Thursday 11 April 2013

Life Begins at 40: Has the Olympiades Development Reached Maturity?

No other part of Paris has undergone such a radical transformation as the 13th arrondissement in the last 50 years, and nowhere is this more visible than at the Olympiades development, celebrating its 40th birthday this year. But have these transformations been successful?

Rarely has a shopping centre been less appropriately named than the Centre Commercial Oslo. Sandwiched at the heart of the Olympiades development, it is home to a strip of Asian restaurants and stores. Alongside the original signage - sporting hellenic-inspired font in Greek blues and whites - Chinese lanterns hang from the false ceilings, and gaudy baubles flash in shop windows.

These befuddling contrasts though are typical of the Olympiades development, and provide much of its charm, although I'm not sure that this word is appropriate in this setting. There was no deliberate aim to confuse here - the  shopping centre was baptised Oslo simply because it was once an Olympic host city. Surrounding this facility are towers named Sapporo, Mexico, and Tokyo, and housing blocks labelled Rome, Grenoble and Squaw Valley.

The Olympic theme was a marketing tool, but there was also initially a plan to incorporate a vast complex of sporting facilities into the development, making the Olympiades an environment that would inspire healthy living. Without leaving the development, or stepping into the streets of Paris that surrounded the city within the city, residents would have been able to access gymnasiums, swimming pools and athletics tracks. The final result though was far from these initial plans.

Although the Olympiades is still very much a self-contained block today, it is difficult to look at it without investigating the environment in which it is situated. It stands in the 13th arrondissement, which has seen almost three-quarters of its surface area restructured since the 1960. Much of this development has been high-rise, with a total of 44 towers now standing in the arrondissement. 29 of these towers line the roads around the Place d'Italie, with a small forest of these forming the Olympiades development.

Chief architect and urbanist for the development was Michel Holley, the man we also have to thank - or to blame - for the Front de Seine constructions, and a person who designed and built more high-rise buildings than anyone else in the history of the city

The Olympiades development was part of a wider project called 'Italie XIII', which was described as being "la plus vaste entreprise d'urbanisme jamais tentée depuis Haussmann" (the biggest urbanism project attempted since Haussmann). Although the rows of towers are still the most distinct elements of the local landscape, it probably should be pointed out that they are just a fraction of what was originally planned. Over 50 towers were on the drawing board, with the Avenue d'Italie sketched as an urban autoroute into and out of the city.

Holley was unsuprisingly - by his own admission - a 'dingue de Corbu' (fan of Le Corbusier), and much of his work was inspired by Le Corbusier's Athens Charter. The Olympiades development incorporates some of these doctrines - notably high-rise housing blocks and free circulation, but is (almost) entirely devoid of green spaces.

The Paris Holley envisaged was a very technical place. He drew his plans according to a self-designed system that he labelled an 'urbanigramme', which enabled him to make calculations on density and the optimum heights of buildings. By following these calculations, Holley was able to ensure that 70% of the total surface area of the Olympiades would be given over to pedestrians, although today this is in large part just empty expanses of concrete.

The urbanigramme divided the available space into three sections - habiter, travailler, circuler - following a principal that Holley called 'zoning vertical'. Ground level is given over to cars, with a warren of streets and passages, parking spaces and delivery bays. Above this is the 'dalle', a kind of concrete esplanade, which is uniquely for pedestrians and gives access to the apartment blocks. The third level is the apartments themselves, which according to modernist principles should be filled with light and air.

Describing the application of these concepts at the Olympiades development, Holley said "Il nous fallait sculpter l'espace, organiser les vides, les pleins, l'avenir" (we had to sculpt the spaces, organise the emptiness, the solids, the future). More than just an environment in which over 11,000 people live, it was a carefully designed concept, a self-contained machine adrift from the rest of the city. So has it been a success? 

Judged from a social viewpoint, the general sentiment is that it is one of the rare high-rise environments to have achieved a successful mix of economic backgrounds. This is no ghetto, but instead home to people from across the social spectrum. Secondly, it has a vibrant commercial life, thanks largely to its adoption by the Asian community, even if they are no more widely represented as residents than elsewhere in the city.

To this end, the experiment can be considered a success, but what of Holley's 'urbanigramme'? Well-designed and well-maintained high-rise blocks in central parts of the city will always attract acquirers. The apartments at the Olympiades - with their sweeping views across the city's left bank - have featured in numerous films and television programmes, but does this necessarily mean that the Olympiades is a desirable location?

To find out, let's begin at the bottom. A peculiarity of the development is that it was actually built on top of a train station, the old Gobelins terminus which welcomed goods trains up until 1996.As part of the agreement to build the Olympiades in the late 1960s/early 1970s, a new station was built, some small traces of which still exist underground. In front, the tracks have now been pulled up, leaving a patch of scrubland and what looks like a giant - but empty - car park.

The actual car parks of the development sit behind the old train station within a curious rabbit-warren of underground roads. These are real Paris streets, although privately-owned and forbidden to pedestrians for large stretches. The Olympic theme continues here underground - there is a Rue du Javelot (Javelin street) and a Rue du Disque (Discus street), and both are possibly unique in Paris in that they are entirely subterranean.

In addition to offering access to car parks, the roads are used for deliveries to the shops and restaurants of the Olympiades. Holley's 'circuler' environment in his vertical zoning model is certainly strange, but not without life. Pedestrians clearly use this level, entering from surrounding streets and passing through doors that obviously offer unsuspected shortcuts to other parts of the development.

From the ground, access to the second level - Holley's 'travailler' zone - is mostly via escalator. In some ways (including its name and sporting theme), the Olympiades could be one of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. The towers are visible from across the city, but the internal mechanism of this world is hidden until you arrive at this median level.

This level, the dalle or esplanade, is fairly typical of the French urbanism of this era. Holley's Front de Seine also features this design, as does La Défense to a much larger scale. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the car-free environment is not unpleasant. There are a number of people sitting at the terraces of restaurants and cafés, children are riding bikes and playing football, and others are simply out strolling. In the evenings though it is difficult to imagine that there is the same atmosphere, and already there are certain corridors that feel vaguely threatening, with cut-throat corners where small groups of young men have gathered.

Having this large space raised above the rest of the city was one of the development's principal selling points - children could walk to school without crossing a road or seeing a car, people could access a supermarket almost from their elevators - but it is perhaps this detachment from the city that is its biggest problem today. The dalle is a private space, belonging to all the residents of the development. This though has prevented any investment in recent years, and much of this area now resembles a concrete prairie gone to seed.

What of Holley's third level, the 'habiter' zone? Ultimately, the success of the development can only be judged on the opinions of those that live there. After 35 years of relative isolation, the zone got its own Metro station, the new southern terminus of the line 14, which has certainly added value to the development, but if investments are safely secured, is it also a nice place to live?

The construction of high-rise towers in Paris will be an eternal debate, but Holley's initial idea was not to make a clean break from the past or to shock. Although he despised Haussmannian architecture ("J'habitais une affreuse cour parisienne qui m'a vraisemblablement dégoûté de l'urbanisme haussmannien" he said of his first experience of living in the city), he felt that his urbanigrammes were a prolongation of Parisian traditions - that buildings should be of uniform heights. His were simply double or triple the height of previous buildings.

The 40th birthday celebrations of this still controversial development have been fairly muted, and centered mostly on a two-month exhibition in a corner of the Pavillon de l'Arsenal. The exhibition, given a vaguely 70s feel with vintage photos hung alongside Swiss cheese plants, described the development as a 'formidable lieu de possibles', but focussed quite heavily on features that were never built. Perhaps the best birthday wish would be for those possibilities to become realities.


Anonymous said...

Love the expression "cut-throat corners." Thanks for the tip-off to the ghostly remains of the old train depot. Just as you describe, I find that area a total mish-mash of styles and social groups, including plenty of students (for a branch of the Sorbonne). In spite of the sometimes lonely, now scruffy sections, there are plenty of people living life. That there is a Django Reinhardt "allee" and "Mediatheque Jean-Pierre Melville in the midst makes me smile too.

Adam said...

Thanks for the comment. I overlooked the students, but it's true that at the northern end there are a couple of colleges as well as the rather extraordinary Centre Pierre Mendes France.

The cultural references are interesting too, because if there is one thing missing from this development it is something to pull in visitors, such as a museum, a gallery or a theatre. Transforming the old rail yards into a park would probably be a good idea too.

Thierry said...

Thanks for this very well-informed article about a place that has fascinated me for years. You didn't mention the underground buddhist temple in rue du Disque...

The project was never completed. Your photograph with grass shows a place where one or two towers were supposed to grow.

Do you know that old Paris Match magazine which shows the wonderful high-rise paradise Paris was supposed to become? I once bought it and scanned part of it:

If Mr. Pompidou had not died so early, who knows what Paris would look like today...

Adam said...

Thanks for the comment and the link Thierry. Your article is fascinating, as are the pictures from Paris Match!

Thierry said...

You're welcome. Your blog is what I would like to write if I was less lazy...

Actually I remember I wrote a blog entry with the title "Porte d'Italie invisible" ( before you even created this blog. :-) said...

Thank you for your Blog.
Initially it was to show the beauty of hidden Paris, but now there have been so many monstrosities, that you cannot, not show them.
Another one is under construction in the 17th, on the site initially planned for the Paris Olympics that went to London. Olympics, yes (sic)!

gee said...

this bit can stay hidden mate

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you knew the street artists at Les Bains?

Habitat Parisien said...

We didn't know about your blog and is so interesting! we will be updated :)

Adam said...

Anonymous: Yes, I did see that, and to be honest I found it to be artiscally fraudulent. How can it be 'street art' if it is displayed - via a gallery - in an building that no-one has the right to enter? Surely a large part of street art is its democratic element, but if you remove that, what legitimacy does it have?

Alma said...

This is cool!

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