10 October 2010

Urine, You’re Out


Hardscape ∕ Place Making ∕ Public Space

While staying in Paris in August, I was struck by the numbers of drunks, homeless and mad people who stagger their way through its streets. During the holiday month, the city is quite empty apart from these year-round inhabitants and determined tourists (such as myself). Paris almost belongs to that set of world cities where the spectacular poverty of its street people becomes part of the outsider’s view of the place (think Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles). Certainly, the organisation of zones for rich and poor is one of the great principles of the French capital, as these spiked iron bars attest.


This corner is on a narrow street along the main building of the Sorbonne. The railing prevents people using the corner either as a place to urinate or to sleep, or both (note how the spikes point upwards and downwards). The stench of urine from dark urban nooks and crannies can be overpowering, and clearly it can lead to desperate measures in some parts of the world. It is easy to understand the urge to preserve the building and the street in this way. This fairly brutal instance of preservation is interesting, though, because it reveals a feature of preservation efforts in general that is not always apparent. While the task of preservation seems to be concerned with the past, and with the future survival of valued objects, really what is at stake is the control of the streetscape in the here and now.Basse

The construction of the spiked bars (here is another example from a few streets away) are an effective effort at protecting something without destroying it. The space is still public, but it simply cannot be used. The space is negated. So it might be better to put it like this: what we have here is a way of destroying something without protecting it, because the space itself is being protected for non-use. Better to destroy the space than let it be used. In fact, what is being protected is the adjacent space, i.e. the pavement where those who are not mad or homeless walk by. Similarly, churchgoers in Saint Sulpice, a short walk in the other direction, are protected from beggars at the door by this bar which doubles as a boot scraper (for more on boot scrapers in these pages, you might like to read this and this). Admittedly, a beggar could stand here, but would be prevented from sitting. Well, they have to do something to be the deserving poor, don’t they?StSulpice