Place for Protest
Metropolis / 10.2014
In Paris, rituals of political discontent are traditionally celebrated on the Place de la République. It is a favorite kick-off point for the countless marches that define democracy in the French capital. But before taking to the street in a slow moving procession, crowds block traffic all around the esplanade, creating a gridlock that can cripple the city from the Sacré Coeur to the Opera. Meanwhile you get to unfurl banners, chant, and shout slogans. It’s legal. It’s good clean fun.
Well, no more.
Two young architects, Pierre Alain Trévolo and Antoine Viger-Kohler, from the TVK agency in Paris, have won the competition to redesign the esplanade. A messy worksite for three years, the new Place de la République is at long last fully operational. But Parisians have yet to take the measure of the transformations. The noisy demonstrators and angry strikers can still meet there — and they do — but they can no longer prevent others from going about their business. The pristine venue proposes a new model for participative democracy: an all-inclusive rather than a divisive approach.
Have the architects betrayed the rebellious spirit of the place?
At the center of the plaza was a massive bronze statue on a monumental pedestal, symbol of the French Republic. Inaugurated in 1883, it stood in the middle of a hub, on a traffic island, surrounded by cars angrily negotiating the tight circle. The statue is still there, in the same spot, but it no longer at the center of it all, controlling the geometry of the place.
The architects have extended the plaza behind it, not in front of it. They have marginalized the 80-foot tall allegorical figure, working behind its back, so to speak.
A Symbolic Orientation
It was a radical choice — a move intended to de-institutionalize the plaza, effectively changing its symbolic orientation. Where people used to get together under the watchful eye of a central authority figure — the statue — they now come and go peacefully, as they please.
“The statue still functions as a rallying point for various political groups,” says Trévelo, “but the presence of demonstrators no longer excludes other activities on the site. Skateboarders, tourists, old people, kids with parents, and workers on their lunch break can happily co-exist with activists defending a cause.”
Today, the sparsely planted plaza is a vast patchwork of gently buffed concrete blocks, smooth as a sand beach at low tide. It is a gleaming emptiness that reflects the Parisian sky. The emphasis is on horizontal lines. The huge NW-SE rectangular esplanade, as long as the Eiffel tower is tall, feels limitless, its perimeter seemingly receding into the distance through a slight haze.
At one end, next to an inch-deep mirror pool, a flat, glass-enclosed pavilion, with a sweeping cantilevered awning, serves as a café. At the other end, a low wooden platform provides a communal seating arrangement. On the backside – the sunny side — two shallow terraces compensate for the slightly convex profile of the plaza. For flâneurs in search of privacy, these two quiet enclaves are observatories from which to survey the scene.
Each section of the plaza is modulated to adapt to different usages and events, from concerts to tournaments. In one area, old-fashioned outdoors board games can be rented for free. In another, people seat on steps and open their laptop. The monument — restored, refurbished, and repurposed — acts as belvedere. On and around its pedestal, transformed into a viewing stand, couples dance day and night, ballroom style.
Quietly, the architects have achieved a paradigm shift. They’ve replace the circular model of the Panopticon prison, in which a centrally located watchman keeps inmates under constant surveillance, with another model, still experimental, one in which the control is in the hands of residents, users, and taxpayers — a kaleidoscopic entity.
A Regulation-Free Zone
It has worked out, so far. Since the reopening of the Place de la République in June 2013, there was only one instance of police intervention, during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in July 2014 (the protest had been banned, an exceptional measure that had angered many). Otherwise, the plaza is a regulation free zone. There are no barrier, no fence, no railing, no keep-out signs: climbing, jumping, skateboarding, roller skating, bicycling, dancing, picnicking, drinking, kissing, sitting, sleeping — you name it — is allowed. Miraculously, absence of rudeness is the rule, the only rule, apparently.
“But public spaces are messy,” says Trévolo. “We know that. We chose solid, sustainable and substantial building materials that can take the beating, are easy to clean, and can be replaced without difficulty.”
He believes that quality is among the most cost-effective security measures. In France at least, people instinctively respect things that are well designed, well built, and well maintained – the Continental version of the Broken Windows theory.
Still, anti-social behavior cannot be eliminated. French philosopher Michel Foucault, author of Discipline and Punish, the famous 1975 treatise on the mechanisms of surveillance, reminds us that the concept of freedom breeds its opposite: “The 'Enlightenment', which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines,” he noted. Taken for granted, the idea that you can’t have freedom without strict law enforcement measures is often invoked to justify the war against terrorism and the culture of surveillance prevalent today.
But there are pockets of resistance to this notion, particularly among urban planners and architects, Trevelo and Viger-Kohler among them. Restrictive security norms are not the inevitable price we must pay for living in a democracy, they contend. In urban settings, trying to lower risks by segregating different activities is the wrong strategy. A better alternative is to create opportunities for multimodal interactions between groups and entities.
In this spirit, they convinced the city to restore two-way traffic on three sides of the plaza to lower the level of frustration of drivers (and reduce their antagonism toward pedestrians). For the same reason, they opposed measures designed to curtail the number of cars. On the far side of the esplanade, they created a special slow lane for cabs and buses, allowing motorized vehicles to share the pavement with foot traffic. They fought to insure that bicycles could circulate freely among skaters and strollers. They designed low profile access ramps for delivery trucks, minimizing their inconvenience in the eyes of the public.
A Threshold Between Now and Henceforth
Each of their proposals was motivated by a desire to de-compartmentalize the use of space. “Our idea was to create an open-ended programmable esplanade,” they say. “We can’t predict how the technology will evolve and transform usages, but what we can do is try not to foil future developments. The public venues we design act as thresholds between now and henceforth. Our work is unfinished, on purpose. We wouldn’t want it any other way.”
There is no shortage of skeptics in Paris to denounce the gentrification of the Place de la République — the gentrification of protest, no less. I was one of them — my first reaction, when driving by in a cab last Fall, had been annoyance, like when a favorite second-hand bookstore closes and is replaced by an overpriced sandwich shop. Mine is the woebegone generation: things we didn’t even know we liked are taken away from us all the time.
My disenchantment was put to a test recently when I walked across the wet Republique esplanade on a rainy day. I expected a wind-swept plaza, I discovered an enclave of equanimity. Each step I took lifted a weariness from my shoulders. I felt free. Elated even. I began to skip. No one was watching me.
1/6 - A new regulation-free zone
2/6 - The Place de la République can now make room for both cars and people
3/6 - The reflective pool has become the focus of the plaza
4/6 - Demonstrators are as welcome as skaters and dreamers
5/6 - The entire neighbourhood is now revitalized
6/6 - There is always something happening Place de la République