fogies like me . . .

  • PS Where does all the traffic come from? Golden Ears, Gateway, PB?

    . . . remember Shoeless Joe, “build it and they will come!”

  • . . . and the obvious corollary . . . don’t build it and they will not come . . .

  • Fred

    Urbanisimo . . . you should really switch to decaf

  • FH Bushor

    Hi Frances.

    If you recall a month or so back I posted a link to the Google Insight tool. It allows you to search what people have been searching for and more interestingly, can break down searches by country, regions in that country, and all throughout a timeline of up to 5 years.
    You remarked back then that you were intrigued by tools like these (as I am) so I though I’d throw a bit more your way. Playing with this thing is a great way to unwind from jet lag 🙂

    FYI: If you have a gmail account and log into “your account” via Google, there’s slightly more information available when you use Insight – the timeline feature is a bit more fleshed out, for example.

    So, if like me, you’re sitting around one night wondering about the (ahem) zeitgeist, you can let your curiosity run rampant and search for searches.

    I got to thinking about the current economic situation and typed in a variety of terms. I used the “location” feature to delineate Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and BC to get a nice cross section (admittedly, the Quebec data is probably limited to searches by english speakers, but …) of the country and looked at searches all the way back to 2004.

    I should mention that when you review these searches, each subregion is broken down even further, to the civic level, so for example, when you look at the term “Food Bank”, the Insight tool shows Richmond as the most dominant origin of searches, followed by Vancouver, Langley and then Surrey. Timeline wise, you’d see what on second thought should be obvious; searches for “Food Bank” skyrocket in December – every single year.

    In any case, I sat down, thought of “these times” and tried to see what I could find …

    “cheap rent”… trending up dramatically, with Alberta leading the pack

    “unemployment insurance”… Interesting – if you’re old enough to know- the Fed’s previously called it “Unemployment Insurance”, but it’s been “Employment Insurance” for years now. Does the fact more searches are being done for the former mean anything (older people doing this search?) And how about the fact that regionally, Prince George and Vernon lead in searches?

    “employment insurance” … Prince George again, with Nelson and Kamloops right behind

    so we turn to…
    “welfare” … data’s all over the place with serious spiking in Newfoundland here and there… in BC, Prince George follows only Victoria in searches

    let’s try CPP (Canada Pension Plan)… HELLO! a definite, consistent trending upwards, with a LOT of curiosity originating from Parksville, Richmond and Courtenay…

    I did a bunch of these, casually poking around, trying to imagine what’s been going through people minds. I found the results interesting and more revealing than I would have liked to think, because of all the terms I looked up, the one that really impressed me with its indisputable growth was…

    Money Mart

    .. a nice, steady pattern of growing searches, even during the bubblicious years…

    Welcome back Frances!

  • Denis

    Now you can get into some” real serious stuff” back in this place. The need for bikepaths, how many lanes for assorted groups, and just how much will the so called Olympic village end up costing. Nothing like a holdiday to clear the mind. You have no doubt noticed that the goings on in this country doesnt mean much to anyone ouside of it. Wonder what little bits of wierd goings on you will find in the first week or so back. It was almost a culteral shock for us each time we got back to this country from a couple of weeks in other countries. Some local issues just don’t rate as far up the scale as big news is concerned. But locally they sure do hurt some folks. Beutiful BC, best place on earth if you got money and the right friends. Unfortuantly many of us don’t fit that mold.

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Well deserved break for you my friend, but I think you should have turned your posts into a running column from Europe.

    It was you, too, that provided us with some excellent posts from across the pond.

    Welcome home.