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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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