After centuries of additions and alterations, the centers of most major European cities have reached urban climax, finished and complete, their historic stature and designation compounding the sense of their untouchability.
No city is more “finished” than Paris, and within Paris, no quarter more complete than Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine where Notre Dame presides, along with the Palace of Justice, the Prefecture of Police, and the vast Hôtel-Dieu, the city’s oldest hospital. Despite the fact that the island is the historic center of Paris, with vestiges of the pre-Roman village in front of Notre Dame, most of today’s buildings on the island were built in the 19th century, conceived and constructed during and just after Georges-Eugène Haussman’s renewal of Paris. Remnants of the older city do remain at the tip and at the edges of the island, and within some of the 19th century buildings: the Palace of Justice surrounds the Sainte-Chapelle and absorbs parts of the original Gothic palace, leaving sections of the turreted Conciergerie untouched.
Parisians are protective of their city, one of the most beautiful and historically intact in the world, but sometimes practical need gives way to adjustments: e.g., I.M. Pei built his Pyramid in the Louvre courtyard to better accommodate the hordes that descend on the palace. Pei’s strategic insertion of that glass structure into the cour d’honneur of this holiest of French holies caused a seismic controversy.
So it is with keen interest and curiosity, mixed with caution and trepidation, that Parisians have flocked to see “Mission Île de la Cité," an exhibition on display through April 17 in the lofty ground-floor Gothic halls of the Palace of Justice. There, Paris architect Dominique Perrault, Hon. FAIA, and Philippe Bélaval, president of the Center of National Monuments, have jointly proposed the unthinkable: making major architectural and infrastructural changes to the island’s historically designated structures, and the urban spaces in and around them.
Perrault is an architect trusted by the establishment: an unreconstructed modernist, he built the National Library of France along the Seine in the 1990s, the last of Paris’s grands projets; just last year, he renovated the Pavillon Dufour at Versailles as an entrance pavilion, the eyes of France looking over his shoulder. In a dialogue with Pompidou curator Frédéric Miygarou, Perrault, for his book Groundscapes (Hyx, 2016), expounded on his interest in exploring the ground as a subterranean form of architecture.
The architect, working with Bélaval, took the whole Île de la Cité as his site, but he expanded it conceptually to include the space above and below the ground plane, developing it in all x, y, and z dimensions. He proposed adding atop buildings and in courtyards, taking advantage of any reasonable spatial opportunity; and he proposed digging beneath buildings and squares, creating a vast underground.
Perrault’s plan is displayed on the outside of a large rectangle of walls in the middle of a forest of Gothic arches and vaults; each wall of the exhibition is composed of panels onto which explanatory images of the island in its past, present, and future incarnations are projected. The 3D digital images afford an experience more immersive and accessible than traditional exhibitions featuring analog models and drawings.
The accretions Perrault proposes are hardly visible because he hypothesizes his interventions in glass and steel, built on existing classicized stone structures otherwise left intact. Perrault effectively adds a new city of glass in, around, and under the existing stone one in order to vitalize and humanize a streetscape deadened by vast administrative bureaucracies housed in architecturally closed buildings. Tellingly, the poster image for the show is a section cut through the island, revealing a new site that resembles a vast ocean liner with a multi-level city below deck.
Perrault uses rooftops as building sites, as well as many courtyards, which he encloses with glass canopies or fills in with complementary structures. He adds programming—housing, shopping, and restaurants—meant to both populate and animate the island beyond the 9 to 6 daily bureaucratic routine. Essentially, Perrault is extroverting introverted typologies to diversify the island’s constituency and bring the city to life.
Ubanistically, he establishes a long, narrow square in the middle of the island: the vast, graphically paved Place de Lutèce, much like the Piazza San Marco in Venice. An urban event, the square leads from the Palace of Justice to the Conciergerie and the Sainte-Chapelle, bringing the whole urban ensemble to a focus in a core open space. Perrault claims and develops the south flank of the island as a landscaped promenade overlooking the Seine, itself furnished with glass-covered barges whose restaurants, exhibition spaces, and concert chambers, along with a floating pool, animate the quais.
Though still a conceptual proposal in formative stages, Perrault’s plan is both a daring act of urban renewal and a new paradigm for renewing historic urban cores. First, it critiques and corrects the existing urban fabric: that the 19th century buildings are historic does not mean that the district fully works. Those architects and planners were building a utopian vision of academic classicism that was a totalizing, one-size-fits-all approach that left the island academically correct, richer perhaps in idealism, but much the poorer in humanity and granular detail. What remained of the more humane medieval fabric of apartment buildings with ground-floor stores was isolated at the edges and at the prow of the island; it was effectively marginalized. The self-contained, self-important buildings housing officialdom, designed with elevated architectural rhetoric symbolizing their administrative status, hardened and chilled what had been a more gentle and animated neighborhood that developed around the cathedral.
If Pei’s Pyramid convulsed Paris a generation ago, Perrault’s proposal is at once more sweeping and less controversial because it unobtrusively grafts a glass city of crystal barnacles onto the stone city, leaving the stone architecture dominant. In the renderings, his accretions are barely noticeable, and to the extent they are, they are ordered and regular, extending the ordination of the Beaux-Arts buildings. His graft is far more gentle to the historic fabric than the 19th century buildings were to the medieval town, even though the Haussmanian structures represented the most advanced thinking of the time.
Perrault is not advocating a tabula rasa, and the materiality of glass hardly challenges the surrounding framework of stone. He is simply finding opportunities in the interstices of the existing fabric into which he can plant new, vitalizing growth that re-humanizes the island—or, as he says, “[makes] the heart beat again.”