“Indecent,” “absurd,” and “unacceptable”—these are a few of the adjectives used by Jean Nouvel and other architects and urban planners to denounce new plans for the Gare du Nord train station renovation in Paris. Proposed by S.N.C.F Gares & Connextions, the expansion of the largest train station in Europe by 1.2 million square feet would focus heavily on duty-free mall-like commercial development targeting suburban R.E.R commuters.
While the proposed transformation is not very different from other train station trends, from the Gare Saint-Lazare renovation to London’s Liverpool Street Station, the size and scope of this project have hit a sore spot for the French public. Nouvel and others wrote and signed on to an open letter published in this Tuesday’s edition of Le Monde outlining their objections. As a city that prides itself on the beauty and vivacity of its historic monuments, any alteration on the scale of the Gare du Nord prompts scrutiny, as the city fabric becomes more and more consumer and profit-oriented.
Bernard Landau, a former deputy director of urban planning at the city of Paris, told The New York Times that “it all goes into one question. Should we transform all train stations into shopping malls?”
The plans were described as “primarily for the daily commuters, the millions of users of the R.E.R. and the suburban trains,” by Claude Solard, chief executive of S.N.C.F. in the same article. Yet these commuters, who reside in the affluent suburbs of Paris, like Versailles, are often hurrying through, going from point A to B—yet the plans were proposed to be beneficial for those who have more time to use the added “amenities.” The extant Gare du Nord has been criticized heavily in the past for its hour-long delays, and passengers won’t be appeased in the face of cancellations by having more boutiques to browse.
In addition, opponents to the plan have pointed out that the added shops will increase the pressure suburban malls and retail are already feeling, making it more difficult to attract customers.
The open letter is a new chapter in what has been an ongoing debate amongst architects and urban planners in Europe: What should a modern train station look like? A coworking space and fitness facilities are also included in the proposals, which is scheduled to begin construction in early 2020.
As the city eyes the 2024 Summer Olympics, the Gare du Nord is poised to be a major player in moving people from the Charles de Gaulle airport as well as around the city to various events, in addition to being the termination point of the international high-speed Eurostar rail service. It is not a radical idea that station planning should be focused on pedestrian flow, efficient movement, and timely departures. While an expansion and modernization of the transit hub is called for, Parisian planners are demanding that the project’s priorities should be shifted and that the designers should “rethink from floor to rafters.”