Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Ile Seguin: Nouvel, Nouvel...or Nouvel?

This Sunday, the residents of Boulogne Billancourt to the west of Paris will have an interesting choice to make. Who of Jean Nouvel, Jean Nouvel or Jean Nouvel will they choose to develop the Ile Seguin site?

As the official project website summarises, "20 years after the closure of the Renault factories in 1992, a development project is finally about to begin" - but what project? After a stop-start process and endless propositions and discussions, the shortlist is down to the last three entries - and just one architect!

In reality, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the three projects have a lot of similarities. A covered garden, a concert hall, a pedestrianised shopping street housing only 'cultural' commercial outlets and an ambition to become an 'urban and environmental laboratory' - whatever that might be.

Project One (Jean Nouvel)

One tower up to 120 metres high and three others of no higher than 100 metres. A glass-covered garden and the inevitable restaurants and shops.

Project Two (Jean Nouvel)

One tower of up to 110 metres, a slightly smaller glass-covered garden and a 'busy shopping street'.

Project Three (Jean Nouvel)

No towers, but curiously also a much smaller garden area.

Of course, this somewhat limited choice is not to the liking of all the residents of the town. "Ce vote n'a aucune valeur" cries the website 'Sauvons l'Ile Seguin'. Given the lack of alternative options, the site also bemoans the fact that it is impossible to vote 'none of the above'.

Their opposition to a 'concrete' island is evident, but what alternatives do they put forward? The first is a 'green and blue' island, made up mostly of parks and sporting facilities. The second is to build, but to above all avoid towers and landmark architecture.

Whatever the result of the vote on Sunday, the arguments will surely continue until building finally begins. But would it not also be an option to simply not build?

When I visited the island this summer I discovered a post-industrial landscape, a strange world of half-reclaimed territories and curious multi-coloured temporary structures. The long impasse had lead to a culture of resourcefulness, with restaurants housed in containers and scalfolding, and parks sketching small clearings amongst wild plants.  

Alongside these, other oddities - a section dedicated to the circus and even a small road circuit for the testing of electric vehicles (run by Renault, and continuing the company's historic links to the island).

Jean Nouvel will undoubtedly be the winner of this competition, but will it also be a victory for the island?

Update: And the winner was...Jean Nouvel! "Une grande victoire pour la démocratie" screams the official Boulogne-Billancourt town website after results showed that around one-third of eligible electors voted, with the second option (one particularly tall tower) coming out on top (40,10% of the votes, with 31,06% for the third option (no towers) and 25,67% for the first option). The mayor has now promised to begin work on this chosen project as soon as possible, but for others the fight has now probably only just begun.

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