On March 8th, 2014 the Parti Socialiste’s candidate for the mayorship of Paris announced her redevelopment project for the Place du Panthéon, a square that she considers to be “isolated” and “inaccessible!” Anne Hidalgo intends to plant trees all along Rue Soufflot and in the Panthéon’s very square in order to “arrange shady spaces,” which are allegedly lacking in Paris. A grouping of contemporary benches and fixed tables “offered freely to the public” will be installed in a space that is to be created between the Sainte-Geneviève Library and the Panthéon so that students can “work under the trees!” That is precisely what is posted on her campaign site.
Anne Hidalgo seems to be endorsing propositions previously developed by elementary school children during talks organized by Unicef’s Ville Amie des Enfants (Child-friendly City) initiative in 2010, such as bringing nature into the city, and creating a place of expression and creation for children, etcetera. Will the Place du Panthéon project be an example of such ideas?
The proposition would have elicited smirks (or even laughter) if it had not come from the then Deputy Mayor of Paris, in charge of urban planning and architecture, who is now Mayor of Paris. After the “smartening up” of the Place de la République, or similar plans for the Bastille, or the controversial redevelopment of Foch Avenue, another line has been crossed with designating a protected area in Paris’ historic heart for a redevelopment project.
We love trees, flowers, and gardens, just like we love the majority of our fellow citizens. Our environmentalist friends would be caught off guard, and maybe even delighted, to have heard about plans to make the Place du Panthéon more green without having expressed the slightest wish for it! It is therefore time to remember why there are not any trees in the Place du Panthéon, nor on Rue Soufflot.
Trees are part of the tradition of plazas outside of the capital area in France, as well as of the tradition of English squares. They do not belong to the tradition of French royal squares.
The Place des Victoires, the Place Vendôme, the square of Pont Neuf, and the Place de la Concorde, all famous Parisian squares, have no trees. The Place des Vosges originally had no trees, but then became a “square” in the 19th-century following the English style. In the same regard, neither the Place Stanislas in Nancy nor the square surrounding the cathedral of Metz by Jacques-François Blondel have trees. One could also add Strasbourg, Nantes, or Limoges to the list.
In Paris, trees enjoy (and have enjoyed) a special status. It is impossible to imagine a French boulevard without rows of trees, in accordance with the 19th-century definition. Gardens and parks play a major role in the city, and they should be protected and allowed to multiply. SOS Paris participated in the census of EVIP (interior protected green spaces).
However, there are spaces where architecture plays the primary role. Such is the case for squares and remarkable buildings, to which trees add nothing. In the ancient urban spaces that we have inherited here in Paris, what we consider to be beautiful architecture does not deserve to be hidden by plants.
In past centuries, the very idea of a square was based upon the perspectives that are offered. Changing this conception and encroaching upon the layout of a square’s elements is a means of adulterating and undoing the harmony of the space as a whole.
To be the Mayor of Paris implies a knowledge and love for our city. By virtue of its very history, Paris is the city of innovation, nearly by definition. It does not need to prove it through surface changes. Confusing innovation and vandalism is a grave error.
Do such conservative views about preserving architectural traditions seem excessively rigid, or do some historic sites deserve to be left untouched despite the demands of modern citizens?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.