The following is a free description of an actual town-planning and architectural project which has been based on concrete statistics, the proved reliability of certain materials, a new form of social and economic organization, and a more rational exploitation of real property.
The definition of the street which has held good up to the present day is "a roadway that is usually bordered by pavements, narrow or wide as the case may be". Rising straight up from it are walls of houses, which when seen against the sky-line present a grotesquely jagged silhouette of gables, attics, and zinc chimneys. At the very bottom of this scenic railway lies the street, plunged in eternal twilight. The sky is a remote hope far, far above it. The street is no more than a trench, a deep cleft, a narrow passage. And although we have been accustomed to it for more than a thousand years, our hearts are always oppressed by the constriction of its enclosing walls.
The street is full of people : one must take care where one goes. For several years now it has been full of rapidly moving vehicles as well : death threatens us at every step between the twin kerb-stones. But we have been trained to face the peril of being crushed between them.
The street consists of a thousand different buildings, but we have got used to the beauty of ugliness for that has meant making the best of our misfortune. Those thousand houses are dingy and utterly discordant one with another. It is appalling, but we pass on our way. On Sundays, when they are empty, the streets reveal their full horror. But except during those dismal hours men and women are elbowing their way along them, the shops are ablaze, and every aspect of human life pullutates throughout their length. Those who have eyes in their heads can find plenty to amuse them in this sea of lusts and faces. It is better than the theatre, better than what we read in novels.
Nothing of all this exalts us with the joy that architecture provokes. There is neither the pride which results from order, nor the spirit of initiative which is engendered by wide spaces ... only pitying compassion born of the shock of encountering the faces of our fellows; and the realization of what the English call the "hard labour" of our own lives.
The street of to-day can sustain its human drama.
It can glitter under the brillance of a new form of light.
It can smile through its patchwork of advertisements.
It is the well-trodden path of the eternal pedestrian, a relic of the centuries, a dislocated organ that can no longer function.
The street wears us out.
And when all is said and done we have to admit it disgusts us.
Then why does it still exist ?
These last twenty years of the motor car - and of many other things we owe to the mechanical era into which the last century launched humanity - have forced us to envisage far-reaching decisions. At the present moment a congress on "The New Paris" is about to assemble. What will it propose to do to Paris ; what sort of streets will it decide to give us ? Heaven preserve us from the Balzacian mentality of some of its members who would be content to leave our streets as they are because these murky canyons offer them the fascinating spectacle of human physiognomy ! Reason, and reason alone, would Justify the most brillant solutions and endorse their urgency. But suppose reason were reinforced by a well-timed lyricism, which exhorted us to adopt a rational conception of architecture and hymned the increasing benefits it would shower upon us ! Paris of tomorrow could be magnificently equal to the march of events that is day by day bringing us ever nearer to the dawn of a new social contract.
Town-planning experts have tried to find solutions, and some at least of those they have proposed are very promising. Controversy rages round street-traffic, for the narrow, leisurely stream of horse-drawn vehicles has swollen into a broad estuary of rushing motor-cars. Therefore we must have roadways of ample dimensions and a proper division of their surface as between motor-transport and foot-passengers.
But there are plenty of other things besides which town-planners will have to provide for. I should like to draw a picture of "the street" as it would appear in a truly up-to-date city. So I shall ask my readers to imagine they are walking in this new city, and have begun to acclimatize themselves to its untraditional advantages. You are under the shade of trees, vast lawns spread all round you. The air is clear and pure; there is hardly any noise. What, you cannot see where the buildings are ? Look through the charmingly diapered arabesques of branches out into the sky towards those widely-spaced crystal towers which soar higher than any pinnacle on earth. These translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchorage to the ground - flashing in summer sunshine, softly gleaming under grey winter skies, magically glittering at nightfall - are huge blocks of offices. Beneath each is an underground station (which gives the measure of the interval between them). Since this City has three or four times the density of our existing cities, the distances to be transversed in it (as also the resultant fatigue) are three or four times less. For only 5-10 per cent of the surface area of its business centre is built over. That is why you find yourselves walking among spacious parks remote from the busy hum of the autostrada.
A sheet of glass and three partition-walls make an ideal office : this type of construction holds good when a thousand have to be provided. So from top to bottom the facades of the new city's office-buildings form unbroken expanses of glass. These colossal structures evince no vestige of masonry. All that remains visible is glass ... and proportion. The architect has discarded brick and stone.
In the reign of Louis XIV useful legislation was enacted to limit the height of buildings in relation to the effective strength of masonry construction.
To-day engineers can do what they like and build as high as they wish. But the building regulation of Louis XIV which fixed the height of the cornice at twenty meters above the ground still remains in force. One may build no higher ! Thus almost the whole superficial area of the City - not merely 5-10, but 50-60 per cent of it - has to be built over. As an inevitable result - and this notwithstanding 25 per cent less cubic density - we have those gloomy clefts of streets which disgrace our towns.
Well, you have seen that the streets of the new City have nothing in common with those appalling nightmares, the down-town streets of New York.
The immensely deep foundations of these office-buildings will entail the removal of enormous quantities of spoil. This will offer an opportunity to put a stop to the present illogical practice of employing rows of lorries and strings of barges to dump excavated material in the outer suburbs (the result of which is that little by little the whole sub-soil of Paris has been piled up round its outskirts.) Instead, we shall let what has to be taken out of these excavations accumulate by the side of them, and diversify the packs by planting the mounds with trees and sowing them with grass. Go and look at the little artificial hillock beside the Museum in the Jardin des Plantes, and see what a nucleus of unexpected views it has created.
From behind the varying levels of this range of artificial hills we perceive the towering office-buildings rising through the trees like many-facetted crystals. Though spaced at regular intervals of 400 meters they are not orientated in alignment with the motor-roads or foot-paths. Right in their midst we suddenly find ourselves face to face with a charming Gothic church nestling among its belt of trees : either the Fourteenth-Century St Martin or the Fifteenth-Century St Merry. Further on there is a noble mansion, dating from the reign of Henri IV, of what once was the Marais quarter. Now it has become a club and gravelled walks lead up to it.
Here we have a promenade for pedestrians rising on a gentle ramp to first-floor level, which stretches before us as a kilometer flight of terrace. It is flanked by cafés embowered in tree-tops that overlook the ground beneath. Another ramp takes us to a second promenade two stories above the first. On one side of it is a Rue de la Paix of the smartest shops; the other commands an uninterrupted view of the city's limits. Yet a third ramp leads to the esplanade along which the clubs and restaurants are grouped. We are sheer above the expanse of parks with a tossing sea of verdure plumb beneath us. And to right and left, over there, and further away still, those gigantic and majestic prisms of purest transparency rear their heads one upon another in a dazzling spectacle of grandeur, serenity and gladness.
Charming examples of architecture emerge from the rounded forms of the tree-tops. That decidedly amusing Greek portico dominated by a gilded dome was the supreme masterpiece of M. Nénot, Membre de l'Institut. Whether it is a genuine Renaissance building or a fake (which is after all simply a matter of individual taste) hardly matters, since its design in no wise troubles the general architectural harmony.
Those hanging gardens of Semiramis, the triple tiers of terraces, are "streets of quietude". Their delicate horizontal lines span the intervals between the huge vertical piles of glass, binding them together with an attenuated web. Look over there ! That stupendous colonnade which disappears into the horizon as a vanishing thread is an elevated one-way autostrada on which cars cross Paris at lightning speed. For twenty kilometers the undeviating diagonal of this viaduct is borne aloft on pairs of slender stanchions.
In the new business centre office work will be performed, not in the persistent dimness of joyless streets, but in the fullness of daylight and an abundance of fresh air.
Do not smile incredulously. Its 400,000 clerks will be able to scan a landscape such as that one looks down on from the lofty crests above the Seine near Rouen and behold a serried mass of trees swaying beneath them. The stillness is absolute, for whence can noise proceed?
When night intervenes the passage of cars along the autostrada traces luminous traces that are like the tails of meteors f lashing across the summer heavens.
Two hundred meters above it lie the spacious roof-gardens of these office-skycrapers, planted with spindleberries, thuyas, laurels and ivy. They are gay with beds of tulips or geraniums and the herbacious borders of bright-eyed flowers that wind along their stone-flagged paths. Overhead electric lamps shed a peaceful radiance. The depth of the night makes the prevailing calmness but the deeper. Armchairs are scattered about. There are groups in conversation, bands playing, couples dancing. And all around are the suspended golden discs of other gardens floating at the same level. The offices are in darkness, their facades obscured ; the City seems to deep. From far off comes the murmur of the quarters of Paris that remain encrusted in their secular mould.
What you have just been shown was the city's "City", its feverishly active business centre. The idea of realizing it in the heart of Paris is no Utopian flight of fancy. There are cold figures to substantiate this thesis. The enormous increase of land-values that must result would yield a profit to the state running into milliards of francs - for to acquire the central part of Paris and redevelop it in accordance with a coordinated plan means the creation of an immense fresh source of wealth.
Then the street as we know it will cease to exist.
And the old makeshift expedient of canyonlike cross-roads would no longer be tolerated in residential and dormitory districts.