In Gennevilliers to the North-West of the city, it is possible to catch a glimpse of how Paris used to be. As you walk through the port and alongside the giant deepwater basins, you can sense the weight of the large, heavy sky above you, and feel the wind whipping into your bones. It’s a domain of working people, where individuals wear overalls, not shirts and ties. They flex their muscles and get their hands dirty, work on their feet, not on their backsides.
At one end of the port you can find the offices of the Port Autonome de Paris. It looks much like an Auguste Perret building, but its central clock tower would seem to belong in Tony Garnier’s ideal “cite industrielle”, a structure that he believed should be at the heart of all cities.
Naturally this is well beyond the scale of similar activities that previously existed in the centre of Paris. This is the second biggest river port in Europe, a place that treats, stocks, processes and transfers 20 million tonnes of merchandise each year. It is a giant interchange, where barges, trains and trucks meet to exchange goods and products. Hydrocarbons, building materials, petrol, wheat, cars, coal and lego-like container blocks come through here, picked up, redirected, transformed and rechanneled.
In an industrial era, Paris needed a large-scale port, but it didn’t get one until comparatively late on. Although designs for this port originate from 1920, (drawn by Fulgance Bienvenue who also planned the first Metro lines) it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the port was built and became established. Indeed, almost accidentally it was this conflict that helped it to grow. All the bridges between Gennevilliers and the sea were destroyed and needed to be rebuilt, enabling the authorities to construct them at specific heights to encourage significant river traffic.
Walking around the zone today, what is striking is the angles and the scale. Everything is solid, rectangular, practical. There is none of the superfluous decoration of Paris here, just enormous, russet-red rectangular cranes and concrete-grey silos. The zone is criss-crossed by shiny steel railway lines, most of which you can walk along. Trains seemingly come to pick up and drop off goods only in the dead of night. Large trucks do thunder past though, containers on their backs, off to one of the motorways that snake past the river.
It is all about the river. A dirty, pretty thing, slopping into the six basins that have been built here. This is the artery of Paris, something that should be used and celebrated. The architect Antoine Grumbach understood this, and it is his vision that was the most discussed when proposals for a new ‘Grand Paris’ were made recently. "Paris, Rouen, Le Havre all merged into a single city with the Seine as its central boulevard" he suggested, echoing Napoleon's 1802 vision of the city. He sees this as a liquid "highway", lined with green housing and "nature-city" parks. Paris would not just be the ‘ville musée’ but once again a hard-working, practical place.
We are a long way from Grumbach’s proposal today, but some of the ideas have been accepted in principal. There are no parks here, but alongside the colossal Grands Moulins de Paris I make an unexpected discovery. I thought I was alone, but here on the riverside is a dock for pleasure cruises and a building sheltering two restaurants and a cafeteria. The railway tracks and interminable warehouses are still here, but so are grass and flowers and a large terrace overlooking the almost attractive whitewashed flour mills. Downstairs is the canteen for the workers, a place to feed the five thousand who work in the sector. Upstairs though is a more upmarket brasserie, with dressed tables offering views across the basin to the huge mills. A long way from La Tour d'Argent, but a remarkable proletarian, romantic vista.
The view from the canteen. As you eat your bread, you can see the place where the wheat was ground into flour before being transported to the city's boulangers.