A true story: one day at the New South Wales Department of Planning two planners are talking about different theories of urban planning. ‘Neoliberal planning,’ the first says, “that’s what we do.” “No kidding,” the other replies.
“No kidding” might be replaced by “yer darn tootin” after the release of the NSW Government’s A New Planning System for New South Wales – Green Paper. If the title doesn’t quite grab you, a new planning system, however boring, will have a far greater impact on people’s lives than more juicy topics like a new Museum of Contemporary Art or a new pavilion for the Venice Biennale. Planning is the most visible juncture at which architecture meets politics, and what the Government is proposing is interesting for the way that it reveals urban planning as the point where conservatism begins to conflict with itself, where a libertarian sensibility runs counter to pro-business economic rationalist conservatism. The development industry is not quite a friend of the invisible hand; it does best when certain freedoms are curtailed. This was shown most clearly in the US by the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which expanded the Constitution’s “Takings Clause” (“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”) to allow governments to claim eminent domain for purposes of private redevelopment.
A good biennale dances a tricky pas de deux with its theme. Too little constraint lands us in Charles Foster Kane’s warehouse, too heavy a curatorial hand stifles the unruliness which is contemporary art’s great charm. The curators of this year’s Biennale of Sydney, Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, have taken an inquisitive approach to their theme. If all our relations sets itself up against a modernist heroism which must by now be as rickety as a leaky curtain wall, its pluralism does not mean anything and everything and isn’t it so groovy we’re all connected all the time? In their curatorial statement Zegher and McMaster place their biennale within “a renewed attention to how things connect” which is already at large in the world. Bad connections spark and sputter all over the place, while good ones, we hope, form in the shadows or underground, always in resistance to the dark force of an individualism of consumers instead of individuals. all our relations is not the same as “let’s get together and feel alright” and it is not, as some feared when the theme was first announced, a rejection of the visionary in favor of a dull but worthy collectivism. Both extremes are too easy, as is most territory in between.
To judge from the enormous queue in front of the Hôtel de Ville to get into this magnificent exhibition of Doisneau’s photographs, there remains a Les Halles shaped void in the Parisian heart. There is perhaps no real place in Paris which exerts such fascination as the memory of Les Halles, “le ventre de Paris.” Of all the wounds inflicted on the city during the same period, from the rive gauche expressway (1967) to the Tour Montparnasse (1973), perhaps none was so psychically damaging as the closing of Les Halles in 1969. There was something intimate about this particular blow; it was literally a punch to the stomach, a bureaucratic meddling with the primal, particularly in France, human need for nourishment.
Devant l’Hôtel de Ville l’énorme file d’attente pour cette exposition magnifique des photos de Doisneau atteste qu’il reste toujours un trou des Halles béant dans le coeur parisien. Probablement aucune autre lieu parisien soustrait autant de fascination que la mémoire des Halles, “le ventre de Paris.” Peut-être la différence entre la fermeture des Halles en 1969 et les autres blessures urbaines de cet époque, parmi eux la voie express rive gauche (1967) et la tour Montparnasse (1973), est sa qualité autant psychique que physique. Cette perte avait quelque chose d’intime, une véritable tape au ventre par les fonctionnaires anonymes contre le besoin humain de la nourriture.
One arrives in a city and what to make of it all? Everything is either small or larger or noisier or quieter than you expected. In reaction, one seeks out the history of a place. In Paris, one of the best places to start to understand the city’s architectural history is the Pavilion de l’Arsenal, which has recently redone its permanent exhibition, Paris, la métropole et ses projets. One of the unique aspects of Paris is the way the many museums, at least the national ones, are meant to fit neatly together like Métro carriages. The Musée d’Orsay (freshly renovated) takes over from the Louvre in the revolutionary year of 1848, followed in turn by the Centre Pompidou and so on. But there are always pieces left over, with enough overlap to resist any amount of fist pounding. For Paris enthusiasts there is the Musée Carnavalet on the history of the city and for architecture and urbanism there is the Arsenal and the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine at the Trocadero. In comparison, the Arsenal is more contemporary, more open-ended, more Paris-focused and perhaps less concerned with monumentality.
On arrive dans une ville, et comment la comprendre? C’est toujours plus petite ou plus grande, plus bruyante ou plus calme qu’on l’avait entendu. On recherche, instinctivement, l’histoire des lieux. À Paris, la Pavillon de l’Arsenal vient de refaire leur exposition permanente, Paris, la métropole et ses projets. À Paris les plusieurs musées, au moins les musées nationaux, s’emboîtent comme les rames du Métro. Le Musée d’Orsay (aussi renouvelé) commence où finit le Louvre dans l’année révolutionnaire de 1848, et puis le Centre Pompidou continue des 1914 à nos jours. Mais avec tant des musées il y a toujours les rames qui restent, libres peut-être. qui restent, libres peut-être. Pour les amateurs de Paris il y a le Musée Carnavalet de l’histoire de la ville et sur le plan architectural et urbaniste nous avons l’Arsenal et la Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine au Trocadero. Par rapport au Trocadero, l’Arsenal s’agit plus de Paris et en particulière sa architecture moderne et contemporaine.
Unlike movies or the performing arts, architecture is not seasonal. There is no year end rush in which all the Gehrys and Koolhaases are “released,” no popcorn summer in which the Barangaroos and Ground Zeros of this world try to blow out our eye sockets with their empty spectacle. Cities just go on and on; one must make an effort to pick a moment and look back if we are ever to figure out just what on earth is going on.