SENSIBLE PROJECTS AND CRAZY PIPEDREAMS
We all know what Burnham said about small plans, but somehow when someone proposes a plan that is not small, it pretty much invariably brings out the sensible, levelheaded pragmatist in us.
Thank God we don't usually prevail; if we did, the following crazy pipedreams would have succumbed to our collective good sense:
1. Eiffel Tower.
2. Guggenheim Museum
3. Statue of Liberty
4. Quincy Market recycling
5. Channel Tunnel
6. Suez Canal
7. Brooklyn Bridge
8. World Trade Center (the first one)
9. Panama Canal
10. Boston's Big Dig
11. Times Square reclamation
12. Haussmann's boulevards
13. Mt. Rushmore
14. Transcontinental Railroad
15. Seaside, Florida
17. every Gothic cathedral everywhere...
I'm sure you have your own favorites to add to the list. Just remember it's an exclusive list: a requirement to be included is that large numbers of us sensible people were there to pooh-pooh it.
Right now, levelheaded grownups are about to show the good sense to rebuild the World Trade Center at a reasonable size, while hardly a week goes by without some sensible pragmatist's new proposal to expeditiously finish St. John the Divine. On budget.
And always vigilant, our elected representatives make sure no taxpayer money is squandered on foolish boondoggles like high speed rail, for which --any fool can see--there is no market.
Meanwhile, those wild and crazy guys in reckless Shanghai have put up a Maglev to the airport and in Taipei they have zanily constructed the world's tallest building.
Of course, they don't have representative government and open debate to keep them sensible, but we did when Central Park was approved... How could we have let it happen?
Most times it makes sense to build nothing, or lacking that, as little as possible. Think of all the money you can save.
* * *
Here are some fairly recent big projects where the sensible guys won:
1. Les Halles redevelopment
2. Covent Garden redevelopment
3. Maginot Line
4. Munich Agreement, 1938
5. Penn Station redevelopment, 1965ff
6. Singer Building redevelopment
7. Montparnasse Tower
8. Co-op City
9. Coney Island (housing) redevelopment
10.Interstate Highway System
* * *
Les Halles, the belly of Paris, covered an area about the size of a university campus with vast glass-roofed metal sheds by Baltard. These sheds had very great architectural distinction –indeed they were mind-boggling since they even covered the streets-- but the real reason to visit Les Halles was the tumult.
Through these sheds in the wee hours of every morning passed all the fertile countryside's bounty to be consumed fresh daily in the great city that day, whether to be distributed through myriad tiny food purveyors scattered throughout the city or through the restaurants for which Paris was and is renowned. Les Halles was the wholesale food market through which all this fresh produce passed daily on its way to three million stomachs.
You can imagine what a raffish place this was, like Fulton Fish Market at 5am, but fifty times as big (no, 100 times). The basic underlayment was frogs in blue smocks pushing handcarts, Gauloises glued to their lips and bobbing manically to the rhythm of their irascible banter. The next layer was hotties in miniskirts with their elegant escorts in Gucci loafers, fresh from platters of pig’s feet and liter mugs of Alsatian beer. Tourists came also to stuff themselves and gawk at all this pre-dawn commotion.
Some came for the ladies, all lined up in doorways along the rue St. Denis, awaiting after-work visits from their favorite blue smocks and whoever else might happen by with a 500 franc note.
The bars started to hop around 6am, as quitting time neared. At 10 am, all was quiet; you would find a calmer crew of blue smocks, languidly sweeping up cabbage leaves with willow brooms.
Think Irma La Douce.
Well, you can imagine the truck traffic all this generated in congested Paris, though fortunately in the middle of the night.
It wasn’t the neighbors who wanted to get rid of the trucks; the neighbors were the ladies, and they loved the truck drivers. And it wasn’t the truck drivers; why, they loved the ladies. Nor was it the restaurateurs and shop owners: not those who served the market or those who bought there.
No, it was the sensible guys. They knew that rationally this activity belonged in the suburbs, near the highways that lead from the country, in spacious, antiseptic, purpose-built, orderly and up-to-date facilities featuring: loading docks! parking regulations! fire lanes!
So they packed up the whole Rabelaisian scene and moved it to Rungis. Well, not quite the whole thing: most of the ladies stayed behind and cultivated a new clientele, while the restaurants and bars tried hard to retain their raffish charm. But without their human props they were forced into vaguely Disney poses: they now had to cultivate their atmosphere; it no longer came on a silver platter.
But here comes the good part. In all this, the sensible guys had not cooked up a plan for what to put in Les Halles’ place. The one thing they knew was that they didn’t want to keep all that cast iron and glass architecture; it looked too…well, unprogressive. So, because they could not agree, they did the only logical thing: they held an international design competition. With Phillip Johnson as chairman of the Jury.
The Jury picked some Winners, but the public didn’t like any of them, and neither did the politicians. The public missed their messy markets, and so did the tourists. So the politicians ignored the Winners, and after five or more years of bickering over a now-bleak construction site, they finally came up with…a park and a suburban shopping mall!!
Les Halles in its [their] final days, 1971. The cleared area in the foreground awaits construction of the Pompidou Centre.
Halles cleared, Pompidou built, 1978.
How it sat for a period of years while they squabbled about what to replace it with:
What they replaced it with:
They were slightly ashamed of the suburban shopping mall, so they put it mostly underground. The suburbanites cruise in to visit their mall, where they feel comfortable, and think they have spent the day in Paris.
Like South Street Seaport, but without any old buildings, and pretty much underground.
Rational. Progressive. Sensible. Not a pipedream…
The last word belongs to enzo, on Wired New York: “it looks like it's sucking central Paris down a drain into Hell!”
The sanitized market in the suburb of Rungis (no smoking):
No blue smocks.
You want to See how Les Halles was?: Rent the Billy Wilder movie, Irma La Douce, with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.
You want to see how it is?: go down to your local mall in maybe Passaic or Huntington.