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The infrastructure clarifies the intermediate city

For an aesthetic horizon of road infrastructures

Paris, a dense city par excellence, has its “intermediate” city, populated by heavy infrastructure, offering a landscape common to numerous metropolitan areas. The road infrastructure stands comparison with its American counterparts1 and demands of planners: must they take part, condemn, submit or develop a flood of projects, material with which to negotiate the opening of fringes of action and of densification in the intermediate city? This situation engages urban imaginaries at work in the territory.

Road infrastructures are, before anything else, a legacy to take in hand in a transitional era because the time of monolithic ideologies is past. The structures of the C19, like the over-ground metro, have taken time to be accepted, but the “art of engineers” constitutes a heritage and contributes to the identity of the city, helped in that by the value attributed to structures where “grafted” usages – terrains of play – install themselves in places under the overpasses2. We can bet that it will be the same for the Périphérique (Paris ring road) and the ensemble of roadworks. It’s here that these infrastructures call for a new urban aesthetic.

In many ways, the intermediate city is in a state of adolescence, at a point of being “in the process of making itself” and exhibiting already well-affirmed character. This territory “in-the-course-of” is fascinating and one needs to learn how to look while building on these qualities. This apprenticeship passes by the taming of infrastructures with which the planner must “flirt” in her different projects.

The Portes of Paris: creative nuisance

To talk today about the Périphérique (Paris’ ring road) is very often to evoke its partial covering-over, that’s to say its disappearance, pure and simple, from the landscape, with the acoustic consequences, pollution and urban discontinuity. This risky game mortgages the future of a road system in relegating drivers to unpleasant, costly3, and hardly reversible tunnels. Furthermore, this vision ignores the “extraterritorial” character of the infrastructure, which obeys nothing but its own topographic and geometric rules. Our proposal for the transformation of the Porte de Charenton4 necessarily brings more complex responses in gathering, in the same strategy, point by point improvements to the dysfunctional public space. Installing walkways over the slip-roads, cantilevered systems to protect against noise, and sometimes even crossings at the same level, the range of actions is wide. The clarification of the public space in this way, at a crucial point, reinforces the relation between Paris, the Bois de Vincennes and Charenton-le-Pont, and facilitates the accommodation of new forms of circulation and use.

The Porte de Pouchet project permits the invention of new architectural typologies5 and public spaces. This is the case for the square, which slides under the Périphérique to connect Paris with Clichy and Saint-Ouen. The new square becomes a link in a “green path” connecting the Seine river with the Parc des Batignolles. In parallel, the reconfiguring of dwellings, obsolescent since the 1960s6, the demolition of others in intractably difficult situations and the construction of 230 new housing units7 contributes to the transformation of the site: a reversal of the gaze that creates a resource from the territories linked to infrastructures, an urban reserve, to operate both in property terms, to densify precisely where the all-services area is efficient, and in terms of new public spaces. This allows a transformation from the limit status into a positive frontier, a threshold that qualifies and produces places of destination and emerging uses, gathering Paris and its closest neighbours.

Converting the Try: the “weak points” method

“Anything becomes interesting, if you look at it long enough” wrote Flaubert, a useful attitude for the understanding of motorways, which we have ended up knowing as well as (even perhaps better than) the engineers themselves. Despite their imposing scale, it is the little things that allow the unlocking of situations and the evolution of large ones. Furthermore, the “large infrastructure” can bear an alternative conception of mobility, which could start with the installation of bus lines on one of the traffic routes, by linking them with the whole territory8. This is a way of re-contextualising the motorway and renewing the issue of its integration into the city.

How to gather, however, the totality of actors to imagine the future of these large infrastructures that overflow the institutional borders? One must appeal, altogether, to the State, the Regions, the Departments and ultimately the Cities. This is rarely achievable and blurs the interpretation of an articulated governance: one never really knows who organises, participates-in and decides. In this hazy framework, the space left for the participation of the inhabitants and users tends to disappear. Faced with this fact, one strategy is possible: a “weak points” method, which would ‘tackle’ the little things, the weak points of the road system, and echo the increased importance of “weak signals”, in terms of mobility practices9.

Working on the weak points allows us to be economical both financially and in terms of action. This involves the research into a system of places offering new services, associated with new uses in connection to the large infrastructures. The approaches are diverse, numerous and polymorphic. For example, where covering-over seems to be the only means of amelioration, the elevation of the underpinning at the foot of communal buildings on the edge of the ring road allows for the reversal of the banks’ slope. These previously inaccessible planted spaces thereby become usable and protect the dwellings from noise. These “reversed slopes” may be the beginning of a virtuous circle, which would stimulate the total rehabilitation of a neighbourhood10. There are more than a few examples, and each “anomaly” gives rise to a momentary project that unlocks the situation. In Gentilly, to the right of the Cité Universitaire, is an underused and dangerous slip road, even though it is considered important by the Périphérique’s operators (because it offers an alternative access to the Périphérique). It would be very practicable to downgrade it in order to create the supports for bridge-building or walkways, which would improve a large part of Gentilly where the ring road seems to preclude any relationship between Paris and its neighbours11. Another weak-point example with potentially large effects.

« L’infrastructure clarifie la ville intermédiaire », article by Pierre Alain Trévelo, published inVille et Voiture, ed. Ariella Masboungi, éditions Parenthèses, Marseille, 2015.

  • 1. Paris’ road facility rate is comparable to that of a city like Dallas.
  • 2. And also relative nuisances (with new materials, the Métro now emits less noise and pollution than the car).
  • 3. Approximately 6,000€/m² for the covering itself, from 30 to 40 meters wide, independent of the implementation costs of the slab!
  • 4. See the volume: “TVK Pierre Alain Trévelo et Antoine Viger-Kohler” in: No Limit, Étude d’insertion urbaine du Boulevard périphérique, Éditions du Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris, 2008, pp. 240 to 249.
  • 5. And until a new organisation of the accommodation and offices.
  • 6. Tour Bois-le-Prêtre by the studio Lacaton & Vassal, and Frederic Druot, recipient of the Prix de l’Équerre d'argent in 2011.
  • 7. Permitted amongst others by the division of a 25 metres’ route, which allowed the clearing of construction capacities that have transformed the site, abandoned between the backs of school buildings and a cemetery wall.
  • 8. Cf. the study of the A4 motorway with François Leclercq and Yannick Beltrando.
  • 9. Cf Part 4.
  • 10. See the volume: “TVK Pierre Alain Trévelo et Antoine Viger-Kohler” in: No Limit, Étude d’insertion urbaine du Boulevard périphérique, Éditions du Pavillon de l’Arsenal, Paris, 2008, pp. 240 to 249
  • 11. Ibid. pp. 264 to 277