The administrative tribunal of Paris’ decision on May 13 to revoke the reconstruction permit for La Samaritaine on Rue de Rivoli, entrusted to Sanaa architects, provoked surprise. Since then, there has been an outburst of critical remarks against the ruling, and against the citizen associations who filed the appeal (such as The Society for France’s Landscapes and Aesthetics, or SPPEF), recognized as promoting the public interest, and the preservation group SOS Paris). With comedic excess, this particular case has become a metaphysical issue – as is always in public debate. Opinions include the belief that stopping the construction site will kill the budding economic recovery; or that France risks entering into decline; and meanwhile affronts to contemporary architecture will lead it to retreat from Paris, which has become a museum-city lacking a future and international prestige. Drawing upon such armchair discussion, some remind us that the Eiffel Tower would not have been built if similar things happened in the past. The bold rhetoric of LVMH’s counter-offensive in response to having their project thwarted masks the true questions raised by this affair.
Firstly, it is a legal matter. Despite the crisis and culture of “simplification,” the city is an area where a number of laws apply, and they apply to everyone. This observation leads to another fundamental right for citizens: the right to make appeals despite more and more restrictions in recent years, which is a source of concern for democratic function.
It is also a question of cultural heritage. Can we destroy an almost entire block in the heart of Paris in order to construct a private commercial building, such as was done in France under Georges Pompidou? A block that is moreover protected by laws covering cultural heritage (surroundings of historic monuments) and particular sites (such as designated sites in Paris)? For thirty years, the arrangements giving structure to Paris have been maintained at all costs. Here, the city and the Minister of Culture have curiously dropped their guard. And the handling has been clumsy: the favorable opinion given by a member of Architects of Buildings of France (a body of architects and urban planners serving the state) was so poorly drawn up that it had to be redone, and an amended permit was delivered to the city two days before one of the court hearings.
It is a matter of urban democracy. What is happening with Rue de Rivoli, like what happened with the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation in the public park of Bois du Boulogne, is the erection of a nonstandard building that will require modification of the local urban planning scheme. The contracting authority therefore benefits from rights that other citizens would not be able to obtain. This breach of equality reminds us that the city is not necessarily a shared space: some can exercise arrogance in regards to building. They can mask densifying measures under the guise of attention-drawing architectural activity.
Finally, it is a matter of architecture. The court duly noted the fact that the planned building’s architecture was disruptive, as LVMH wanted it to be. It was also destined to make a mark on the landscape in order to create a buzz and inform at the same time – an aspect that is logical for a store located in an already saturated commercial zone. Yet, the local plans voted on by the city of Paris (who support the project with conviction) contradict the proposed building’s intent. Neither pastiche nor disruption: the article is clear, balanced, and also forms the basis upon which the judges founded their decision to revoke the permit. Contemporary architecture, which is not involved in principle in this matter, is fortunately not one-dimensional but diverse. We believe that it is necessary to privilege a well thought out addition, and obligations that inspire creativity in this city with multiple memories. Showy architecture cannot make a city. Paris deserves better, and so does La Samaritaine.
Does this act of preservation seem justified, especially when we consider that the redevelopment project sought to inject diversity and life into the currently disused building?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
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