Parisian architecture: ‘castles in the air’

Parisian architecture: ‘castles in the air.’ 

In May 2015, the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, wrote an article in Politico stating that the French capital has become a testing ground for new technologies. She headlined the article, in English, ‘Parisian castles in the air.’ It is an interesting headline. France is famous for its castles – on the ground. 

The phrase ‘castles in the air’ in English refers to dreams about future success. The online Free Dictionary adds another meaning: ‘plans or hopes that have very little chance of happening.’ American singer Don McLean composed a song called Castles in the Air in 1970, and re-released it in 1981. It’s about a girlfriend he wants to leave:

And if she asks you why, you can tell her that I told you

That I’m tired of castles in the air

I’ve got a dream I want the world to share

And castle walls just lead me to despair

McLean is not hopeful of success. 

In her article, the mayor of Paris describes the city as an ‘open-air laboratory’ adding that the Council of Paris is preparing to ‘make crucial decisions that will ensure Paris remains a smart and sustainable city’ through its ‘innovative approach to urban design.’ She highlights previous buildings and infrastructure, with innovative designs, that include the Haussmann architecture, the electricity network, and the metro, as well as new ways of living in urban spaces, such as the bicycle systems the Velib and Autolib (to reduce the number of cars in the city). She also mentions the modern architecture of the Les Halles complex and the striking new Law Courts project. 

None of her examples include the famous castles near Paris, now tourist attractions: the Château de Versailles and Château de Fontainbleau. These are real castles with long histories.

The mayor of Paris also includes a Henry David Thoreau quote in her article: ‘If you have built castles in the air, one day, our work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them’ and she concludes with: ‘This is what we [the Council of Paris] are doing in Paris, imagining and implementing new possibilities at the human level, laying the foundations for our dreams.’ Hence, she is directly referencing a American author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) about castles in the air as dreams, but building foundations to support those dreams.

The Thoreau reference is interesting, because he wrote an essay titled ‘Civil Disobedience’ which was originally titled ‘Resistance to Civil Government.’ He was also regarded as an environmentalist. His father was a pencil maker and his father’s father was born in Jersey, the island between the United Kingdom and France. It is not UK-owned; it is self-governing, but it is only a stone’s throw, at only 22 kilometres, from the coast of Normandy, France.

The mayor’s article with its use of imagery that re-imagines history while also discussing the future of architecture and urban planning in Paris is a fascinating juxtaposition of ideas. The mayor reassures readers that past glories in Parisian architecture will always be celebrated, and the daring concepts of the future will have the foundation, or basis, for establishing lasting infrastructure that residents and tourists will also take to their hearts.

Since this article, the mayor has spoken of Paris aligning its new infrastructure with the Paris Agreement – the climate agreement to transition to low carbon emissions.

What has Paris done in the last five years to start building these castles in the air? One project, an ambitious project, is the new subway, described as ‘the most ambitious new subway project in the Western world’ by Henry Grabar in 2016. It is the expansion of the Paris Métro, which aims to be completed by 2030. Its goals include: to reduce car traffic in Paris, link business districts with airports and universities, and ‘ease social ills by knitting together the French capital’s isolated and troubled banlieues [suburbs].’

But just outside of the city limits of Paris, in La Défense, seven new skyscapers are planned, and some have commenced construction, with completions due in 2021 and 2022, as part of a strategy to bring business back to Paris. The aim is to cater to bankers, academics, and researchers from overseas to set up camp in Paris. I doubt whether these high-rise glass and steel buildings can be called castles, but they will be in the air!

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