“The word impossible is not French,” the French leader Napoleon penned in a letter to General Jean Le Marois in 1813.
Close to two centuries later and it is likely that the current French President Nicolas Sarkozy was reading from the same page as his bold predecessor when he devised the idea of his “Grand Paris” project in 2007, a fanciful plan aiming to define future developments in Paris and its surrounding area to create a prototypical 21st century city attuned to the expectations of the post-Kyoto era.
Fixated on the idea of a bigger and better Paris, Sarkozy set his people to work, launching an international architectural competition in 2008 that called on the expertise of 10 multidisciplinary teams -- each led by a globally acclaimed architect -- to present inventive and original visions for the future of the city.
Antoine Grumbach, one of the 10 architects involved in the project, envisaged a water-orientated Paris, stretching along the Seine River to the port city of Le Havre and the English Channel.
At a time when İstanbulites are clamoring for public discussion and dialogue around the sensitive issue of urban renewal, Grumbach was in town this week to share the inspiration behind his “Seine Metropolis” project and discuss the complicated politics of urban transformation projects with a panel of five Turkish experts in the fields of urban planning and architecture at a conference hosted by İstanbul’s Building Information Center (YEM) and the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IFEA) on Tuesday.
With the debate surrounding urban renewal in İstanbul becoming increasingly strained in light of a number of critical concerns, including preservation of the city’s historic skyline, the Taksim project -- a controversial initiative to remodel Turkey’s most symbolic square -- plans to build a third suspension bridge across the Bosporus and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s self-professed “crazy project” -- a proposal to construct a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara in an effort to minimize shipping in the İstanbul strait -- the opportunity to lend an ear to fresh outside perspectives was welcomed by many.
Addressing his İstanbul audience, Grumbach explained that his vision of a Seine-centric metropolis would merge Paris, Rouen and Le Havre into a single city with the Seine River lined with vast green parks serving as a “central boulevard” uniting the urban and natural worlds. “The link between the metropolis and the sea is often forgotten. Port towns have always been of great importance because of trade and transport. Eighty percent of global trade is transported by sea, which explains why the world’s metropolises are always at port sites. I believe Paris has the potential to be Europe’s largest seaport,” Grumbach said, adding that using the Seine as a “liquid highway” would help alleviate heavy traffic.
An article published in the magazine France Today in August 2010 contended that “the concrete proposals that Sarkozy extrapolated from the architects’ deep thinking add up to a series of gigantic construction projects that would take more than a decade to complete.” For the most part consisting of an 80-mile addition to the urban transit system in an effort to cut highway traffic but also embracing Graumbach’s suggestion of a more central role for the Seine River, Sarkozy’s post-Kyoto protocol plans are expected to run up a bill of $50 billion.
Whilst the French president contended that the architects’ lofty visions would be an important part of his vision of a new and grander Paris, he emphasized that these would be studied with local officials “in the framework of existing projects.”
Public discussion and transparency key to urban gentrification
Indeed, the exercise of consultation and public discussion is where Turkey and France seem to differ in their priorities on urban transformation.
Reflecting on Graumbach’s words in a panel discussion following his address, historian and urban planner Nora Şeni, the head of İFEA, said that the French architect’s references to 50 meetings that took place across 20 cities in the space of a year and the forming of a commission specifically to facilitate public discussion struck her as positively “exotic” compared to the situation in İstanbul, where the lack of transparency involved in municipal decision-making relating has triggered frustration and anger from citizens of all walks of life.
Indeed while architect Korhan Gümüş, a spokeperson for the Taksim Platform group -- a collective calling for city officials to serve their constituents in a more transparent way -- underlined that the problem in Turkey is that creative capital can only be utilized by investors, Grambach told his İstanbul audience with conviction that “to speak of investment in France is to speak of communities and the state.”
Grambach also underlined the fact that architects need to be careful not to only view urban transformation in terms of design and aesthetics, but that instead their work should be carried out in unison with that of experts from all fields, from urban planners and ecologists to historians and environmentalists. Şeni voiced her strong agreement for Grambach’s sentiments, saying that while İstanbul has excellent architects’ chambers, urban transformation needs to be viewed in a much broader context.
While understandably not clued into the intimate dynamics and the stakes at hand in the projects currently being aired in İstanbul, Grambach voiced skepticism about the Taksim Project plans to direct traffic underground via a series of enormous ramps, echoing the much-contended views of the Taksim Platform group that this is a method that has long been discredited and moreover revised in many developed cities.
Veteran urban planner Hüseyin Kaptan was unsure how useful comparisons to Paris could be for İstanbul. “If Paris is a serene European capital, İstanbul is the complete opposite. Here we have chaos and a swelling population predicted to reach 30 million in the next two decades, so comparisons with Paris are difficult to make. On top of this, 70 to 80 percent of construction projects currently taking place in İstanbul are illegal. A man decides he wants to build a house one day and does it,” he exclaimed.
“İstanbul’s heart is in its center, but its limbs and organs are all over the place; we are a mess, albeit a fascinating one,” he said, adding, “If we truly want to make progress, we need to learn to discuss and air our ideas in the open. People must be prepared not only to talk to each other but to listen and learn as well.”