A groundbreaking architectural competition returns to Paris. Are its critics right to fear another fiasco?
Is Paris City Hall ready to give the contest an honest effort? Reinvent Paris 2 is the second round of a competition whose first outing’s results were far from impressive, pervaded as they were by a whiff of low ambition, superficial design, and mutual official backscratching.
Such is the skepticism around the competition’s return that a group of local architects has launched a satirical counter-contest called Réinventer Pourris, a hard-to-translate pun that replaces Paris with a word meaning rotten or corrupt. Promising an award to whoever submits the most ludicrous lampoon of a current Parisian grand project, the spoof competition shows a highly skeptical attitude toward the city’s call for proposals. The story of how an optimistic-seeming attempt to revitalize neglected scraps ended up provoking such skepticism is still somewhat murky.
The problem is partly that Reinvent Paris 1 was a call for innovation, but ended up delivering nothing of the sort. The scheme, designed to find good uses for somewhat complex city-owned plots, ended up working well enough as a fundraising exercise. Selling off the land netted the city a not-inconsiderable €600 million. Design-wise, however, it was a dud. Most of the winning proposals were shallow in the extreme, delivering indifferent architecture and the flimsiest of public benefits.
The same mistakes might not be made this time. Subterranean spaces of the sort offered for Reinvent Paris 2 can’t necessarily be called valuable assets. Many of them are distinctively difficult sites, unsuitable for housing, hotels or offices because of the lack of light. Indeed, Yann Legouis, one of the organizers of the Réinventer Pourris counter-competition, suggests that the contest is partly about clearing out municipal dead wood. ... This actually sounds like a smart move: using the architectural hive mind to brainstorm what to do with old garages, then skimming a little extra money for state coffers off the top. The problem with this approach is that it’s inherently exploitative of smaller firms on the make. Like many architectural competitions, the contest demands large amounts of unpaid work from architectural practices only to frequently end up awarding contracts to the usual suspects. Yann Legouis suggests that this cosy closed-shop attitude typifies much official procurement in France.