The Making of Paris

Austin Williams | 13 November 2003

This year sees the 150th anniversary of Haussmann’s appointment as Prefect of the Seine, engaged to draw up the plans for Paris, one of the greatest, most audacious proposals in town planning ever seen. One-and-a-half centuries later, and in New Localism or New Centralism? Planning and the Regions, Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the UK’s Local Government Association, argues that ‘counties are under great pressure to deliver crucial functions such as education and social services and in the absence of a statutory duty it will be difficult to justify devoting scarce resources to planning’. How would Haussmann have survived if he had to deal with the miserablist tendency of modern day Britain?

It is not that Britain has ever been thus. A N Wilson’s magnificent work The Victorians explains that, at the time of Haussmann’s ascendancy, ‘progress was the watchword of the age; advance, improvement, struggle and climb’, indicating that there is something peculiarly latter-day about the British tendency towards caution. From Bazalgette to Brunel, risk takers were prepared to step forward with visionary projects and be tested in the court of public opinion. Or rather, they very often ignored the court of public opinion, recognising with bravado that their work was for the social good and that public consultation was a luxury that could ill be afforded.

Compare this, then, with the recent speech by Nick Raynsford MP, in which he attempted to reclaim the Victorian era as the period of localism where individuals made good, and civic architecture was enhanced for the community. Pretending that aspirations in the 19th century were no different from today is, at best, silly. Victorian civic architecture was an arrogant display of wealth, not an IPPR-style re-engagement with a community of the great unwashed. Furthermore, trying to recast the moment of British imperial expansion as simply a trick of the light – suggesting that it was a period that celebrated the ‘local’ – is not only revisionist, but smacks of trying to pretend that our own period’s lack of ambition – our modern day obsession with parochial values – is no different to yesteryear.

The natives are revolting

Things have definitely changed. Haussmann’s appointment, after all, was a response to the fright dealt to the ruling elite by the February Revolution five years earlier. The proclamation nailed up for the public’s consumption at the time read: ‘A reactionary psyche (the way that we think and feel about ourselves in a given space), attests to a broader malaise in modern society. Frank Furedi argues that today’s world is ‘characterised by the loss of the web of meaning through which people make sense about who they are and where they stand in relation to others’.

As such, the battle to find a renewed clarity of purpose has led to an‘ unprecedented concern with the question of identity… and the politics of recognition’. It would seem that the current infatuation with the past, with (the pretence of) unity, with cultural identity, with place as an emotional haven, or with therapeutic mechanisms to help us situate ourselves in the world, is summed up in the clamour for urban memory. As a result, there has been a rise in the ‘place-making’ industry, as new theorists attempt to counter the sense of societal alienation by associating the role of ‘places’ with our sense of self.

But the policy of naturalising personal responses to ‘place-memory’ has deposited the ownership of the discussion in the hands of activists, advocates, counsellors, educationalists and politicians, who have turned it into a significant force in designing urban intervention. In this way, real civic history is often demeaned by the celebration of any old snippet of historical memory, which is not even left to be discovered for ourselves, but is revealed, signposted and flaunted in order to give people a clear point of ‘connection’.

This consequent clamour for ‘participation’, ‘engagement’, ‘recognition’, ‘inclusion’, ‘community’, etc, may resonate across the barren landscapes of post-industrial Britain, but is so void of definitional meaning that it is proposed more for the benefit of the born-again advocates of urban memory theory (and their grant applications) than for the indigenous populations themselves. You never really see a campaign of local residents spontaneously demanding that their urban memory be protected. Conversely, busloads of professionals are regularly brought in to ‘respond’ and ‘give voice to’ local communities’ unspoken desires – desires that are often unspoken primarily because nobody really knew that they desired what is now being offered in the first place.

The memory industry

Reflecting on the rise of new ‘civic’ buildings and grands projets, Katheryne Mitchell says: ‘In the attempt to harness nostalgia and foster a sense of collective memory… the development of museums and anchoring institutions… all help to sanitise spaces and provide an image of enjoyable leisure and endless present.’

Everything is laid out so that we can be in no doubt that these creations are more than just buildings – they are symbols of place; of regeneration. Nowadays, it seems, we are building with a view to remembering. Stemming from the heritage industry’s rationale to recreate a sense – not of place, but of experience – urban memory is all about an intuitive relationship to events. This downgrades a rational and contextualized understanding of place-making history – of actions and consequences – and replaces it with a celebration for the spontaneity of the moment; the natural; the ‘relevant’. Once memory, any memory, is deemed equally valid and of contemporary elevance, then anything goes.As far as I am concerned, a little bit of critical distance is called for.

Localism and personal introspection is constantly reinforced through books such as de Botton’s that pontificate on the nature of the ordinary, which is just a philosophical game to content us with limits, and to rein in what is now perceived to be unattainable aspiration. Surely we have lost our sense of direction – lost a sense of purposefulness – when passive contemplation, instead of active intervention, is posited as a way of engaging with the world. We need to be turning outwards and understanding the world and shaping the future, not contenting ourselves with our locality, our past or our subconscious.

Nowadays, the official response is to encourage us to reflect on the interesting features of our own locality – to find ourselves in our own backyard. In essence, then, urban memory is the celebration of the parochial. Aspiring to learn from the best of the past is one thing; celebrating the mundane from the past (or any other period) is quite another.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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