Staffer’s Notebook is where I put emails that are way too long, or none of my business, or ideas no one wants to hear about. Glen Gower is my long-suffering boss and the person most likely to receive “I wrote you a 1200-word reply, wanna read it?” in response to a simple question. Sometimes he says yes. Sometimes I send it anyways.
Subject: Paris… Sigh
Some time ago (or so) I mentioned the Square du Temple in Paris as an example of a great public space. Today we received an email critical of public art in transit stations in Ottawa. It reminded me of Paris. Everything reminds me of Paris.
As a kid my mom took us back to France often but we never stayed in Paris. Two years ago, I took Éloïse and Marie to France for a family reunion. Since it was their first trip abroad, I decided to play tourist before joining my parents in Brittany. I was always interested in urban design and the secret sauce that makes greatness. My travels to Europe as a child and young adult formed my outlook on density, public transit and art. I wanted my two teenage daughters to experience the smaller footprint of life in a large European city and take that experience back with them to Ottawa, like I did growing up. I took a ton of pictures of public art, gathering space and (of course) transit.
Here is a short video I took in the Square du Temple. It’s about 15 seconds long and doesn’t have much sound: I was trying to capture the feel of the place.
This park is located in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris, a hipster shopping district and former Jewish quarter. The girls and I bought bread, cheese and saucisson at the nearby Marché des enfants rouges — the oldest food market in Paris, created in 1615 — and took our “dinner” back to the park. Once there, we shared a moment with local residents and passers-by. The square is one of the 24 city parks designed and planned by Charles-Eugène Haussman, the prefect of the Seine charged by Napoleon with a massive urban renewal project. Haussman was ousted by critics for extravagance but his vision survives in the spirit that still animates Paris today. The garden in the Square du Temple contains 70 species of trees, some of them exotic and requiring special attention by skilled gardeners. Maintaining the park costs money and the park is not generating any revenues. It serves its purpose as a place of refuge in a densely built environment. It’s beautiful for its own sake.
Paris, like any city in a mature democracy, can no longer put one person in charge of transforming its image at any cost. But the spirit of making art and culture a set piece of any major project lives on. Many public projects in Paris have been commissioned to world-class artists and architects to reinvent and interpret. The Louvre Pyramid comes to mind as do many lesser-known transit stations.
We came to the Square du Temple through the “Arts et métiers” metro station, another public space worthy of a Google search if you are so inclined.
This station is named after the museum of “Arts et métiers” which translates to “crafts and trades”. It is lined with copper panels and was inspired by steampunk esthetics and the Nautilus — Jules Verne’s legendary submarine in 20,000 leagues below the sea. Unlike most metro stations, advertising is not allowed in this station. Portholes dot the walls and display sketches of some of the museum’s exhibits. The station is a work of art. Commissioning the art cost money and the station is not generating revenues through advertising. It’s a public transit station that serves its purpose as a transit station and as a work of art. It’s beautiful for its own sake.
I was reminded of this station during our chat about what our transit system says about our priorities. I said that Ottawa was a City of “good enough”. This is not a value judgement on the morality of being visionary or conservative, it’s a statement about Ottawa’s distinct personality as an agglomeration. I struggle to imagine Ottawa City Council, or the residents who elected it, supporting a kind of artistic vision for transit stations that makes them worth visiting in and of themselves and not just something to pass through. And yet, that ability to think bigger than “how do I get to work?” is part of the secret sauce that makes every corner of Paris worth discovering. I planned our Paris visit around landmark public transit stations, public spaces and public art. The two pictures below are another example of public art adorning a transit station.
We are a practical city. We don’t plant flowers that require a gardener’s care. Our vision for Ottawa Beyond 2036 is to be the “most liveable midsize city.” I wonder if this is not setting us on a path of un-remarkability and damning us to obscurity. Do we want to be a city where people merely live or do we want to be a city that people seek out? Do we want to be “survivable” or “desirable”?
I see “liveable” as a subset of a “desirable”. Liveable speaks to those who are already here. Desirable makes our city attractive to those who are not here yet. The difference between liveable and desirable may be an existential one: do we want to be a city looking inward or outward? Do we want to grow in stature and meaning or do we want to stay cozy within our small-town self-perception? When I listen to Stephen Willis talk about Ottawa Beyond 2036, I hear hopes for a city looking both inward and outward: a city caring for its own and shining beyond its limits. When I listen to the public, I hear wishes for a city that is safe and predictable in scope and ambition. Safe is unremarkable. It will keep our city sprawling, our zoning unequitable, our transit unreliable, our roads wide, our sidewalks missing and our children in our basements.
The best we can hope for by playing it safe is to make the wrong things better or maybe start doing the right things poorly. Doing the right things well will require vision and a will to match.