The Île de la Cité can appear to be just another timeless part of Paris, untouched for centuries, to be preserved as it is and has always been. In reality, it is a relatively recently remodeled space, one of the least successful of the undertakings of George-Eugène Haussmann while he was Prefect of the Seine. It is, I believe, one of Paris’s major twenty-first century urban planning challenges, one that will play a critical role in signaling what kind of city Paris is to become.
The Île de la Cité has a long history as “the cradle of Paris”. As the poet wrote: “City of Paris, you are blessed to be placed in an island; a river softly holds you in its arms and surrounds your walls.”1 The Île de la Cité is where the first kings of the Capetian dynasty, around the turn of the millennium, built a royal palace, where in the twelfth century the Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully, began the construction of the city’s Cathedral.
In the early nineteenth century, the Île de la Cité was a bustling neighborhood of 15,000 souls, full of crooked little streets, with no less than a dozen parishes. The Palais de Justice was an accumulation of buildings added over centuries; the parvis of Notre-Dame was a tiny square fenced in by the old Hôtel Dieu hospital; the Archbishop’s Palace stood alongside the Cathedral.
In the 1860s, Prefect Haussmann began the piecemeal demolition of what he called “the ignoble heap of thieves’ dens which used to dishonor the Cité and that I later had the joy of razing, from top to bottom.” He expropriated and demolished hundreds of houses to build the Commercial Court, the Police Headquarters, the new Hôtel Dieu hospital, and an enlarged parvis for Notre-Dame Cathedral. On the west end of the island, the Palais de Justice complex was restructured and expanded, leading to the demolition of historic structures and ordinary houses. The Place Dauphine itself was narrowly spared – one of its three sides was sacrificed to the tempest of modernization.
Now, after 150 years, the island seems about to go through its greatest period of change since the Second Empire. Evolution seems inevitable, but everyone seems to be ignoring the impending reality, as controversy lurks at every step. How things turn out will say a lot about the values that underlie modern society’s project for Paris.
The government has announced the building of a new court building in the Batignolles neighborhood. This is a much-needed step. Some of the most important legal institutions in France are currently housed in a mish-mash of buildings wholly unsuited to modern needs. The Paris Palais de Justice has about half the square footage per employee that is considered the standard in French courts. Most people do not suspect the Byzantine back hallways, the poor working conditions, the issues with practicalities of running a modern legal system in these buildings.
Part of the courts will be moved to a place where they will help anchor the development of a long-neglected neighborhood. But it seems that the plan is to allow the remaining courts, the Cour de Cassation and Cour d’Appel, to expand into the space made available.2 This poses the broader question of whether French government institutions need to be occupying the most expensive real estate in the country, in places where they play no positive role in supporting urban development objectives. The provocative question is whether the Palais de Justice should stay a complex of courts at all.
The move of the Tribunal de Grande Instance should trigger a deeper rethink of the Palais de Justice site. The complex is a historical home of the French royalty, with two major tourist destinations (the Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie). The Palais de Justice itself is a national monument and many parts of it are very worthy of being visited. The site could be called upon to play an even larger touristic and didactic role, or to have socially useful functions other than to serve as a sumptuous decor for France’s elite magistrates.
The Palais de Justice is not the only facility before major questions about its future. The Assistance Publique is implementing a strategy of rationalizing its sites and it is not clear that the Hôtel Dieu will continue to be used as a hospital. The Police Prefecture building is also now poorly suited to its purpose. Both the Police Prefecture and the Tribunal de Commerce house largely clerical functions that need not be in such a central location. The Flower Market has its charm, but is most of the time all but deserted. The whole spirit of this island, at the very center of a major world city but not a place for life, must be very puzzling to visitors.
The Paris urbanism agency (APUR) performed a study of the Île Saint-Louis and the Île de la Cité in 2004. The analysis is superb, but since the study was commissioned as an input into new urban regulations, the whole reflection was turned toward patrimonial protection. The preservation of the heritage at the east end of the island is certainly important, but we must not lose sight of the broader urban issue.
The APUR study starkly shows the land use that resulted from the Second Empire transformation: an Île de la Cité dedicated to public-sector workspaces with only 1,672 residents, less than at any time in its history.
What is really at stake is how to reverse Haussmann’s radical emptying and devitalization of the island – which itself was in utter contradiction with the Île de la Cité’s historical vocation. We need to ask ourselves if we really think that this island is best used as, essentially, a low-density institutional office park.
A general theme of the recent urban consultation for Le Grand Paris was to capitalize on all opportunities to densify the city. In the Île de la Cité we have a part of the city that was purposefully de-densified, but that we dare not touch. I believe that it is time to take back the Île de la Cité for Paris, to once again make it a place of vibrant life both for residents and those who are visiting.
Thanks to Haussmann, there remain opportunities to densify. In an aerial view one immediately sees the vast expense of the courtyard of the police headquarters, currently used as a parking lot – an aberration from both the economic and the cultural point of view. The Hôtel Dieu is an immense space which would require significant cost to make into a hospital to contemporary standards and that could well suit another purpose. There are open spaces that could well be used to reinstate buildings that used to be there, for example on the site of the old Hôtel Dieu, between the parvis and the river.
The Île de la Cité is composed of strata from all of Paris’s history. Because one era, the Second Empire, tried to erase the others does not mean that we should freeze the historical process of evolution. The appropriate response is, I believe, to add our own layer to what exists, in the respect of all that came before. It is a fascinating architectural challenge that we, today, certainly have the means to rise to.
An ambitious outcome would be a plan to bring the island back to a population of 10,000, with facilities to make it a place of life in the day and in the evenings for Parisians and visitors alike, that would live again without becoming an enclave of luxury. This would entail the removal of public institutions (courts, police, hospital), the reuse of historical facilities, and the reappropriation of interstitial spaces to build housing, both market-priced and subsidized.
This idea can only be controversial. The administrations that occupy the various buildings are comfortable, and moving them will be a great challenge (we can recall that the greatest challenge in realizing Le Grand Louvre was getting the Ministry of Finance out of the building). Historicists will resist anything that is not a museification of the island – although in this case one can expect a dual chorus of those thinking more of the medieval history and those wanting to protect the Haussmannian identity.
So we can shy away and take the easy way out: not challenge the entrenched positions of bureaucracies, assume there is no agenda in historical Paris other than preservation and stasis, accept that the center of Paris celebrated for its vitality by the likes of Hugo remains devoid of life.
1. The poet in this case was the monk Abbon, quoted in P. Cherrier, La cité à travers les ages, Librairie Charles Delagrave, Paris, 1894, p. 10.
2. The Établissement Public du Palais de Justice de Paris was entrusted by the Ministry of Justice with both the new court building and the restructuring of the historical site, but there has been no communication on plans for the latter.