Eight months after the opening of the new Place de la République, I sat down with Pierre-Alain Trévelo, one of the two partners of TVK, the up-and-coming Paris-based firm responsible for the square’s design, for an inside take on the insights and learnings from this emblematic project.
Place de la République was opened to the public last June and since then has turned out to be an extraordinarily lively and dynamic public space – in very stark contrast to what it was before. I know you had thought a lot about the use of the public space. When you go back there today, what is working as you expected and what surprises you?
We were actually surprised by the enormous appetite people had for a very big open public space in the middle of a very dense part of Paris.
This was apparent right from the day it became accessible to the public. The inauguration, with the Mayor, was actually scheduled for the Sunday. But the City took the barriers down on the Friday evening. Immediately, people flowed in… And they stayed there. It remained full of people through the weekend and pretty much through the summer. This enormous demand for a big public space has been confirmed over time.
We have been impressed by the square’s ability to not just draw people in, but keep them there, despite the fact that the people are from all sorts of origins and all walks of life, with activities that one might have thought would be incompatible. People’s desire to come together and ability to get along has been amazing.
Admittedly, the size of the square helps a great deal. Having such a large space allows people who have come to skate, to demonstrate, to play, to read or just to hang out and watch the other people coexist without problem. All these activities have been going on side by side, with remarkably little conflict.
What surprised you about the actual activities that go on?
Our design approach used a lot of narrative and we spent a lot of time trying to imagine the types of usage there may be. But from the outset we recognized that we wouldn’t be able to anticipate all the possible uses. And even if we could anticipate usage for the first year, how about thirty, forty or fifty years from now?
This recognition was critical to our approach. We certainly tried to anticipate things, as you can see from the drawings that we did in the design phase. But we didn’t want to set things in stone. Hence the idea of a table, or stage, that is reprogrammable, that can withstand changes in usage that we can’t anticipate. This was at the core of the project.
One specific thing that we did not unanticipate is the classes and physical activities – exercise, dance, etc. These are far more numerous and diverse than we had imagined. There was clearly a real need for a space for these activities.
Had you anticipated that Place de la République would be adopted by the Parisian skater community as a skate spot? Did you design features to accommodate skateboarding?
We expected to see skateboarding and we asked around to try to get a sense of how the skateboarding community might react, but we did not specifically design anything for skateboarding. Our principle was simply to not preclude activities. We worked hard to achieve a design that would not go against any specific type of use. We had not anticipated that the space would be so successful with skaters, but we have no problem with that. Everything we hear is that the skateboarders coexist well with the other users.
The place of bicycles on the square was an interesting battle. Cycling on sidewalks is not permitted in Paris, and therefore it was obvious for people that there would be no cycling on the square. We were against that. We felt that the ability to cycle on the space was critical to the flexibility of usage we wanted and that we needed to rely on people to resolve potential conflicts themselves. In the end the whole square was qualified as a “shared space,” so actually part of the street. This allows people on bicycles to legally ride right through the square, which is highly unusual in Paris but has worked well.
The ordinary approach would have been to create a dedicated space for each activity: a bike lane for bikes, a bus lane for buses, a skate park for skaters. We didn’t want to do that. We feel that when each user is not constricted to a dedicated space everyone gains in freedom. The result, in the case of Place de la République, has been a unique kind of urban space for Paris.
Place de la République is unique because it is the traditional gathering place for demonstrations. How did that role of the square play out?
We took this function of this square seriously. Through Margaret Crawford, author of the book Everyday Urbanism, we became aware of the work of Susana Torre on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires1. In this piece, Torre draws out how demonstrations mark a public space, both symbolically and physically. We gave a lot of thought to these issues as they relate to Place de la République.
The basic French system has been that for demonstrations the most effective way to draw attention to a cause is to create a ruckus in the street and disrupt traffic. We wanted to change that, and incorporate demonstrations to the space of the Place de la République. We wanted to make things more flexible and free, which of course makes things more complex.
People now demonstrate by the statue at the center of the square, without feeling the need to disrupt traffic. The act of demonstrating in this space is meaningful to groups representing all sorts of causes — I think the symbolic importance is actually greater than occupying the road. We’ve created a space for something that had not really existed in France.
We have been very surprised by the number of small demonstrations on Place de la République. Almost every day there is a demonstration going on. The flexibility of the space means that if a group of 10 or 20 people wants to demonstrate there, they can, as can a group of 100 or 200 people. And demonstrations of 100,000 or a million people can still use the square as the departure point for a parade, as is traditional.
From today’s vantage point, what are your thoughts and learnings about the whole process?
Looking back, it strikes me how critical the work done by the City before the selection of the architects was to the whole project.
We were provided with a great deal of raw material collected through a process that involved the various stakeholders. We found the material extremely precious and used it intensively – which incidentally I think is one of the reasons we ended up being selected for the project. The quality of the material we were provided at the time of the competition was an essential foundation to everything that happened after that.
The public dialogue during the design development phase was very useful. It was a great chance to exchange and get feedback as we developed the project, especially for the cyclists, who were very engaged. The town halls of the three arrondissements surrounding the square also played an important role.
What we took away from the experience was that when this public
dialogue process has real content, it is very precious.
We were impressed by people’s reaction. For example, people very quickly and intuitively understood our position that the square couldn’t be a green space. We felt that the process proved that you can really rely on people’s intelligence to improve and strengthen the dynamic of the project.
More generally, we learned that when you have a strong and clear vision, when you really articulate it and explain the logical basis for your thinking, people understand it and respond to it. The boldest aspects of our project ended up drawing surprisingly little opposition. We believe the approach of thinking things through from first principles, of avoiding arbitrariness, is one that people respond to well.
That doesn’t mean that there is no architecture in Place de la République. It just means that the bulk of our design takes place in a 30 centimeter layer. But given the complexities of a space like this square, with so many functional and technical parameters, I can assure you that it was a real design challenge.
What is next for TVK?
We have traditionally been very focused on Paris. That was related to our belief that you really need to take the time to know a place, to experience it in depth and over time.
Now things are evolving. We are interested in exploring new horizons. We have a way of working that we are not going change, even if we work outside the places we know best.
We don’t want to give up on the idea of the social role of the architect. Designers have a huge role to play as long as they don’t allow themselves to get closed in arbitrary, formal solutions. Architects have a position to reclaim compared to other professions who may have done better in responding to the need for pragmatic and compelling solutions.
So we want to continue in that vein, challenging ourselves. We don’t want to be specialized. It is essential to us not to get blocked in to one sort of solution, so we continue to apply our approach to different problems, for example on housing.
We try to work in a very radical way, that is to say with clear and strong ideas, and hope to apply that to new and interesting situations, whether in Paris or further afield.
1. “Claiming the Public Space: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” in Agrest, Diana et al., eds. The Sex of Architecture. New York: Abrams 1996.