Roland Castro: We have to do away with what Paris is today

Roland Castro : “Il faut en finir avec ce qu’est Paris aujourd’hui”, by Josyane Savigneau, Le Monde, September 12, 2009.

Roland Castro leads one of the ten architecture firms hired to work together on the Greater Paris plan. In this interview, he explains this project of unchecked ambition, which aims to reinvent urban space.

Among architects, competition is a constant. For Greater Paris, we’ve got ten competing projects going on. How do you really expect to be able to work together?

First of all, we have to be clear that this is not in fact a competition. Many architecture firms – forty or so – made it clear that they were interested in the Greater Paris project and submitted dossiers with a complete set of renderings. Ten were hired, and therefore each one has presented its vision. Naturally, there are differences, but there are also points in common. We also know each other well, especially Antoine Grumbach, Christian de Potzamparc and I. In 1974, when none of us yet had very many contracts, we got together with some others and created a discussion group. We were at war with the modernist movement. We were attached to the idea that you need to create city, and not separate objects. Because of that, today, in the six French teams that were hired, there are people who have a history together.

You are the only one, besides Michel Cantal-Dupart, who worked on the failed Banlieues 89 project.

The complete project was never finished because we ran up against the bureaucracy, but it was not a total failure. First, we opened people’s minds. We started several projects. There are still towns that are even today cutting ribbons on projects that grew out of Banlieues 89. The Saint-Denis-Bobigny light rail came from that. Also the achievement of putting the Southwest TGV line underground at Ch?tenay-Malabry.

Is there something from Banlieues 89 that lives on in your Greater Paris project?

Back then, Michel Cantal-Dupart and I made a Greater Paris project. The concepts, as we presented them at Beaubourg, are still valuable, in particular the realization that any place has the right to call itself downtown. Also, the idea that there are magical sites throughout the area outside of historical Paris, and that all of it is fertile ground. You can give each place in the suburbs the same importance that you can with locations inside Paris.

We had already thought that it was time for the army to leave the forts, which are castles. Charles Hernu was Defense Minister at the time, and he got all the military together for the project. Since then, well… they’ve done a lot of work on all the forts and the military is very well situated.

Do you feel inspired by the speech that President Sarkozy gave where he said that he wants Paris to embody “the true, the beautiful, the great, the just”?

The just, yes. We’ve had enough of suburban housing projects, enough of urban apartheid situations. Greater Paris has to be more than just a symbol of economic influence; there must also be solidarity.

Do you also approve of the President when he says that we have to get rid of zoning?

We’ve been saying that for thirty years, and it still hasn’t happened. There has always been a certain weakness on the part of intellectuals and politicians on the urban question. Even if it’s changing a bit, the intelligentsia still doesn’t really work on this issue. The urban question has never been seen by intellectuals as central because this marvelous Paris, the Paris of Baudelaire, it’s their Paris. Annie Ernaux lives in Cergy-Pontoise, but she’s an exception among writers and it baffles some people. They never leave their Paris, and they’re completely unaware of all these magnificent neighborhoods, like in Montfermeil for example, or in Gennevilliers. All these garden cities have something magical about them.

Now we’re getting into transportation problems. These magnificent neighborhoods that you mention, how easy is it to get to them?

The transportation problems are key, but they can’t take up all our thoughts. The transportation project is at this point the only one that is actually in progress. All the teams have addressed that question. We all agree that we need rapid transit, automatic metros, elevated metros, particularly above the A86 expressway. I personally also like what I call poetic transit, boats on the Seine, light rail and inclines. There are people who ride the light rail for pleasure and I completely understand that: it’s a cinematographic way of moving through the city and seeing it.

These ten projects are making everyone dreamy, but do they have any chance of seeing the light of day? Where’s the money?

It is clear that it will be at least ten years before Greater Paris sees the light of day. On the question of money, I’m not completely pessimistic. A large chunk of the stimulus could fund Greater Paris.

How do you go from ten projects to one without choosing one over all the others?

We will all combine forces into one international Greater Paris Workshop, where the ten teams will work together. There are definitely differences among the projects, but on the most important issues there is agreement. Everyone wants to de-zone, everyone wants to deregulate, everyone is in favor of sustainable development, everyone agrees that we should no longer demolish without thinking. No one is thinking of the city in extension any more, but in intensity. Obviously it’s complicated when you want to work together. It took us two months to agree on an association of Greater Paris architects, but we finally did it. It’s pretty extraordinary to be working on such a large territory – in my firm’s project, it’s a space fifteen times the size of Paris – where there is enough room for architects’ egos, even super-sized ones.

There’s also the joy of building what will ultimately have to be a new school of thought that will finally do away with the thinking that came out of the modern rationalist movement, with the Athens Charter that was published in 1942 by Le Corbusier, and built space in tiny pieces: residences here, entertainment there… A lot of things that are still happening today come from there, starting with industrial zones. We can make industrial places where yes, you have to monitor noise and pollution, but we can bust up these zones. When I was a student, the Paris Mint was a factory that employed 600 people and it was two steps away from the Institute, in the middle of town.

Looking at your firm’s project, what is the meaning of this park in La Corneuve, where the rendering has been all over the media because it makes everyone think of Central Park in New York?

Castro’s vision of a “Central Park” for La Corneuve

The Seine-Saint-Denis Legislature created a park, actually a park zone, completely cut off from urban areas, except in one tiny place. This park is bigger than Central Park. We could create a border around it, and put caf?s and theaters inside. It needs to be urbanized and at the same time made into a true park, not an empty space. We showed the apartment buildings along Central Park in our project to give people an idea of the scale of the space.

The thing is that this space isn’t the only one in need of reinvestment. Take the port of Gennevilliers, which in the spirit of Greater Paris should be both a port and a living space. The most beautiful skies in Paris can be seen from there. I’d like to see an opera house built there. I could mention many other places that could one day be as important as the Ile Saint-Louis or the Ile de la Cit?. We all agree on the idea of multipolarity. Rogers, in his project, shows us how we have to do away with what Paris is today: a body, historical Paris, with severed limbs, a suburb cut in pieces.

What would be, for you, the most beautiful success that could come from a Grand Paris?

The decloistering of living space. That it would no longer be impossible to live where you want to live. Today we go to the suburbs by default. In Greater Paris, moving away from the historical center should be one possible choice. A happy choice. If I allow myself to dream? I’m imagining that in five years I will go write a book in a hotel at the port of Gennevilliers, next to the opera house. And to announce it, I’ll have a press conference at the fort of Ivry…