GREAT PUBLIC SPACES
We are always wonderfully surprised by what we find happening in front of the Hotel de Ville, Paris’s city hall. No other city hall plaza comes close to this one. We think it is a model for cities around the world. Each time we go there, we come away with a new respect for the Mayor and what he is doing to show off his great city. The last three times we have visited, it has been full of activity that draws on the unique qualities and assets of the larger Paris community.
The first time there was a skating rink on the plaza where anyone could skate for free (though people had to pay to rent skates). Next time we found an exposition of organizations that represented cultures all over the world. And the last time we found a beach with lounge chairs and umbrellas, where parents relaxed while children played ball on the sand surface. It was wonderfully innovative. Most cities would be afraid of who would use the chairs and never try it. Paris and its mayor thought about the possibilities and then did it.
The Eiffel Tower’s best effect is that it radiates out over both sides of the Seine for quite a distance. With no skyscrapers in central Paris (except the dreadful Tour Montparnasse), the Tower is a kind of compass, a landmark that is identifiable from almost any neighborhood in the city. Not only is it a great icon, but it is also an intensely active space at the base, on the Tower itself, and in the parks and streets that surround it. Catching a glimpse of the Tower from afar is a thrill, but its influence on the immediate surroundings is just as impressive.
Perhaps no iconic building in any major city receives more attention than this spectacular cathedral. As fascinating and detailed as it may be, Notre Dame derives its awe-inspiring presence from a setting that few other buildings can match. Many visitors view the cathedral from the Place du Parvis Notre-Dame, a plaza located in front of the building’s façade. But you are more likely to encounter Notre Dame from one of the many vantage points along the Seine that afford breath-taking views of its flying buttresses. Located on the eastern tip of Ile-de-la-Cité, one of the two small islands in the center of Paris, the cathedral appears to rise from the Seine like an ancient formation of sculpted rock. It is one of the most unforgettable urban vistas you will ever encounter.
The pleasures of Notre Dame don’t stop with the view. It also offers little flourishes like small parks and gardens, along with a playground for children. Playing or strolling in the presence of this landmark is a rare experience that many lucky Parisians enjoy daily and no visitor can afford to miss.
The Musée d’Orsay displays mostly 19th century art, bridging the collections of Paris’s two other premier art museums, the Louvre and the Pompidou. Formerly a railroad station and hotel, it is also a public building of the highest order and a prime example of adaptive reuse.
The majestic, light-filled nave of the old station now serves as the museum’s central space. Preserved elements, such as the enormous station clock, contrast engagingly with the new ramps, catwalks, and partitions. Smaller galleries branch out from this main area, forming a periphery of more intimate spaces. Together with the plentiful seating, this layout enables visitors to linger and explore freely, unlike linear museums in which you proceed from gallery to gallery. (Although main attractions like Cézanne and Van Gogh are housed in more traditionally sequenced rooms.)
In addition to the galleries, the museum restaurant and café make particularly innovative use of adapted spaces. The museum’s only drawback is its remoteness from the rest of the city; it is isolated by a surrounding set of lifeless roads and an excessively aggressive section of the highway along the Seine (Quai Anatole France).
The city’s monuments, parks, and cultural attractions may have a higher profile, but Paris’s retail buildings are the unheralded asset that helps weave the city together. Despite the over-trafficked streets that severely diminish the experience of walking along the main boulevards, the amazing storefronts of Paris are the best in the world. As you walk along the great shopping streets, you become transfixed. Observe closely, and you can tell how numerous storefronts have adapted over time. Sometimes it is a carefully placed sign, a well-lit window display, or a small outdoor amenity that is in the perfect place for passersby to stop and notice at the right moment. These little touches set the rhythm for the choreography of the street. All the great streets in Paris share this attention to detail.
WORSE THAN AVERAGE
Musée du Louvre/Jardin du Carrousel
Many people consider the Louvre to be the best museum in the world, and that may be true if you only consider the collection. As a public environment, it could use some improvement.
Without exception, the streets that surround the museum are uninviting and devoid of attractions. The new park just north of the museum’s entrance, the Jardin du Carrousel, is a disappointing link to the Tuileries. Designed to function as a promenade connecting the two spaces, the Jardin might as well be a void for all the attention people pay to it. Simply enlivening the park with supporting uses related to the area’s history of art could make it a promenade as renowned as the museum nearby. Currently it is a waste of valuable land.
Similarly, the central courtyard that surrounds I. M. Pei’s entranceway could support much more varied activity. As is, the courtyard feels dull and one-dimensional when you use it. But there is nothing inherent in the design of the famous pyramids that discourages activity; in fact, it is a space waiting to come alive. It could be one of the world’s great squares, with art of all kinds displayed as exhibits, markets of juried art, performances and shows that draw from Parisian venues, or food from various regions of France. Compared to the variety of activity offered in the nearby Tuileries, the Louvre’s main entranceway comes up short. The greatest art collection in the world deserves better.
Paris has great parks, but no great squares. The Louvre, together with the Place de la Concorde and l’Etoile (the traffic circle around l’Arc de Triomphe), is one of a trio of major opportunities to create such a square, just waiting to be seized.
HALL OF SHAME
An epic exercise in hubris, this library became instantly notorious for storage areas that didn’t protect books from sunlight and high-tech retrieval systems that frustrated even the most patient patrons. Functional problems aside, it is even worse as a public space.
Merely entering the building is a chore: There is no natural entranceway or gathering place to meet someone before going in. The windswept central platform and the stairs that lead up to it serve no apparent function; they merely obscure the purpose of the building. If you can find the entrance ramp without being blown over by the hurricane-force gales generated between the library’s towers, you’ll be dwarfed by its walls, which are seemingly designed to humiliate each user that enters and leaves the complex.
The “park,” a sunken garden located in the center of the structure, is completely inaccessible for no apparent reason, and the interior of the building is a mishmash of corridors and spaces that are likely to confuse anyone trying to use the facility. A true disaster!
Forum des Halles derives its name from the historic market structures (Les Halles, affectionately remembered as “the stomach of Paris”) that were demolished to make way for the nearby Centre Pompidou. It is hard to imagine a space more dissimilar from its namesake. Forum des Halles is essentially a subterranean mall; it completely disorients you from the real city on the surface. To experience a city is to be aware of one place merging into the next, to encounter a staggering variety of stimuli continually flowing all around you. But traversing Forum des Halles is a deadening experience; every time through we have been gripped by the urge to leave as quickly as possible. It is covered aboveground by a park that no one ever seems to visit, consisting of a fussy, unconnected set of elements. We encountered the ultimate sign of a failed space at one of the entranceways, where we found some of the most overt drug-dealing we have ever witnessed in Paris.