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“No Limit” Introduction

We have called these urban elements, which are of a dominant nature, primary elements because they participate in the evolution of the city over time in a permanent way, often becoming identified with the major artifacts constituting the city. The union of these primary elements with an area, in terms of location and construction, permanence of plan and permanence of building, natural artifacts and constructed artifacts, constitutes a whole which is the physical structure of the city.

Aldo Rossi, “The Architecture of the City”, 1981

The highroad is paradoxical. While it irrigates and opens up the world, it also divides and pollutes it. Roads and cars formerly brought adventure, freedom and development; now they are hated. However, the highroad is there, firmly present, still young and robust. It harms and divides our cities—but might not this paradox be apt in generating a new richness and a new urban complexity?

Because it is definitely legitimate and probably fruitful to have an interest in our old bygone myths, in those places of modernity in which our societies have so deeply believed, and which it is important to continue working on.

The busiest freeway in the world, and In Europe, depending on the studies made; an infrastructure situated in the heart of a particularly high urban density; installed in a thoroughly French history; superposed on an extremely powerful administrative limit; or alternatively made famous in such a short time, and for everyone, inhabitants and tourists alike, because it defines an in and an out in the world’s most visited city.

The Paris ring-road is a unique urban case. The history of the ring-road is that of a limit. A limit successively given to mono-functional and unitary uses: fortifications, zone, green belt, the ring-road. A limit that has always underpinned the image, even after the destruction of the fortifications embarked upon in 1919, of Paris’s last wall. A limit which, since 1860, has tallied with the administrative limit between the French capital and the rest of the world, and which has symbolized a posture of domination and exclusion between Paris and its built-up greater area. Today, however, Paris represents 4% of this greater area’s urbanized area and 22% of its inhabitants. The question of limit changed a long time ago.

While for many people the ring-road and its territory are still nevertheless a limit—real or symbolic—, it is not our intent to deny this reality, but rather to see it in another light, based on the idea that limit situations are not necessarily limitative. The limit can be a place of possibilities, a space of re-invention which every city needs. The limit can enrich its potential—the wide open landscape—and go beyond its dysfunctions—rupture and nuisance.

We must, as a prior condition, alter our way of looking at this issue or, more precisely, start to really look at it. For this territory has probably suffered as much from its real condition as from the obvious lack of attention paid to it for the past 150 years, and even more so since the construction of the ring-road between 1958 and 1973. To gauge the difficulties experienced by this territory and appreciate its challenges, it is crucial to pay a new kind of attention to a subject that is to a large degree little known. All the more so because this lack of attention contrasts with the certainty of the solutions to be made, with the cover representing the essence of a line of thinking which reasons above all in ambulance-like terms referring to erasing a wound. A detailed, contemporary way of looking at things, free of prejudices, is called  for.

Pursuing this goal, together with the TOMATO Architects Group, we have called this territory the Ring-Road City [TOMATO Architects, Paris, La Ville du Périphérique, Paris, Le Moniteur, 2003], to describe the significance of the infrastructure, but also to emphasize its capacity to be a force of urbanization. We have shown that this city is at once unitary and composite. In the pursuance of this work, this publication is the outcome of a forward-looking study of the future urban development of this territory and of the quest for a form of coherence and harmony between infrastructure and city. So it is not a matter of an analysis relating to the mobility of the ring-road and forecasts about traffic growth, any more than it is a pre-operational study announcing Paris’s future face.

This study is a threefold exploration. First and foremost, an exploration through the words and through the viewpoints of several authors, ranging from questioning the Parisian unconscious as something condensed inside the ring-road circle to an examination of a re-invention made possible by the condition of centrality, the breadth of the landscape, and infrastructural changes. Then a journey by way of mapping in what, as of today, links the ring-road and the city, to wit, a precisely equivalent division: each part of the city corresponds to a distinct sequence of the ring-road. Lastly, in certain chosen places, an outlook  towards systems of metamorphosis which, by striving to work on all the aspects of the ring-road and in the depths of its territory, would make it possible to unify and harmonize both city and infrastructure.

Both spatially and symbolically, the territories of the ring-road carry within them an historic opportunity in a magnificent, powerful and unbalanced metropolis. Today they represent the contact point and the breaking point. The city of the ring-road is in the middle of the ford. Already formed, it is no longer fully urban. And while it will always be apart in the Parisian metropolis, neither Paris nor suburb, it may well, before long, no longer be a limit or a symbol of confinement, and become a “necessary link between all the parts of the metropolis”. [Jacques Lucan, “Le point de vue à la limite”, preface to TOMATO Architects, Paris, La Ville du Périphérique, op.cit.]. This probably involves imagining the metamorphosis of this territory.

Central Ring-Road Symbol

A typically Parisian circle
The very last gesture that has structured the city of Paris in an overall way corresponds, after Baron Haussmann’s works, to the period which saw the construction of the Parisian belt. In half a century, between 1919 and 1973, there was a shift from the destruction of the last Paris wall to the completion of the ring-road—the boulevard périphérique. Since then, such wholesale actions have not concerned the capital itself, but rather the territories of the rest of the greater built-up area.

The ring-road is the final chapter in this Parisian story. It is a radio-concentric story, a story in the tradition of the centuries-old growth of the capital. Historical continuity makes the ring-road the most Parisian of things, the thing which most clearly lends material form to the Parisian unconscious. Today, it incarnates the Cartesian and unifying dream of Paris’s structure. At a time when military walls have become useless, and in the world’s most “one” country, it is the last unique gesture, the circle which delimits a space apart. The ring-road has become a symbol.

The unconscious dream of unity
But if France and Paris have regularly given rise to unifying systems, these systems have usually been called into question, on the pretext that what unifies also reduces and limits. For to accomplish its symbolic and holistic mission, the ring-road is displayed in all its radicalness, and appears to be irrevocable, as if ready to incarnate this role with pride, and forever. For this, people curse it, because it steals away with, and absorbs just for itself, the representation of a collective dream, because it too crudely expresses the desire for unity and coherence symptomatic of Paris since the works of Louis XIV, firstly, and then Napoleon III and Haussmann. It offers a cumbersome definitive vision: as well as limiting space, it also seems to limit time. Taken to extremes, it represents Europe’s largest roundabout, with Paris no longer appearing as the decorative and inert sculpture in the middle—the stencil of the museum-city so often brandished.

So the ring-road is the ultimate concretion of Paris’s basic structure. As such, it immediately acquires a metropolitan scope, as if like an entity capable of depicting a totality. As such, the ring-road is no longer just an object, but a territory. It is an expanse, and this value as a Parisian paradigm is underpinned by the territorial totality it forms with the other ring-like elements—green belt, low-cost housing belt, Boulevard des Maréchaux.

The curse of the crown
The consequence of the power of the ring-road circle as a symbol of Paris’s shape can be read today in the domination that the figure of the “crown”—couronne— wields over the Parisian metropolis. Greater Paris is organized in a series of successive “crowns”, and Paris itself is caught in an inner “small crown”. The fact is that, with the advent of modern urbanism and mobility in the 20th century, this simplistic vision of a metropolis defined by successive circles shows its limitations. Haussmann decisively federated Paris intra-muros within a network imposing its law on historic circles, while the suburbs are made up of an extremely large and complex composite system. Neither Paris intra-muros nor the suburbs can be subject to and defined just by the notion of “crown”.

The ring-road henceforth becomes an essential issue, for, as we have explained above, it remains extremely determined by its form, exceeded by its circular symbolism. It is a crown, a vicious circle. Here, two essential factors intervene and condemn it even more surely: first, its almost perfect superposition with the administrative limit between, it just so happens, Paris and the suburbs; then its physical presence made of concrete, vehicles, noise and CO2. So, in addition to being the improper symbol of Paris as a circle, the ring-road is also, on the one hand, the administrative boundary between the French capital and the rest of the world, and, on the other, a violent and harmful object, the last wall.


“Greater Paris” is made of lines
Throughout its history, and more particularly since the birth of modern Paris with the creation of nothing less than a metropolitan system in the 19th century, then by way of the infrastructural work of the 20th century, Paris is marked and identified by its lines. From the Seine to the great thoroughfares creating it, by way of boulevards, canals, railways and freeways, the deep-seated structure of this city is held together by a web made of powerful lines. The ring-road is an essential element of this network and, as a result, it is endowed with a great structural force for the territory.

The ring-road encompasses 700,000 inhabitants and 320,000 jobs within a total width of 1.2 km, 800m in Paris and 400m in the suburbs.

Infrastructural lines, in particular freeways and expressways, can become the large public places of tomorrow. They are still young, not to say primal, elements in the city—appearing over the last 50 years—and on the city’s time scale, their real change is inevitable. From this viewpoint, a change in the way we look at these infrastructures is necessary. Their current uses lend them a fundamental value: they are valleys of flows which accumulate a human trace and a collective memory, special lines of activity and human development. As city amenities, these infrastructures have represented colossal investments. It is a matter of integrating them in a new goal and making them more complex, rather than regarding them as unsuited to the city. When mobility, with its current problems (such as pollution), presents itself in a different light, when it has become diversified at both individual and collective levels, it will become clear that these lines must structure the organization of the city, so that human activities become closer to transport. By turning the way we look at things inside out, we must also consider that the development of activities around these lines must be part of the transformation of mobility.

Urban freeways, last of all, bring together maximum potential—service roads, visibility, landscape, nature, metropolitan scope, land waiting to be invented—and maximum dysfunctions—breaks, problems, such as pollution, abandonments. So it is in these places that the lever of transformation is most important of all. The situations which do the most harm to the city are also those which can also do it the most good. Metamorphosing what does the most harm is a way of envisaging a far-reaching change to the city without needing to deal with all its parts. Because, today, all the essential challenges of the metropolis are concentrated in a few lines: environment, mobility, economic development, housing-employment relation, and administrative hierarchy of the territory. as such, the ring-road could represent a prototype, the first in a series.

Between city and nature
These lines are places in a very particular urbanity, because they are usually positioned in peripheral situations. The fact is that, at the outset, the notion of ring-road—or periphery—defined the contact point between city and nature. It was a threshold, a part of a territory where the landscape changed and shifted from an urban state to a natural state. So it was a relation, a passage. In the case of the ring-road, the city is on both sides of it, but in between, nature exists. This nature, whatever its material form, takes on the form of a large ring-like void. The city of the ring-road is a vast breathing space, a wide landscape that is open and contemporary, included in the density of the city’s heart. Like the wide space of the Seine, this character of broad void as if hewn in the density is a fundamental quality.

The ring-road encompasses 11% of Paris’s green spaces, which is more than the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg together.

Unfinishedness + effectiveness = something in the making
Furthermore, among the essential assets which lend the territory of the ring-road its aptitudes and responsibilities, we find the condition of the young territory, as yet little worked. Its history explains this, marked by the function of reserve: the wall, the zone without building, and the green belt. So it was a preserved territory, earmarked for certain major functions, still never re-promoted.

The ring-road is a primary territory, scandalously abandoned during the 20th century where today two notions are still predominant: unfinishedness and effectiveness. As a source of major urban disputes, the joining together of these two notions nevertheless gives the ring-road a tremendous strength: a capacity for evolution, which turns it into a territory in the making.

A place with a metropolitan scope
So, today, the ring-road accordingly reunites and confronts a maximum of radical and paradoxical properties: its symbolic power, at once a source of identity and confinement; its structural force; its landscape, its nature and its open space inserted in the density; its unfinishedness; its effectiveness and its capacity to create problems. This accumulation gives the Paris ring-road its metropolitan scope. With the built-up area, it is a key place within a complex metropolitan arrangement. It is symptomatic of a non-relation between a capital and its country, of a non-encounter between two peripheries. It is not a non-place, it is a limit: a metropolitan limit. This exceptional status makes the metamorphosis of the ring-road  more than desirable, rather, indispensable.


The celebrity of the environment
It has become both necessary and legitimate to question the improper and inoperative pre-eminence of the notion of the “crown” in a greater built-up area of ten million inhabitants. To this end, it is essential to consider several factors which, today, run radically counter to the commonplace image of the ring-road as a symbol of confinement and as a Parisian and French limit.

First and foremost, where is the ring-road really situated in the Parisian metropolis? Certainly not on its periphery. The central part of the built-up area—the agglomeration—which contains 5-6 million inhabitants to whom the city brings a form of continuity and conditions which, while not equivalent, are comparable in terms of density and access to the major services (housing, transport, amenities and facilities),occupies a territory which stretches more or less to the A86 freeway. And the ring road is situated quite simply in the middle of this vast territory, equidistant from Les Halles and the A86. Within the dense built-up area, the ring-road now occupies the middle position. As a consequence, in all probability, it has also become famous. Both Ile-de-France residents and tourists use it—or know when they cross it—because its status is unavoidable in the overall system. 1,300,000 people use it every day. Several metropolitan phenomena contribute to this intensive use: its role as a freeway link and terminus--as the most advanced point in the metropolis—, its historical belonging to the European highway network, its proximity to airports, its encounter with Paris’s major thoroughfares and, it goes without saying, its geographical situation in the middle. Some of its parts have acquired a reputation enjoyed by no other urban freeway. This applies to its great ‘gates’—the ‘Portes’of Vincennes, Orléans and Maillot--, its monumental interchanges (La Chapelle, Bagnolet, Bercy), its metropolitan programmes (Parc de la Villette, Cité universitaire, Parc des Expositions, Parc des Princes) and the “route of presidents” phenomenon (the stretch between La Chapelle and Mallot thus named by advertising agencies because it is much used by company directors—présidents-- in their journeys between Charles de Gaulle airport at Roissy, and the La Défense business district).

The valley of flows
The ring road is not a solitary infrastructure, which you might grasp independently of its context. Just as the Haussmannian boulevard is inseparable from its architecture, the ring-road is inseparable from its expanse. The ring-road did not plan the architecture to go hand-in-hand with it because it is not a boulevard, it is a territory and a wide open landscape. The ring-road is not just a road-based infrastructure. It is above all the main axis of a territory of mobilities, regional and local alike, a space that is crossed, used and informed by a constant movement: a valley of flows. From the Boulevard des Maréchaux to the ring-road, not forgetting the way the various gates are served by public transport, this territory is built on mobility.

Eiffel Tower: 30,000 users a day
Parisian buses: 1,000,000 users a day
A86: 1,000,000 users a day
Ring-road: 1,300,000 users a day
Metro: 3,600,000 users a day

The ring-road concentrates 35-40% of Paris traffic in 6% of the area covered by roads and makes it possible to move about in Paris two and a half times faster than anywhere else.

The city of the ring-road has a specific mobility, being the place in the metropolis where there is the best combination of private mobility and mobility of public transport. In fact, beyond the ring-road, the public transport situation changes, and deteriorates, while, in Paris itself, automobile mobility is becoming less efficient. In this territory, all sorts of mechanized mobility are present, and complement one another. Mobility cannot therefore be summed up by journeys made on the ring-road. For all that, “soft” forms of mobility are often overlooked, because they are victims of the pre-emption operated by mechanized mobility in the public place.

Well removed from the classic conception of a break zone, the ring-road is a place of passage, exchanges, transfer, and connection. It is also, on average, more frequently crossed than the Seine in its Parisian stretch—one crossing every 345 metres/1,100 feet as compared with one every 360 metres/1,200 feet for the Seine.

It is a dynamic place which concentrates a high proportion of metropolitan movements and journeys. Concentration and compactness are basic urban virtues recently discovered in the search for a sustainable city. Concentration is synonymous with efficiency and economy, especially sensitive features in the actual use of the ring-road: 6% of the area of Paris’s roads take 35-40% of Paris’s traffic. Another egregiously urban quality is connectivity. The contemporary city is connected in many different ways, material and immaterial alike. Flows here provide an exceptional accessibility and visibility of the territory, including it within an overall network. So this territory is in direct connection with the rest of the built-up area, but also beyond it, with the major cities of France and Europe.

From place of passage to place of destination
Through its metropolitan position, its fame and its combined system of mobility, the ring-road’s territory has nowadays become central. Central in the sense that it is henceforth in a position to propose the urban qualities of a centrality. Let us define this term: centrality is not the centre. Centrality is the urban condition whereby Paris has developed. It is the Parisian theme if ever there was. But although it is the condition which makes it possible for a place to exercise an attractiveness, centrality obviously does not depend on a pre-determined urban form. So talking about centrality on the ring-road thus means being part of a Parisian continuity. However, this continuity is not formal, it is thematic: it is not a matter of re-enacting Parisian history, or reproducing known systems, most of them unsuitable and inoperative here.

Talking about centrality again means re-inventing the modern forms of a Parisian centrality, expressing the diversity of the identities traversed. Obviously enough, this does not involvee re-stitching and then erasing the specificity and breadth of the landscape of this metropolitan territory.

The ring-road is one of the spaces in which “Greater Paris” can re-invent itself, where Paris can once again produce Paris, in a metropolitan dimension. A new breath of air on this scale is necessary, if centrality is to re-find a basic place, and be diffused and multiplied—otherwise, how will it be possible to get away from centralism without toppling into sprawl, as previous decades have shown? The condition of centrality is above all else connected with the identity of places, and the distinctive and attractive character of urban spaces and landscapes. If the territories of the ring-road today have real qualities, they also entail major handicaps. In these territories, life is fragile, but the wealth of uses is great. The metamorphosis of the ring-road will permit these places of passage to also become places of destination.


The “both...and” city
As a territory, the ring-road forms a paradoxical city, a city of “both…and” where contradictory features are simultaneously present. So the ring-road  is a territory that is both central and peripheral; complex and too simple; wretched and rich; long abandoned by the powers-that-be and occupied by private powers; urbanizing and anti-urban; absolutely necessary and totally denigrated; efficient and suffered; landscaped and neglected; empty and occupied; traversed and inhabited; last wall and first ring-road (rocade); modern and outdated; metropolitan and local. Unlike what we think we know, the territory of the ring-road is not a problematic whole calling for simple solutions. The last contradiction mentioned above has created more or less all the others. The ring-road is metropolitan and local, just like the handful of territories which form the main structures of any great metropolis. So it is in relation with differing scales.

Unitary and composite
The fact is that by paying an equivalent attention on the one hand to the territory surrounding the ring-road and, on the other, to the infrastructure itself, we can observe the very great diversity of the city of the ring-road. This city is, to be sure, ring-shaped but it also composite. First and foremost because the ring-road passes through a significant urban heterogeneity, made up of many different identities and contradictory forces. This results from the history of the Parisian belt, which is that of a form which is almost pure and symmetrical installed within a turbulent and dissymmetrical geography.

Then because the ring-road itself, as a civil engineering structure, is extremely diverse, because it was designed to be physically adapted to very varied configurations. It is a composite object, as is its territory. What is more, the heterogeneity of the ring-road corresponds to and is overlaid on that of the parts of the cities and towns crossed. Otherwise put, the ring-road is already linked to these entities and conscious of their differences. At once a vast unitary territory and a succession of disparate territories, the city of the ring-road appears like a very complete model of an infrastructural contemporary city. From now on, studying the insertion of the ring-road presupposes relying on the connivance that exists between the ring-road and the territories roundabout. This embryonic coherence is one of the essential factors to be taken into account in the quest for a greater harmony between such an infrastructure and the city. This coherence is above all the sole possible way out towards a reconciliation between the whole and the parts, between an ancestral unitary fantasy and a ceaseless fragmentary temptation.

The modernity of the limit
In fact, acting against the deep-seated structure of this territory would make no sense and would have no urban future on a par with what the Parisian metropolis must aim for. The city of the ring-road is twofold and paradoxical. A forward-looking vision will be all the more powerful because it will know how to make use of this ambivalent character and transcend it in order to make it something city-like. The ring-road will never be a classic urban boulevard, even when its mobility and its uses have changed, for its space and its physical configuration make it profoundly different from the urban boulevard. Being content to fill the large ring-like landscape, given the current concern over densification, would get us nowhere. The canyon which has started to form here and there, while land opportunities and the phenomenon of the Paris address have squeezed quality-free buildings at the foot of the ring-road, attests to the risks entailed if there is no account taken of the exceptional character of this wide open space. This also shows that no urban insertion can be envisaged by denying the specificity of this place, its infrastructure, its role, its landscape and its history.

The essential question raised by the quest for an urban insertion of the ring-road cannot be scaled down to the notion of integrating an exogenous infrastructure in its environment. The issue is much broader, it is that of the limit. This territory on the limit is a place of modernity, a place of openness and a place of exchanges. Insertion will be going beyond the limit, without losing sight of its virtues. Insertion will exist when the city stops being a break, and forms a fully-fledged place in the city: the great modern metropolitan space.

For more than 15 years, TVK has led research on the Parisian ring road and its infrastructures. Initiated within TOMATO Architects, a thirteen-student group whose thesis focused on La Ville du Périphérique (The City of the Ring Road), research has continued through No Limit, a study realised for La Ville de Paris and the Région Île-de-France. Two books, now out of print, form a testimony of this research.