“The fact is that patrolling boundaries calls for a lot of cunning. And discernment. It is at the butt-joint, at the interfaces, that you find the most resourceful people. Border cities are places ripe for ferment: Tangiers, Trieste, Thessalonika, Alexandria, Istanbul. Welcoming to creative people and entrepreneurs. To smugglers of drugs and ideas. To flow accelerators”.
Régis Debray, Éloge des frontières.
It is possible to see the construction of Thiers’s 1 city wall in 1845 as the starting point of the modern adventure for Paris and the beginning of the building of the Parisian metropolis. Originally, the military rampart was a wall in the midst of fields, but one which founded a new city and an administrative boundary which today still defines an inside and an outside, a centre and a periphery.
But beyond establishing a separation, the construction of the rampart is also the foundation of a mythical territory: the couronne of Paris. 2 Since the wall is something with depth, it is not a line, with the wall and its zone of protection where building is prohibited—non aedificandi, otherwise put—respectively occupying widths of 250 and 150 metres over the whole ring. These 400 metres, associated with some occasional extraordinary ground coverage, produce a void, a space, an unusual territory that stemmed from a fantastic building site, whose deep-seated condition is that it is a border.
The border is very different from the mere limit, as depth and interface, the border has virtues which the limit does not have. It sets things in motion, precisely where the limit stops them. The limit bans passage, while the border regulates it: this latter is made to filter, and organize exchanges, the way the skin breathes through its pores and coasts breathe through their ports.
Furthermore, the border always represents a very specific urban condition, and in an especially evident way here, as it proceeds simultaneously from a twofold state: that of foundation, anchorage and permanence (the wall, the non aedificandi zone, and the infrastructure) and that of transformation and metamorphosis (the wall then the boulevard then the green belt then the ring road then the tramway…).
Like a sign of destiny and a premonition of its condition in the offing, the fortification was also regarded, at the time of its conception, as inadequate in the face of Prussian cannons: so before it was even built there were already plans to modify it. The fortification was thus in itself an object “to be transformed”, even before coming into being.
What interests us even more here is the fact that this feature of transformation does not only have to do with the moment of existence of the fortification, but it would also endure. After a period during which the non aedificandi zone was occupied by informal constructions, the city wall was demolished in 1919, and became the Boulevard des Maréchaux and a green belt. This new territory was occupied by a large number of housing units (the famous “Habitations à Bon Marché”—social housing—which can still be seen today) but also by sports amenities, school facilities and urban services which Paris intramuros was unable to incorporate (cemeteries, army training grounds, slaughter houses…). Gradually, in this green belt where building is not permitted, neighbourhoods filled with public housing were erected in the 1950s and 1960s, while the ring road found its place as an outer boundary, thus overlaying its concrete ribbon on the administrative boundary of Paris. 3
The arrival of the ring road, which, according to various studies, has today become the most used motorway in Europe and the world, once again considerably altered the territory of the couronne of Paris. Because, since its completion 40 years ago (it was built between 1958 and 1973), a very specific urban model has seen the light of day, neither Paris, nor suburb, which we called the Ville du Périphérique 4, the “ring road city”. A part of the city made up of specific movements, exchanges and programmes, a part of the city stretched between sedentariness and displacement, but above all a part of the city whose specific nature comes from its history: a large void, or a large metropolitan open space
Nowadays, the Maréchaux tram system is once again re-inventing this part of the city which is now more than a century and a half old. It is thus involved in a metamorphosis, which has become an everlasting process of reinvention of the border. A metamorphosis in the sense that, with every transformation, the newly created form is not amnesiac but retains from the past some of its basic characteristics. It appears evident that unlike many other urban territories, be they more settled or more unambiguous, a real aptitude but also an intrinsic need for transformation are truly formative elements of this border territory.
Where do this aptitude and this need for transformation come from? Quite likely it is generated by an unusual and paradoxical urban condition. Since from its early traces this territory is animated by a peculiar instability, determined by the forced coexistence of contradictory functions and ambitions and spatial conditions.
The paradox is flagrant between its character as a founding territory—whose physical signs are among the most radical and extreme that are to be found in the European city (from the gigantic double city wall of its zone to the looped concrete ring infrastructure forming a circle of 36 kilometres, passing through the Boulevard des Maréchaux, a traditional city boulevard with outstanding dimensions and an outstanding looped form)—and its character of a perpetually changing territory. But the paradox is no less keen between the condition of periphery, or outskirts, which existed prior to its foundation and which still marks the perception of this territory, and the status of a central territory which it has acquired over time, as much from the viewpoint of mobility (metro, buses and vehicular traffic), geographical situation (truly at the hub of the dense zone of the Parisian metropolis, halfway between Châtelet and the A86 motorway), as reputation (from the ring road itself to major programmes like the exhibition centre, the Conference Centre, the Parc des Princes stadium, and the Parc de la Villette…) An even more fundamental paradox probably has to do with the place occupied by the couronne of Paris in French urban culture. This territory in a way actually lends substance to the most profoundly Parisian and French urban structure that exists, in particular through its major present-day symbolic object, the ring road. Through the clarity of the urban arrangement (the parallelism of the two concentric boulevards, the junctions with the radial motorways on the ring road), this territory represents the Cartesian and unifying dream of the radio-concentric system. But at the same time as it is the jewel of a French urban history, it is probably, together with high density housing complexes, the most disparaged not to say loathed of structures. Because of its different forms of nuisance (noise, pollution, the way it cuts up the city), and for the territorial segregation it represents, it is felt to be a territory with no qualities, a valley of ebbs and flows considered to be a necessary evil.
A number of other criteria might lead us to further reveal the outward signs of the egregiously ambivalent and ambiguous character of the couronne, invariably pulled between, on the one hand, the unambiguous, violent and radical nature of its physical and spatial manifestations and, on the other hand, its condition of being in a state of perpetual change, and potential and uninterrupted transformation of itself. It is probably a matter here of promoting the fact that as a paradoxical city, Paris has, in this border territory, a quite unusual urban condition, about which, it must indeed be acknowledged, little is yet known.
Once again confirmed by the advent of the tram as a contemporary repurposing of the public place and systems of mobility on the boulevards of Paris, this particular condition which prompts the couronne of Paris to reinvent and continually metamorphose itself, is akin, we might say, to adolescence.
The term adolescence comes from the Latin adolescere, meaning “to grow” or “to develop”, forming an antithetical pair with abolescere, which has given “to abolish”. 5 The idea of adolescence, which came into being with the French Revolution, only really acquired its medical and psychological bases in the 20th century 6, when it was properly identified by society which posited it as a recognized state, and, mainly, incidentally, as a crisis. So adolescence is a phenomenon of the modern, contemporary age of the couronne of Paris and, by extension, of numerous areas with comparable features which have been brought to the fore by modernity for the past 150 years in the major cities.
Now just like the way people look at adolescents—teenagers—these areas are often stigmatized. Like teenagers, they often inspire fear, not to say alarm; their beauty is uncertain, and often disconcerting; their aspirations are often misunderstood; they can be regarded as wild, harmful, and requiring control. But at the same time, by cultivating paradox here, too, they have a power of attraction; their familiar strangeness is fascinating; their violence and their radicalness are understood as a form of energy; their transgressions are a source of inventiveness, renewal, questioning and social progress. Literature, nedless to say, and film, above all, have used adolescence as their subject matter, seeking to make full use of its visual power: from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause to Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, from Francis Ford Coppola with, in particular, Rusty James, to Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and above all Larry Clark with his fascination for skaters. What often comes across from this material, over and above any understanding of the phenomenon, is a relation of cahoots between teenagers and particular areas which resemble them.
What are these territories? They are like the army deployed within the contemporary urbanized expanse. At the crossroads of “species of spaces” which form the territory of large cities there are “zones” 7 which may be described as intermediate. These intermediate situations seemingly have no form or even function, they are the outskirts of outskirts, the common borders of the “usual suspects” 8 of vast built-up areas (housing estates, low-cost housing complexes, layers of suburban housing, club-villages, zones of activity, new towns, leisure centres, etc.). They sometimes incorporate infrastructures and the void is one of their raw materials. Needless to say, they deal with paradox, somewhere between sedentariness and displacement, ordinary and extraordinary, necessary and abandoned, accursed and sublime. In these zones which, unlike the Parisian couronne, have largely invented themselves unaided, a form of interaction between the parts adjoining them is possible.
Like the couronne of Paris, it is in the borders—borders within metropolises—that the city is most keenly and swiftly renewed. And this re-invention is extended as long as the condition of border and paradox endures, in a form of ongoing adolescence. Because the border survives its metamorphoses, indomitable, as long as it remains a border, because it is the “stuff of thoughts”: the border summons thinking which triggers the cycle of transformation. So it is this border condition which must be cultivated, made fruitful, and kept alive and in permanent development, as if plunged in a perpetual state of adolescence.
The metropolis is not just a large city, but a large city linked with spaces outside its own territory (originally, the metropolis is the mother-city or a city with colonies, thus territories outside its own). Metropolises are therefore territories in which the notion of locality is upset by a tension towards a dimension external to it. They are special places marked by an interaction between their own territory and their planetary condition. To become something that really constitutes the metropolis and makes it as operative and stimulating as possible, this interaction must perforce inform the territory in depth. Like a vital need, interaction thus starts actually within the fabric of the metropolis, in places capable of giving rise to exchange: the internal borders.
In a quite obvious way, the internal borders—those intermediate and paradoxical situations—are the prerogative of metropolises. These latter are filled with these pieces of adolescence and it is they, in their aptitude for creating intermediation, which tend to gradually construct a “metropolitan culture”.
So it follows that, until the next metamorphosis, the tram system is nowadays finding a meaning as a metropolitan cultural agent.
Article by Pierre Alain Trévelo et Antoine Viger-Kohler published in Entre les lignes, la commande artistique du tramway parisien, éditions Ville de Paris, 2016.