Paris Moderne: The Emerging New Metropolis Scale

Gordon Matta-Clark, Anarchitecture

The production of urban space is always an exchange of contentious forces, and the Parisian story is a very complicated one. The operative alternatives were influenced not only by Haussmann and the Beaux-Arts tradition, but also by the two great wars and their following reconstructions, by the political and social conflicts, and by the intellectual currents of the day.

When we think of Paris and its magnificent landscape, it is the city of Haussmann’s nineteenth-century with its clear and omnipresent agenda that we envision.

The Second Empire’s projects have long determined the discourse on urban planning in Paris. They have become the familiar framework for understanding the city as the “capital of the nineteenth century” and the modernity associated with the grand bourgeois experience. [1]

Paris, France

Twentieth-century Paris is far more ambiguous. It is a city that seemed to ‘stumble’ through two world wars, a vast number of “plans” and “visions”—some of them carried out until the 1960s.

Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin

The production of urban space is always an exchange of contentious forces, and the Parisian story is a very complicated one. The operative alternatives were influenced not only by Haussmann and the Beaux-Arts tradition, but also by the two great wars and their following reconstructions, by the political and social conflicts, and by the intellectual currents of the day.

Edmund Texier, Tableau de Paris

Renovating Paris was paramount to restoring the nation. However, there was no great outpouring of high modernist avant-garde schemes for the capital. Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and its legacy dominate the stage, and even this was ‘haussmannisation’ carried to an extreme. Baudelaire defines it as the “newness of the present” or the terms of a whole new metropolitan experience, although the exceptional changes of the first half of the twentieth century certainly qualified as revolutionary.

The following set of articles, under the theme PARIS MODERNE – The Emerging New Metropolis Scale, focus on the twentieth-century planning debate from the 1920s through the early 1960s. More than size and style, the question of scale here is in the sense of what are we to make of the ‘limits’ that modernism in twentieth-century had set to break? How have those new limits re-shaped the city of Paris? I am interested in the boundaries that such revolutionary style has defined upon la ville lumière of the nineteenth century, and to understand how Paris was imagined and invented as a twentieth-century city.

Take an airplane. Fly over our 19th century cities, over those immense sites encrusted with row after row of houses without hearts, furrowed with their canyons of soulless streets. Look down and judge for yourself. I say that these things are the signs of a tragic denaturing of human labour. They are proof that men, subjugated by the titanic growth of the machine, have succumbed to the machinations of a world powered by money.

— Le Corbusier 1967 [1933]: 341


Images: i Aerial view of Paris (taken from the Eiffel Tower)   ii Edmund Texier, Tableau de Paris, Paris, 1852, I, 65 // Cross section of a Parisian house about 1850 showing the economic status of tenants varying by floors.   iii Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin   iv Conical Intersect, Gordon Matta-Clark, 1975
Footnotes: [1] Wakeman, Rosemary. Nostalgic Modernism and the Invention of Paris in the Twentieth Century. French Historical Studies – Volume 27, Number 1, p. 115.
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