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Place Georges Pompidou

Place Georges Pompidou

Tubular shopping mall


There is an École Arthur Rimbaud in this new town to the southwest of Paris. It was a weekend and a national holiday so no public transportation was available beyond the railroad station. I walked several miles through the streets to the Bofil apartment complex that I had come to see. As I walked I became fascinated with what I saw along the way.

Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines has sprung up from the fields with almost no history except a monument involving an old fort. That quiet Sunday the buildings offered sterility, inflated ego, historical references without soul -- a reduction to absurdity of many postmodern gestures -- as well as earnest attempts to create a new vernacular, and a thousand-car garage at the railroad station.

This is not Nowhere-ville; it has a unified character. The residental sections share a common scale; the street patterns provide some green space. However, the downtown is a jumble of geometries, dominated by the pomposities of commercial and office buildings, a tubular shopping mall, and by the amazing Place Georges Pompidou, a combination of out-of-scale geometry, oppression, and excitement.

Saint-Quentin is bright, wide, clean, has new services, lots of people and open spaces, a center that would be busy on a working day, and a mediatheque. The uniformity of volumes and spaces is not unusual for a European town. So why did Saint-Quentin bother me so much?

Was it the obviousness of their experimental gestures? But what do you do when the whole town is to be new? The most interesting new towns in America have had New Urbanist volume and spacing control, with care given to pedestrian circulation, and the historicist styles that Americans prefer. Saint-Quentin shows good concern for urban spaces, but its plan is still automobile-centered. It has a strong sense of place, but it still feels odd. (Will its sense of place be strong only for as long as there are few other new towns like it? Will such new towns come to seem common and anonymous just because of their constant experimentation with form?)

For all that I complain, Saint-Quentin seemed full of satisfied people. The streets were wide and light; there were green spaces and parks; children were riding bicycles; people were walking along a canal; only the Brazil-(the movie)-like downtown was deserted on the holiday. Besides, the town has all new services and that thousand-car garage.