Interview with Jésus Torres Garcia
Teacher at ENSA Paris-Malaquais and ENSA Paris-Belleville
JésusTorresGarcia architecture website : http://www.jesustorres.net
During the drawing lessons you supervised at ENSA Paris-Malaquais, you wanted to bring students out of the hypercenter of Paris, where the school is, in order to investigate the farout suburbs. Every student had to explore his part of the city beyond the Boulevard Périphérique ring, and chose significative elements that the students then had to represent. What is the aim of this process ?
Jésus Torres Garcia : To me, the most interesting parts of Paris are its suburbs. Within the Boulevard Périphérique that separates the center from the suburbs, there is the touristic Paris that everybody knows. The students of ENSA Paris-Malaquais or Paris-Belleville, which are architecture schools located in the hypercenter of the city – and by extension all the parisians – are used to a very polarised vision of the city that derives directly from the public transports’ structure. Most of them don’t know anything about the suburbs, even if they offer a huge variety of urban forms and form an indivisible couple with the center. In the meantime, suburban people who come to Paris for work everyday have a very detached vision of the classic imaginary of the city and its symbols, such as the Eiffel tower or the Seine river…
What led to this split between the suburbs and the center ?
Jésus Torres Garcia : This comes from an old and harmful habit of the center denying the existence of the suburbs. It also highlights the fact that the “Périphérique” (ring road that circumscribes the city) is part of the structure of the city. A study by the collective Tomato Architecture made of young architects reveals that the Périphérique a very old border with a rich memory. Today it unfortunately suffers from an exceedingly negative image of impassable frontier, whether it is actual a territory that is full of potential.
How does your own experience of the city life -within and outside of the Périphérique- feeds your educational approach of architecture?
J.-T.-G. : As a stranger who’s been living here for a long time, I don’t feel like a tourist, but I think that my vision is quite close from the one of a provincial. I have a strange, almost fanatical ambition to understand how the city works, with the underlying impression that life in Paris is impossible. It seems like a wall right in front of me. I believe this vision is quite close to the reality of this city. The strongest image I have of Paris is actually the first vision I’ve had of the city when I arrived from Orly airport. From the plane you can grasp in one image all the myths of this city : the social housing blocks that look like a concrete jungle, with the Eiffel tower and Montparnasse office buildings in the background. This image shows what I love about this city : the extremely exhaustive library of urban forms, especially the ones from the XXth century : cities like Évry for instance, or urban clusters like La Défense, this kind of functional urbanism allowed by the use of concrete esplanades, or others social housing projects in Essonne, etc. These are interesting urban theory case studies that ought to be observed and analyzed in every architectural education, even more than haussmanian architecture. For students that are lucky enough to study in this city, these are places that should absolutely be explored and criticized because they show a reality of the world that utterly differs from the center.
Can the extension of the public transports network scaled for the “Grand Paris” bring back together the center and the suburb ?
J.-T.-G. : This project is the logical consequence of the city development undertaken since the World War II. Starting 1950, Paris gradually became a production machine: plane, car, rail industries that settled mainly in the suburbs (Renault in Boulogne-Billancourt, Alstom in Levallois-Perret…). In only 30 years, the metropolis has had to absorb a huge amount of people, more than 3.5 million. This tremendous economic and demographic growths created imbalances that still remain today. The “Grand Paris” is an infrastructural project and is not a bad idea in itself…But to me, it is an “engineer urbanism”, based on managerial and profit guidelines and it’s not enough. I have a very romantic vision of the city, which must be a place of joy, of thrive, where the magic happens. These are some qualities that make a city authentic. A city like Paris can only grow harmoniously following a logic of territorial cohesion and small scale recoveries. I often wonder why there is such an obsession for the development of new infrastructures when the quality of the public space could be tremendously increased with small interventions, like rehabilitating the sidewalks for instance. If sidewalks are too small, if they have no qualities, the city cannot exist.The real city is a place where we can work and buy a “baguette” within a 5 minutes walk, and without taking the subway to find a place where there is people and life. It’s also where we can go to the theater, where a family can relax with kids in a public park on the weekend, and then go to a “café” for some drinks… The urban life can only emerge through an sensitive approach, a special concern for people’s everyday life, a small-scale urban planning that goes beyond a technocratic logic.
Does the “real city” exist out of the Périphérique?
J.-T.-G. : Of course. Cities like Montreuil or Aubervilliers are very cosmopolitan. They are the proofs that the real city does exist beyond the Périphérique. But the metropolis is still stucked in a binary system where the dense and exciting city is gathered inside of the old walls of the capital, surrounded by some small cities spread out here and there without cohesion. There are many successful examples of urban development in middle-sized cities in Europe, for instance in Spain, which are smarter because they are designed to generate this cohesion. In cities like Paris, you need to find investors that understand small-scale urban planning, and have a vision of its potential evolution. It is a new philosophy that is currently emerging with the new generation of urban actors, who have understood that many great economical powers support destruction and keep alive the myth of an unlimited growth, which is neither reasonable nor desirable.