Le tout Paris is flooded with anxiety over the redesign of the venerable department store, La Samaritaine. Or so an article in CityLab, an offshoot of The Atlantic magazine, would have us believe.
Almost anyone who has walked along the quais beside the Seine in the central city has seen La Samaritaine, next to the river on the Right Bank. Most recently it has presented this face -- and backside -- to the world:
No architectural masterpiece, that, but the art deco-influenced facade from 1933 was enjoyably quirky in the modern era when cities are becoming boringly similar. But the store's owner, luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, determined that the old building was dowdy and no longer fit for its purpose. According to The Guardian:
Now the bulldozers are rumbling towards the former department store to destroy the last remaining parts of its historic facade, as campaigners make a last-ditch legal challenge to stop the demolition.With the majestic timing and baby splitting of the legal profession, the administrative judges ruled that the appeal could go ahead. One problem:
Three of the four facades were knocked down in February, reportedly immediately after judges said they would accept the opposition campaigners' legal case but failed to order a halt to demolitions. The fourth is scheduled for the same fate. LVMH said after Friday's decision: "For the moment, the work continues."It is hard to imagine what could be done now except continue the demolition. And what will be the new view of La Samaritaine? The Guardian story says, "Under designs drawn up by Japanese architects, the facades will be replaced with 'a set of etched glass waves'. Opponents say the new structure will look like a shower curtain."
The store's appearance has actually undergone several re-thinks since its origin in 1870. Here is an early photo:
Being a 19th century person in architectural as well as other artistic tastes, I wish La Samaritaine still presented this welcome.
Few would deny that buildings must undergo internal renovations to meet the owners' present needs. But exteriors are something else. They affect the look and feel of a neighborhood, and in aggregate, of a city.
Below is a rendering of the planned complex (no longer just a department store):
Welcome to St. Louis. I mean, Paris.
Of course the "revival" has plenty of cheerleaders. They might make a reasonable point if they claimed the do-over will result in an attractive site, even an architectural achievement. It may turn out to be a pleasure for the eye. But the businesspeople, politicians, and architects backing the scheme go beyond that, believing it will symbolize an avant-garde, cool Paris.
What is striking about the Samaritaine debate is the passionate reaction it has created among people who fear Paris is becoming (or has already become) a historical relic. In a letter to Le Monde, leading architect Christian de Potzamparc said that the only reason for halting the plans is to “declare the absolute authority of the past,” turning Paris into a “sad and dark museum.” Another Le Monde piece titled “Paris in Formaldehyde” compares Paris’ anti development stance wistfully with the development frenzy of London and Berlin. La Samaritaine’s owners, the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, have also chimed in, covering the site with an awning printed with favorable comments such as “Paris is not a museum and needs to be renewed.”But a city that honors and does its best to retain a certain character that has pleased residents and visitors for generations is not a "museum." True, the Paris we admire today is the product of a vast scheme of the 19th century ordered by Napoleon III and directed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which created the wide boulevards and roundabouts leading to grand buildings and monuments. But Paris was lucky -- it was rebuilt before the age of committees and politicians with construction company interests.
Today, Paris is far better off without the "development frenzy" of London and Berlin. It may or may not be a step forward in Berlin, which underwent urban renewal by British and American bombers in 1943 to 1945 that left it without much to preserve; London has since done to itself through bizarre and ugly construction what the Blitz was unable to.
Even London, as far as I know, hasn't yet come up with anything as grotesque as the blimp-egg Selfridges store in Birmingham:
So the preservationists of Paris have a right to be worried that the ultimate result of undoing the "museum" aspect of their city -- and what is wrong with museums? -- will be an urban fabric like this. Paris is entitled to better. Birmingham has never been especially renowned for its contribution to civilization, although it played a large role in industrialization and commerce. Its nickname is "Brum." Fine, but Paris is Paris, not "Pa" or "Pis." May it keep its special place in our admiration and imagination.