Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Les Olympiades, Paris

The Olympiades housing complex was built between 1968 and 1974 as the centerpiece of an ambitious urban renewal project that rebuilt much of Paris' 13th arrondissement. The best way of accessing the complex takes a set of steps off of rue Tolbiac in Paris' 13th arrondissement that at first glance does not seem to go anywhere in particular. At the top of the steps, the curious visitor is rewarded with one of Paris' most unique vistas.

(click to enlarge)

Despite the many times I've seen it, the view from the top never fails to be breathtaking. Regretfully, my photos can hardly capture the grandeur of the space, nor the impression of watching towers advance interminably into the distance. It feels much like walking into an outdated Utopian vision - a realized version of Le Corbusier's Radial City, for one.

Though Paris' Modernist planners had much of the 13th arrondissement as their playground, nowhere was their vision as completely realized as it was at the Olympiades project. It comprises multiple housing towers and an indoor shopping complex grouped together by a vast plaza which, in true Modernist fashion, is built roughly four stories above street level on an elevated platform to separate pedestrian activity from automobile circulation and delivery below. The towers are of uniform height, and each given names of former Olympics host cities (London, Tokyo, Helsinki, etc). The Asian-inspired roofs on the plaza's retail buildings also add an international touch. While I'm no fan of Modernist city planning, such a fervent expression of its idealism on a scale unseen in the United States is quite something to behold.

Somewhat unusually for a giant work of Modernist urban design, the complex has a lot going for it, and has endured its 30 years rather well. The crowded indoor shopping center and outdoor plaza are home to a cluster of well-patronized Southeast Asian immigrant businesses that attract a fairly steady stream of foot traffic through the plaza, even in the depths of winter. The plaza's retail spaces run along its main southern axis in a slightly asymmetrical, playful zigzag pattern that seems to entice visitors forward. Though I have yet to experience this, I have a feeling that its small courtyard spaces are rather agreeable in the warmer months.

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