Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Macro Level Trends – Parisian Urban Planning – A Time for CARchitecture?

The question of personal mobility and its impetus and consequences on society has been with national Government from the invention of the motor car. From the UK's 'Red Flag' Bill in Victoria's reign that required horseless carriages to be led by a warning signalman to the creation of Brasilia as a new Brazilian capital, the question of automotive regulation and integration within the very fabric of society has been a major aspect of 19th, 20th and now 21st centuries.

Thus urban planning has both been reactive and proactive to the car, from the adaption of 'carriageways' to the creation of 'motorways' whether the German Autobahns or North American Freeways; an so the car and its relative infrastructure has been a concomitant part of designing the future.

Although without question part of our everyday lives the role of the car has come to take a pre-eminent position as 'domestic-societal intermediary', serving as (in crude terms) a 'Personal Space Mobility Pod' that creates not just physical mobility but psychological connectivity between home and 'the world' – the car is largely a home on wheels.

The question of the physical and psychological role of the automobile has been with philosophers, designers, urban planners and architects for nigh on a century. In the city the horse gave way to the internal combustion engine and as seen so evidently with London's Regency Grand Houses, the Mews terraces behind such houses were converted from stables and coach-houses to garages (which in turn of course became their own dwellings with incorporated garages)

But, as we know, the turn of the 20th century promoted the high idealism of a new era, promoting forms of 'futurism' whether in art, architecture, automotive design or the ultimate amalgamation of the creative sciences toward social engineering via urban planning. The the World War 1 hiatus of this new age re-envigourated visionaries whose previous efforts had been disrupted, but the post-war 'New Europe' rebuild idealism gave 'sociological space' to creating a better tomorrow.

Most prevalent in its idealism and markedness was Modernism originating from the 'Staatlich Bauhaus' in Weimer and creating a scholastic template that strongly survives to this day. Born from a time of (health &) efficiency seeking, the notion was that human behavior and physiology was reductive so that all designed objects from desks to houses to cars could be created from the basis of sound ergonomics. The need to rebuild and create consumer goods on a massive scale also meant that ergonomics was correlated to economics – 'born from' or 'resulting in' depending on political viewpoint.

Walter Gropius was the school's prophetic father and imagineer of a standardised, modular small housing study (inc the project's financing scheme) stemming from the 1910 Berlin Planning Exhibition. However, it was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as 'Le Corbusier', whom although Swiss-French and not German was provided with the opportunity to become the most effectual and so important visionary of that period. His maturation of the Modernist philosophy and accordant design values and rules transformed the landscape from the 'grande pavillions' built as domestic showcases for nouveau-riche industrialists (their scions re-created to this day) to the 'idealised' community housing project in Marseilles called 'Unite d'Habitation' that spawned derivative versions around the world in the 1950s, 60s & 70s.

But Le Corbusier wished to have an effect beyond the limits of limited Architecture and related furniture design, thus he created a prototype of the then Modern Automobile. Unable to find financial backing he instead allied with Gabriel Voisin who also greatly incorporated a 'form follows function' ethic for the mutual cross-marketing of their simple yet sophisticated creations.
But in reality Le Corbusier wanted to see his cars in his city-scape, and that was to be a radically re-planned Paris (to eradicate the slums) in his schema 'Ville Contemporaine'.

History shows that Corbusier's far futurist concept of cruciform shaped sky-scrapers set amongst an overtly rigidly planned transport network was (rightly) too shocking for a Paris who's identity was born from the Neo-Classical, the Baroque and crucially Baron Haussmann's elegant boulevards.

Fast-forward 87 years to 2009 and it appears that a re-making of Paris is once again on the cards, under the ambitious auspices of President Sarkozy – nick-named by some quarters of the public as 'Napoleon Bonaparte Deux'.

The Greater Paris Plan appears a massive undertaking involving the eradication of the 'invisible wall' that separates the romantic core and the less than savoury inner suburbs, the generation of commercial and cultural activities right across the city and grow the Il-de-France region's economic prowess by sensitively leveraging the 12m inhabitants of the region to move beyond its 30% of France's GDP productivity rate.

Transport networks are an expected primary early beneficiary (and geographical promoter) of the Plan, with $47m worth of public transport upgrading. Additionally extended rail-lines and a new rail-Peripherique mimics the overly congested roadway to help circulate people around the suburbs.

Beyond infrastructure, leading world architects (eg Richard Rogers, Poala Vigano, Jean Nouvel et al) propose eco-skyscrapers that offer 'hanging gardens' and biomass flora cladding (as exemplified in a few Paris spots already), commentators believing this is more than an updated nod to Le Corbusier's ill-fated scheme. Moreover, eco-development of the Seine's disused banks and a neighbouring forest to Charles de Gaulle airport to off-set aviation CO2, are also included.

The City's group of multi-municipality Transport and Planning Directors are scratching their heads as to how this can happen given the limited present local funds available and the possible birth and elevation of a Sarkozy authorised Greater Paris Authority to provide central planning.
No matter whether such a GPA emerges or not, petty politics and famed French bureaucracy should not prohibit the progress of a well planned and sensitively progressed 'Vision to Reality'.

But it must be highlighted that an essential part of that appears missing from the Paris Plan. That is the role and integration of the car. Public transport will of course assist mass-transit, but equal consideration must be given to personal mobility beyond cycle lanes and pavements. Today offers the rare opportunity to efficiently plan the interaction of vehicle users, their domestic and work arrangements and create better inter-secting synergies at space-planning and energy-planning levels.

As the West down-sizes the size of the cars it uses and France's leading compact (eco) automakers appear well positioned it is inconceivable that the Paris Plan does not incorporate their social advantage. Peugeot, Citroen and Renault (inc Nissan and its 660cc & sub-1.0L Kei Car capability) plus the myriad of swelling Quadricycle manufacturers (from Aixam-Mega to Ligiers to MicroCar to JDM to Chatanet represented by their official EU agency EQUAL) are primely positioned to demonstrate how passenger vehicles need philosophical integration into town planning beyond the obvious issue of e-charging for EVs and PHEVS.

Le Corbusier and others have long sought to amalgamate and assimilate car and home to be more than simply a 'living box' and an attached 'parking box'. His ideology was that the house was a “machine for living in” and as vehicles become e-PODs in their own right – and will continue to do so – shouldn't the electrical and behavioral/physical 'connectivity' between home and vehicle be explored so as to synergise the two as far as possible where possible? None better than with grand scheme opportunities like the Paris Plan, especially so given the advantage their automakers enjoy [Much as a consequence of France's 1980s L6e and L7e vehicle class regulation which are effectively a precurser to international eco-vehicle regulations].

People always have and will obviously continue to use vehicles, whether ICE powered, e-powered or otherwise. Thus heavy-handed political ideology toward gradual prohibition of cars from cities must be counter-balanced by an ideology for the improved integration of suitable vehicles - for the sake of the 'every(wo)man' and the economy at large.

The new era must include the notion of “CARchitecture”, just as luminaries like Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Gabriel Voisin dreamed and worked towards 80 years ago. France once again has the opportunity once again show that Ergonomics and Economics must work inter-dependently, and perhaps by doing so set example to the EM nations of socially positively aligned vehicle use and manufacture.

It will of course be many years before we see the outcome of Sarkozy's political promise. Whether that powerful holistic vision is ultimately created or whether it fragments and distorts over time, perhaps never so prosaic is the age old legend of “the Judgement of Paris”, itself demonstrating why good sense must prevail over human frailty.