Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Sous le Parc, le Supermarché...

Dig beneath the newly created Parc Alsace in Levallois and you'll find not a beach but instead one of the biggest supermarkets in the Paris region.

A newly constructed park is an irrational concept. Its primary initial objective is that it should immediately look mature, but the Parc Alsace was also created with other very specific purposes in mind.

Sitting opposite the new So Ouest shopping centre - and on the extreme limit of Paris (reach through the fence and you can touch the city) - it is in fact a carefully designed extension of this commercial world. In the words of the developers, the park is simply an element of what they call the site's "géographie urbaine".

Urban geography though is a slippery thing. Developers and local authorities speak of the park's role in softening and bringing oxygen to a concrete landscape, but before this park sprung up, Google maps tells us that it was previously a sports stadium. This was surely a very useful facility in a built-up environment, but obviously not something that would be desirable opposite the "centre commercial urbain chic qu'attendait l'Ouest parisien."

In fact the creation of the park was not down to a desire to create a green space, but instead to provide an intelligent and useful surface area to meet the needs of the supermarket that would be built beneath.  

This though is not immediately obvious. From the outside, the only sign that there is something unusual afoot here is the giant gaping mouth that sucks in hulking delivery trucks. Devoid almost entirely of explanatory visual information, there are nevertheless two no entrance signs which only 'authorised' vehicles have permission to ignore.

Pass through the park gates and you'll find a green space that initially looks much like any other. Trees and plants have a satisfying level of maturity, and lawns seem completely bedded in. Despite being open for less than a month, there are even already a number of desire paths. Look more closely though and you will begin to see a number of more unusual features.

Firstly there are the doors. Built into a series of featureless structures across the park, they are completely unmarked and without handles on the outside. The doors are clearly extraneous to the life of the park, and appear rather to be portals from another place.

Peer through locked iron gates and over high walls and you will also spot several wide concrete staircases, all of which are devoid of people and seem to lead nowhere.
Dotted around the park are other oddities. Under-employed exercise machines lay in the shadows of 15-story tower blocks, and a modern/antique So Ouest branded merry-go-round spins alone in a completely child-free zone. There are also the esoterics - a wiry gazebo marking the 'highest point' of a flat park, and a set of bee hives that have been layed out in the form of an analemmatic sundial.  

These all may offer clues, but the answers are to be found underground. Since the 1960s there has been a desire in France to place equipment - car parks, stations, shopping centres - literally out of sight. However, although the equipment can be buried underground, the functional aspects - fire escapes, air outlets, electrical equipment, delivery routes - cannot be completely hidden away, and instead need to be dressed up when they sprout on the surface. Here they have become features in a park.

What we see underground though is not the full story. Although the endless aisles and individual 'worlds' (baker, butchers, wine and spirits..) fit snugly under the contours of the park, the supermarket itself only covers half of the space occupied by the store (there is around 8000m² of produce on display, but the company makes use of more than 15000m²). It is like a set of Russian dolls - a park covering a supermarket covering delivery, storage and staff facilities.

The park may be the acceptable face of this new city of consumption, but by redrawing existing urban geography it at least has the benefit of being positioned where people live, and not - as is so often the case - on functional agricultural land beyond the limits of the city.

1 comment:

Starman said...

I don't know what's going on with the French these days, but they are doing more and more to make me think very seriously about ever again setting foot there. If that is their plan, they are succeeding!!!

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