Urban design magazine

Expressions

Resilience in the new city

Photo of building in Chatou
Building in Chatou, France

As a child I lived in Chatou, ‘Chatou Heights’ to be more precise. For those who know the city, this refers to the new areas that are far less bourgeois than the city centre. In the 1970s the surrounding fields were replaced by residential estates, a kind of dormitory settlement for the middle classes.

For my parents, who came from a small town, it represented the perfect compromise. Unlike in Paris itself, there were numerous green spaces nearby. Le Vésinet, Croissy-sur-Seine and Saint-Germain-en-Laye had parks, forest and green spaces that were perfect for long Sunday strolls.

I feed the ducks, collected chestnuts in autumn, observed the changing seasons and sometimes in very cold winters I skated on the small lakes that became temporary ice rinks.

Paris was only 40 minutes away thanks to the excellent road connections and RER trains. We moved house several times, but always stayed in the same area.

For as long as I can remember, I always felt that these spaces were unwelcoming, dull and soulless. Although filled with trees and plants, the concrete streets retained a linearity that I hated.

The cluster of local shops, including a pharmacy, bakery and mini supermarket, made the area livelier, but the cold architecture of the roundabouts, wide pavements and car parks offered little warmth or welcome. All the road markings and metallic signs made me rather sad.

Only the Sunday morning market that invaded Avenue Guy de Maupassant added a little heartwarming humanity, noise and disorder. Discarded crates, lettuce leaves, potatoes, crushed carrots and the dance of street cleaners at 1pm liven up the street before the water jets flooded the pavements to signify the return to emptiness.

The bus stop was just in front of my house and I liked to listen to the bus engine going around the roundabout, complaining like a washing machine motor.

Later, I would make a choice.

Each spring the beauty of the Sakura cherry trees, whose name I only learned later, filled me with emotion. Nature took back control and unruly shapes transformed the space that I’d previously found so suffocating. I was delighted when the concrete disappeared and the ground became pink, until gardeners came along with their zealous rakes.

I developed an aversion to this ‘ordering’, which I found frustrating as I was growing up and as my tastes were developing.

My first studio flat in Paris was in the cosmopolitan area of Belleville. Anarchical. Noisy. Boisterous. I preferred the chaos, ramshackle entrances and tired stairwells to tiled entrance halls with carpeted lifts.

Do empty, hollow spaces encourage us to fill them up and make them overflow?

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