Construction begins this week on the new Place de la République, a project 150 years in the making.
At 300 yards by 130 yards, the Place de la République is one of the largest squares in Europe. But its lay-out has been a problem that has bedeviled urban designers since Gabriel Davioud was first entrusted with its design in the 1860s.
The origins of the square lie in Louis XIVth’s decision, in 1676, to demolish the city walls of Paris. On the site of the ramparts, Paris’s famous Grands Boulevards were created. A chink in the chain of boulevards was the opportunity to create a square, the Place du Château d’Eau.
In 1854, shortly after the arrival of the new Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, barracks were built along the north-east side of the Place du Château d’Eau. As this whole section of Paris was being restructured with the creation of several new avenues across the north and east of Paris, it was decided that the Place du Château d’Eau would be expanded and become the point of convergence of the new arteries, the great square that Napoleon III wanted for the working-class north-east of the fast-growing city.
A department store, the Magasins-Réunis, was built along the north-east side of the square and a huge concert hall, the Grand Orphéon was planned for the north-west corner, where it would be the working-class counterpart of the Opéra de Paris being built at the time by Charles Garnier, but the project was suspended and ultimately abandoned after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The square itself was left as a massive intersection that later became a tramway hub. Haussmann’s grands travaux had transformed one of the most-loved stretches of the Grands Boulevards, full of theaters and street entertainment, into a soulless void.
Under the Third Republic, the square was given its current name. The fountain designed by Davioud was moved to another Parisian square and a statue symbolizing the Republic was installed in 1883. Still, the fundamental design flaws of the space remained unaddressed.
The current administration of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë undertook a redesign of this problematic urban space. To its credit, it began by commissioning a study of the history of the square and performing a diagnostic of how it currently functions. Public meetings to collect input for the project were held starting at the end of 2008. A design competition was held starting in late 2009 and won by Trévelo & Viger-Kohler architects, a Parisian firm. 2010 and 2011 were occupied with another phase of public consultation, the official public inquiry, and the technical studies. Construction begins on January 9, 2012 and work is expected to be finished by the end of 2013.
The new design audaciously takes the step of removing the six lanes of traffic from the north-east side of the square so that the huge pedestrian area in the center is no longer an isolated island. A street will remain, but it is much narrower and reduced to buses, taxis and two-wheeled traffic. Other than that, the changes do not seem huge. The entire square will now be wheelchair accessible. There will be new alignments of trees, a water basin, fancy new lighting, and some chairs and tables with, in the renderings, smiling people sitting in the sun.
The redesign poses two big questions: 1) will the elimination of an intensely-used six-lane traffic connection wreak havoc on the whole neighborhood and 2) will the pedestrian spaces of the square actually be won back for public use.
There is surprisingly little information on the traffic flow impact of the redesign. The assumption seems to be the six lanes along the south-west side of the square will be able to absorb the traffic that used the twelve lanes previously available. That seems a bit heroic, but we shall soon see. It is also unclear what impact can be expected on the streets around the square.
In the past the space of the pedestrian islands was very neglected and used almost exclusively by a few bums. Most people stayed close to the path in the center occupied by a merry-go-round, a crepe stand, and the subway entrance. From the material available it is unclear whether there will be pavilions and what might be in them, so the space seems weak on destinations. A reversion to the status of a place that most people avoid would mean failure of this project.
It is worth noting that the City of Paris has put in place something close to best practice communication with citizens for its major projects. It has created a web site (placedelarepublique.paris.fr) on which it provides updates on construction and impact on users of the space (parking, trafic routes, etc), an interactive map of changes, and background material including a fun video of users of the square and their perspectives.
More images of the project are visible at the architects web site, tvk.fr.