November 24, 2009
by Bill Millard

(Continued from above)

Paris, David Mangin noted, is the natural home of “make no little plans.” The 10-architect Grand Paris endeavor is the latest in a long series of sweeping civic renovations, some implemented (Baron Haussmann’s), some partially built (Henri Prost’s 1930s scheme for radioconcentric highways), and some remaining unrealized (Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Ville Radieuse). Since New York has a roughly similar area and density, as Catherine Barbé illustrated, and is also organized around a center built in pre-automotive times, the question logically arises why our region has been relatively short on comprehensive public visions. Even influential ones like the Regional Plan Association’s original 1929 plan, executive director Thomas Wright allowed, haven’t overcome the American “history of ceding planning to the private sector” (including the private RPA). Today’s challenges of sprawl, mobility, and environmental repair, Wright and others argued, make this tradition obsolete. Badly needed public works like the Second Avenue subway, the Access to the Region’s Core transit tunnel, the East Side Access project, and particularly Moynihan Station remain vulnerable to a political culture that Wright called “checks and balances on steroids.”

Alexander Garvin’s summation illuminated aspects of the respective influences of Haussmann and Robert Moses that require nuanced appreciation. Received wisdom associates Haussmann’s boulevards primarily with geometric rationalism, military strategy, and social control, forgetting not only the grim conditions (hygienic and epidemiologic) that made them necessary, but the fact that during Paris’s bouts of social upheaval, “you can shoot in both directions” through a long straight space. “It’s impossible to think of Paris without cafés,” Garvin added, “and those cafés would be impossible without Haussmann.” Likewise, outrage at Moses’s motoristic assaults on urban neighborhoods rings hollow outside the context of his remarkable record of projects, including dozens substantially benefiting the underprivileged. While paying respect to these achievements, Garvin cautioned that grand projets, linear cities, and regional subcenters, ideas recurrent in both Parisian and New York history, have less effect on daily life than the kind of local incremental measures we are already seeing. “Both Paris and New York are in the change business, all the time,” Garvin concluded, “but it’s not initiated by architects. Those changes are initiated by people working hard on improving the public realm, the streets, and parks. That’s where change occurs, not by rethinking the city.”

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.

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