Paris: A Century of Change, 1878-1978
by Norma Evenson
Yale University Press, 382 pp., $30.00
Architects, town planners, and specialists in traffic circulation are much more dangerous than sociologists, who, so often, have merely served to complicate what might have seemed self-evident and simple to the historian. The errors, assumptions, and miscalculations of the former are both durable and visible: solid contributions to human misery, whereas, while sociologists may attempt to bypass history, or to render it unintelligible and unreadable, they do not seek to destroy it altogether.
What virtually all architects and urbanists since Haussmann have had in common is a loathing for the past and an overriding desire to erase its visible presence. Like sociologists, they have little time for individuals and their trying, quirky, and unpredictable ways, tending to think only in terms of human destiny: so many units in the formation of a Grand Design (or a Grand Ensemble, to use a modish French expression), as if people, in rectangular blocks of a thousand, or ten thousand, were to be assimilated to a gigantic set of Leggo. There is nothing more remote from humanity and more devoid of the human scale than an architect’s model plan for a new urban development. Even the trees are puny and plastic, and of a sickly green (chlorophile); the cars, lined up in their parkings souterrains, are gaily colored, but the people to be assigned to the new Alphavilles are not even dots.
One of the few, wry, consolations to be derived from Norma Evenson’s well-researched and implacable record of architectural insensitivity is the realization that the horrors that architects and planners were actually able to perpetrate were as nothing to those that they had meditated and that, for one reason or another—often a war, or an economic recession (both concealed blessings for the urban dweller)—they had not succeeded in getting away with. Consider Le Corbusier, in his forty-year campaign against the beauty and variety of Paris. How he hates the place! With what sovereign contempt does he treat its mindless inhabitants! Here he is already in 1925 obsessed with his grande croisée, a swath of huge expressways cutting through the center of the city, east-west and north-south, marking Paris like a hot-cross bun. And here he is again back in the 1920s, with plans to uproot Les Halles and most of the old street system between the rue de Richelieu and the rue Saint-Martin, and to erect on the vast quadrilateral of the old Right Bank thus devastated a series of tower blocks, the first of many versions of his alarmingly named Ville Radieuse. And here he is in 1931 proposing a grandiloquent entry into the projected Voie Triomphale (the triumph of inhumanity), either at the Porte Maillot or the Pont de Sèvres.
The implacable Helvetian is tireless in his assault on Paris, doggedly determined to line both banks of the river with an aligned barrier of dragon’s teeth. What is the secret of his hatred of the place? Is it the rancorous provincialism of a twentieth-century Girondin? Anyhow …