Seine Rive Gauche is beginning to come to life. Covering 320 acres (130 hectares), it is, according to its developer, the largest development project in Paris since Haussmann’s time.
Seine Rive Gauche is part of a set of efforts aimed at addressing an urban planning issue that Paris has faced from even before Haussmann’s time: the westward movement of the city, and especially of tertiary sector jobs. Under Mayor Jacques Chirac (1977-1995), a major campaign was kicked off to rebalance Paris by developing the east of the city. The general thrust was maintained through two successive mayors, including a change of political color, making this a perfect example of an issue of municipal interest that never got the attention it deserved while Paris was under national government administration.
It is much too early to assess the success of Seine-Rive Gauche, but we can note a couple of promising premises that were adopted. As opposed to what would be done in many places, the whole site was not treated as one project. It was broken down into six neighborhoods, each with its own coordinating architect, but with different architects and owners for each of the individual buildings. Seine Rive Gauche has the unity of having been all built around the same time, but otherwise there is tremendous diversity. It is also worthy of note the coordinating architects for each neighborhood include many of of France’s best architects with deep understanding of cities, and were selected through design-based competitions.
The starting point of the project was an immense tract of land occupied by the tracks leading into the Gare d’Austerlitz and adjacent industrial facilities. The City of Paris created a dedicated development vehicle, SEMAPA, with the national train company, SNCF, and other public-sector participants, in 1985. Seine-Rive Gauche is therefore another example of the French model of publicly-driven urban development, where the role of the private sector is limited to developing individual plots within the overall plan.
Work began in the middle portion, Tolbiac, where it had been decided to situate the new national library, one of the projects of prestige of President François Mitterand, designed by Dominique Perrault and completed in 1995.
The Tolbiac Nord neighborhood, immediately to the north and south of the library, was coordinated by Roland Schweitzer. Its 800 apartments are all subsidized. It also includes office space, schools, a church, two parks, and a movie complex. It is most remarkable for its well-aligned buildings cut out of regular blocks, but with very different architectural treatment, separated by gardens.
A new artery, the Avenue de France, crosses the whole development, connecting the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Pont Charles-de-Gaulle with the Boulevard Masséna on the edge of Paris proper.
Paul Andreu was entrusted with the task of designing Paris’s most ambitious contemporary urban avenue. He set the rules for size and shape of the buildings along the avenue, for the use of the roadway, and so on. The detailed design of the streets was done by Jean-Michel Wilmotte for one portion and Patrick Celeste for another. The designers worked together with the objective of creating an avenue that was not only met the multiple needs of modern streets, but that maintained Paris’s high standards of pleasurable urban spaces. An example of this attention is that the sidewalks are twice as wide (8 meters) on the north side of the street, which gets the sun.
The Masséna Nord neighborhood was launched in 1995, with Christian de Portzamparc as the coordinating architect. This area includes a number of large industrial buildings that were preserved and that now house Université Paris VII and an architecture school. On the rest of the site, Portzamparc implemented his theory of the “open block” (“îlot ouvert”): the buildings are free-standing, the design of the built form is based on principles of diversity and contrast. More detail on the design of this area is available at www.arthitectuctural.com.
The City of Paris has given care to the selection of names for the streets of this neighborhood, focusing on important people of the twentieth century who, because much of Paris street-naming occurred so much earlier, had no street named after them. So there is a Rue Elsa Morante, a Rue Olivier Messiaen and a Rue René Goscinny (decorated with call-outs from his cartoon that have already become local attractions). The City has also taken advantage of the web site dedicated to the new neighborhood to provide biographies of all the people after whom streets in the area were named.
Work is underway on the infrastructure to cover the tracks. On top of the tracks and on the other side will be the Tolbiac-Chevaleret neighborhood, with Pierre Gangnet as the coordinating architect.
This neighborhood will have 1,000 new homes and 800,000 square feet (75,000 square meters) of offices, in addition to many other urban amenities. The key challenge here is the transition between the new neighborhood and the existing neighborhood, which will be made by a park with, in places, a balcony-promenade.
At the north-west end of the site, closest to the Paris city center, two neighborhoods are underway.
The Austerlitz-Nord neighborhood, coordinated by Christian Devillers, consists mostly of office buildings occupied by large corporations. Devillers is trying to carefully calibrate public and private use of spaces to ensure that these buildings do not impede the broader functioning of the city.
The Austerlitz-Sud neighborhood is awaiting the construction of the infrastructure that will allow it to be built over the train tracks. Coordinating architects Reichen et Robert have prepared a plan for a neighborhood with almost 1 million square feet (85,000 square meters) of office and retail space, aiming to become a focus of activity both for the people of the neighborhoods and for those with easy access to it through the Gare d’Austerlitz. AREP Architecture and Jean Nouvel will be in charge of the renovation of the station itself.
New development is continuing on the far south-east end of the Seine Rive Gauche territory, with the Masséna-Sud and Masséna-Bruneseau neighborhoods, for which Yves Lion is the coordinating architect.
Lion’s project aims primary to create a functional and pleasant neighborhood in a site that is ripe for development, but that is challenging due to its complexity, with major pieces of infrastructure like a highway and train tracks. The sector is among those that need to help Paris “jump over the périphérique” and establish connections with the towns that immediately surround it – in this case Ivry-sur-Seine.
The qualities of the plan have however been overshadowed by the debate about whether to allow, for this neighborhood on the very edge of the city proper, the lifting of the ordinary height regulations to allow buildings of 160 feet (50 meters) for residential purposes and 490 feet (150 meters) for non-residential purposes.
In the end, it was decided that this neighborhood should have Paris’s first high-rise residential building since the 1970s. The 16-story building is intended by its architect, Edouard François, to play an ecological role, disseminating into the city ecosystem types of vegetation that no longer penetrate it. It is expected to be completed in 2014. You can watch a video of François discussing this building together with disappearance as an ecological act, the carnal in the art of cooking, and other topics.
Although it is too early to come to a conclusion on the success of Seine Rive Gauche, it is noteworthy as the first example in a long time of an ambitious development for Paris calibrated to potentially have a positive effect on the city overall, and developed with care, incorporating much of France’s best urban thinking.