Sunday, April 20, 2003

A stunning piece of urban design

This post is essentially going to be a photo essay. I hope that downloading all the pictures is not going to drive my readers using dialup crazy.

I list "urban design" as one of my interests in the bar to the left of this blog, and long term readers will know that I am particularly interested in urban regeneration. As part of a major global shift from manufacturing to services, cities worldwide have in recent decades have been losing industrial jobs, and areas that were once industrial (or supported industrial areas) have been slowly becoming office and residential areas. On thing which particularly fascinates me is how the large and monolithic buildings and other structures of the industrial age can be regenerated to form a part of modern cities. There are some very simple manifestations of this - warehouses converted into apartments for instance - that many people are familiar with. However, some of the more complicated ones can be more interesting.

One dramatic change that has occurred is the so-called "materials revolution". Today, we have composite and synthetic materials that are many times stronger, lighter, and thinner than the metals, brick, and wood of the industrial age. This means that additional functionality can be added to existing buildings without putting undue pressure on their foundations, and the new structures that convert an old use to new often have a spindly quality about them. They almost make buildings converted in this way look like they have spider webs attached to the sides of them.

Thus you get such structures as the Hungerford Bridge across the Thames, where two new cable stayed footbridges have been build on the sides of a massive 19th century railway bridge. Also visible in that photo is the London Eye, the huge Ferris Wheel on the south bank of the Thames. Aesthetically this is quite similar: we have a modern spindly structure next to the quite massive and functional structure of the buildings surrounding it.

Railway structures and other disused transport infrastructure are often availiable for reusue, and in London you tend to see this in a fairly ad hoc way. The arches of active and disused railway viaducts are filled with restaurants, car repair workshops, markets, and businesses of other kinds. An indoor sports centre consisting of swimming pools, indoor soccer arenas and various similar facilities that exists in the enormous Bishopsgate viaduct in the East End is one of the coolest places in London. There is even regeneration of earlier infrastructure in one or two places. A walk around Peckham in South London reveals a long narrow park, which is a little below street level. Every time the park intersects with a street, the level of the park drops some more and goes under a bridge. The bridges have a 19th century logo of some kind on them, and the letters "G.S.C". It isn't too difficult to figure out that the "C" stands for "Canal". So what we have is a disused canal converted into a park. (When you do a little research, you find that the full name is "Grand Surrey Canal"). I do not know when this particular piece of urban regeneration took place, but it is quite an interesting one, although in a rather run down and hard to find location.

In London, this type of thing is done on an ad hoc manner, and often by the private sector. When you go to Paris, you expect it to be different. And that is what I found. While wandering around near the Gare de Lyon, I walked under a railway viaduct, in well maintained condition, but apparently not in use. Interestingly enough, I saw a staircase going up into the middle of it with people going up and down. This was interesting, so I walked up the staircase. On the top of the viaduct, to my surprise I found a leafy pedestrian boulevard down which lots of Parisians were taking an afternoon walk.

I walked along it a little bit, and sort various other access points to it, including disabled access in the form of ramps and lifts. At one point I saw some sporting facilities in an empty space to one side, half way between viaduct level and street level. This was very impressive, and the architects who had designed it had clearly gone to a lot of effort to get it right. I was especially impressed by the trees planted on top of the viaduct. Hopefully they were some species that would not grow roots that would tear the viaduct to pieces. However, I was on my way somewhere else, so I decided to find out where this viaduct went from and to, and come back the next day for a better look.

A little research indicated that the viaduct began at the Place de la Bastille, near the new opera house, and headed towards the edge of Paris. The viaduct followed the start of a former 17km railway right of way going into the Paris suburbs. The walk is known as the Promenade Plantee, and goes for approximately 4km, starting with the viaduct, and then following the path of the railway through cuttings, tunnels and under bridges. Here is a schematic of the whole thing.
(Stolen from here, where there is a larger version).

The railway was closed in 1969, due to the opening of an underground express railway, line A of the RER. In any event, the next day, I walked to the Bastille, up the steps and onto the viaduct and walked along it.

As you walk along it, there are regular sets of steps etc giving access to the street belong. At several points, I walked down and looked back at the viaduct. The arches of the viaduct are filled with art galleries and similar, and the viaduct is thus known as the Viaduc es Arts.

The arches look a bit like the arches with businesses inside them in British railway viaducts, but they are cleaner and less grungy.

However, the walk goes further than just the viaduct. At a couple of points, the viaduct has clearly been demolished, and has been replaced with newer structures on the same level. Here for instance the viaduct has been replaced with a lightweight bridge and a building that incorporates the walkway into its structure.

After a couple of kilometres, you get to the end of the elevated viaduct. The promenade continues, over a lightly cable stayed pedestrian bridge and then down an avenue between buildings, presumably municipal housing.

Then there is actually a tunnel under some more municipal housing. (I am not sure if the housing was there before the promenade, or the tunnel had to be added later. In any event, the tunnel is perhaps the least attractive part of the whole promenade, even if the designers have put a few artificial waterfalls inside it for effect.

For the last couple of kilometres of the promenade, we enter a railway cutting instead of a viaduct. It is perhaps not as spectacular as the viaduct, but it is still an extraordinarily pleasant walk. We still use the old railway infrastructure: bridges and tunnels. As on the viaduct, ramps, steps and various other additions have been made to make the promenade as pedestrian friendly and disabled person friendly as possible.

Eventually we reach the end. A silly spiral staircase has been added to allow you to get up to the road at the end. (There are also ramps not visited in the picture.

At that point, I noticed that the railway infrastructure continued. In particular, the tunnel under the road at the end of the promenade has been blocked. I wondered why this was. However, once I walked up the spiral staircase to the road, all was clear. The road turned out to be La Periphique the orbital motorway that has been built more or less precisely on the boundary between the city of Paris and its suburbs. This tunnel leads out of the city into the supurbs. Parisians are rather disdainful of their suburbs. This was clearly a Parisian project, and the architects couldn't seriously imagine pedestrians actually wanting to go into the suburbs. Therefore they didn't facilitate it. I shall make another post on this subject in a day or three.

Still, though, this is a stunning, stunning, stunning piece of urban design. It is possible to go for what almost feels like a 4km country walk from the centre of Paris to the city limits. As a way of reusing old infrastructure, this is just marvellous.

(Some of these pictures are a bit too big for my 800x600 screen on my laptop. On a larger screen they probably look fine. Still, I might edit them tomorrow. For now, though, bed).


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