If you are heading to Paris before the end of August you might want to check out the current temporary exhibit at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine. This museum used to be known as the Musée des monuments francais [c cédille] and is situated in the Palais de Chaillot, which sits across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
The exhibit is called “Circuler. Quand nos mouvements faconnent [c cédille] nos villes,” or “Flow. When Movement Shapes Our Towns,” (their translation). By way of introduction, the museum’s website offers the following short text, of interest as it shows the ambitious nature of the ideas the exhibit tries to get across to visitors:
Our lives are made up of moments of activity and inertia, comings and goings, arrivals and departures. Space within towns and between towns is organized to support this constant movement. From the earliest days almost, towns were structured to allow for both the gathering of men, and their accumulated wealth, and, at the same time, to facilitate movement and encourage meetings and interaction.
The exhibition offers the visitor the opportunity to follow the development of urban design through the ages and explore the urban spaces and buildings which are a consequence of man’s movement across the land. The exhibition incorporates both real-world movement, dating back thousands of years, together with today’s virtual movement. Streets and squares, roads, motorways or railways, ports, caravanserail, stations and terminals, compact cities and sprawling towns – these are just some of the places and concepts, born out of our desire for movement, which punctuate the history of our land. The exhibition takes the visitor on a playful and sensory journey, presented as a theatre set. Reconstructed roads, computer generated images, films, soundtracks composed by Louis Dandrel and Bernard Lubat, transport the visitor through time and space, leading him to reflect on his environment and future. While the 20th century was characterised by a sort of “transport war” strongly influenced by the myth that progress equalled speed, the start of this century represents a time to question our travel and movement patterns. The exhibition makes numerous novel suggestions about how man can organize his life of motion. In this exhibition, Jean-Marie Duthilleul illustrates how town development should achieve a subtle balance – a balance that needs to be constantly adjusted – between movement and stillness, between places you stay in and places you pass through. When you design a town, you are designing a system to accommodate groups of people and allow for interaction. Thus the town is the result of a constant dialectic between mobility and immobility.
As has become common for temporary exhibitions, a celebrity of sorts has been designated as ‘commissaire’ of the exhibit: not really curators, they lend their prestige, fame, or institutional gravitas to the exhibit, in addition to any design input or writing they may contribute. For this one, architect Jean-Marie Duthilleul, who has an interesting professional connection to the subject: he has had a hand in designing dozens of train stations, both new and remodels. (A partial list of his projects can be found on the French-language Wikipedia, here.) For this reason, one of the stronger points of the exhibit is in fact the material on French train stations near the beginning of the tour. Another strong point worth highlighting here has nothing to do with train stations: near the end of the tour, the curators have prepared some very interesting ways to map how often, where, and when Parisians use their cell phones using data from Orange’s cell network (a corporate sponsor of the exhibit, btw). Visitors can observe mappings of cell-phone use in the city on certain important dates like New Year’s Eve, during the Fête de la Musique, etc. Adjusting some parameters the same data can be used to trace the routes and distances inhabitants take through the city–which, if one had more control over the datasets, would allow for potentially very rich ways of visualizing how urban spaces are used by various subsets of users. (Including mappings that would be akin to the bubble-map of Budapest bicycle use posted below).
Does the exhibit work, in the sense that it might successfully convey important observations and assertions from mobility and urban studies to a mass audience? Meh, in my view it’s a mixed bag. It’s certainly an interesting exhibit for visitors who go in with a particular affinity for the topics and in seeing how they handled, but it may not generate much excitement or enthusiasm in those who don’t. At times it’s too abstract and misses opportunities to engage the visitor, and at others it’s too focused on gadgetry and downright naively utopian. Still, I think it’ll be of interest to readers of this blog–check it out and post your thoughts here!