Paris Exhibit: The Interstitial Challenge An inquiry into the social and environmental dilemmas of Detroit, USA and Clichy-Sous-Bois, Paris, France

Over the past few months the students have been researching the parallels between Detroit and the Paris Suburb Clichy-Sous-Bois.  The design challenge is best defined by the statement I presented to the students in May:

It is common to see when driving throughout the city of Detroit a bumper sticker that reads: “I Lift Detroit in Prayer.”  Well intentioned, the driver passes through intersecting streets with their mind at ease – they have done their part.  Politicians and capitalists create “spin,” to gain population within the city; Artists, seduced by the decay of the city, create imagery that is funneled into the international marketing phenomenon known as “hip-hop culture.”  The church, the politician, the capitalist and the artist are all actively reacting to the unprecedented decline of one of the United States’ greatest cities – Detroit.

Arriving at the Gare de Gargan it is hard to comprehend that you are on the edge of Paris.  It is not Haussmann’s Paris, but a Paris where the tree lined streets and dense housing provide a comfortable urban scale.  The continuity soon gives way, to the sprawling public towers of Clichy-Sous-Bois, the origin of rioting and civil unrest in the fall of 2004.  Clichy is one of the poorest and most crime ridden Parisian Banlieues (suburbs).  The population occupying Clichy’s housing projects suffers from substandard living conditions and exclusion from French society.  The social breakdown (Fracture Sociale) between Paris proper and Clichy is evident in the pervasive graffiti campaigns that proclaim “Nique le police” (Fuck the Police) and “Hardcore 93” (93 being the French postal code for Clichy).

It is in both Detroit and Clichy we find two comparable issues for analysis – one social, one environmental.  “White Flight” and Urban Renewal in Detroit are parallel to the urban policies of France (Politique de la Vile) and both of these conditions have shaped a landscape outside the control of its occupants – poverty and joblessness.  Detroit, once a city nearing 3 million has gradually fallen to less than 1 million, resulting in vast urban decay and widespread demolition.  The once dense city is now perforated with a not-quite-urban, not-quite-rural landscape that can be visually and emotionally jarring for many, while intriguing and beautiful to others.   By contrast, the environmental oddment of Clichy was planned.  Yielding to Le Corbusier’s utopian vision of high-rise apartments with “streets in the sky” the occupation of the landscape has been shifted upwards leaving ambiguity at street level.

It is at this intersection between the social and the environmental dilemmas that will serve as a unique design challenge for 14 architecture students.  What does an anti-colonial architecture look like and how does it operate and perform?  How do you study such an area without treating the occupants as laboratory subjects (Parc de Thoiry) or by cheapening the seriousness of the issues through expressions of voyeuristic estheticism?  What are the programmatic solutions that are appropriate and what new territory can be discovered for design? During the summer of 2010 the students will research, analyze, and exhibit their work in-residence to both cities.  The unused decay of Detroit and the planned, yet incoherent, landscape of Clichy will serve as the project site.  What will be made of the interstitial landscape (terrain vague) and how the students design for such locations will be the driving parameters of the course.

Solutions will be formulated through a process of systems-based, bottom-up design and by generating proposals that greatly expand the ethical role of architects.  To this end, students will not provide top-down (colonial) utopian visions, they will work rigorously to evaluate the social conditions and what can be “true and self-implemented” by each community.  Each project will challenge established notions of professional behavior by proposing a new post-industrial fiducial responsibility. To accept this expansion of ethical behavior, students will need to progress towards a new transgressive architecture.  Transgressive, rather than the negative process of dismantling, will affirm architectural exploration by opening up the interstitial landscape to new design opportunities.

One thought

  1. Hello Jim — I’m a friend of Martin Schwartz and will be an adjunct instructor at LTU this fall (IDS3). I’m also fascinated by Paris and have been reading about the tension between central mythic Paris and the troubled suburbs. I look forward to meeting you and learning more about this studio.

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