Regenerating Paris

"That’s the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count."
Richard Powers, L’Arbre-Monde[1]

◀︎  Back

Aggloville (Paris), Bert Theis, 2007. © Courtesy of Bert Theis Archive

Chris Younès
psychosociologist and philosopher

September 4, 2021
11 min.
Philosopher François Cheng insists on beauty’s force of mediation: “It isn’t an ornament … it’s a becoming or a happening that both comes from others and from within oneself. Beauty is about encounter.”[2] How does this encounter occur in the urban esthetic of a city such as Paris?
Esthetics, which proceed from sensation, feeling, and cultural context, is a bringing into contact. It relates to something beyond duality, to correspondences between the microcosm and the macrocosm, to alliances between human beings and the universe, to a “poetic re-enchantment” that seems to have drifted away from the city. In his novel Desert, J.-M. G. Le Clézio draws a fierce description of a city that became unlivable: “The men can’t exist here, neither can children, nor any living thing.”[3] The men are afraid. “You can tell by the way they walk, sort of sidling along, hugging the walls, the way dogs with their hair bristling do. Death is upon them everywhere … they can’t escape.”[4] There is no life, no pity, no beauty, nor softness. “Maybe the wind is going to tear the roofs off the sordid houses, smash in the doors and windows, knock down the rotten walls, heave all the cars into a pile of scrap metal. It’s bound to happen, because there’s too much hate, too much suffering…”[5] This world will perish from a lack of beauty, love, light, and connection to the world.
For Le Clézio, beauty is the world of nature, trees, rocks, the sky, the wind, the river, and the sea, and especially that of light, and the sparks of sunlight that invigorate but can also scorch.[6]

New, recosmicized urban esthetics

The opening up of creative alternative practices focusing on recycling, doing better with less, and being sparing/conserving is therefore decisive, even though such an attitude seemed to characterize pre-industrial vernacular societies or societies steeped in poverty. Environmentalism, reducing consumption, concern for viability, livability, fairness represent conceptions and orientations through which the city seems to question itself, to question its history and its future, to question its own existence and its capacity for metamorphosis, a term whose prefix “meta-” means “beyond” or “what comes after,” describing a succession of forms for a being, a phenomenon, or a milieu. Within this process, the challenge is to bring about other esthetic and ethical forms of cohabitation. These are to be put into the perspective of the pervasiveness of an eco-existential dynamic that draws attention to cultural data as well as to living conditions, from a sustainable perspective. Because thinking inhabited environments through their trajectory is to insist on what is between things and beings as well as on what is becoming; it is inheriting, being sparing, and reinventing, all at the same time.
Indeed, inhabited environments are currently undergoing a severe crisis characterized by the depletion of natural and human environments, with degradations and forms of déliance (disconnection) expressed in both the problematic relations of human settlements with nature and in dissociations related to culture and society. This critical condition that is threatening the future of our territories results from modern urbanization, which is largely based on the principles of division and segregation, and a way of producing the city according to deterritorialized logics.
Confronted with the multiple and often dramatic consequences of these dissociations, emergent initiatives, headed by designers and protagonists engaged in spatial planning, are seeking to bring about alternative scenarios of coexistence. In view of the specific resistances and resources involved, they build on the specific local and translocal features involved in the tension between the singularity of situations and global systems. Between territorial strategies and architectural forms, these eco-responsible approaches aim to regenerate (in the sense of leading to a “rebirth” or “renaissance”) environments at all their scales, to ensure that they remain inhabitable.

Prototype of an operational urban algoculture façade installed at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal during the Prototype of an operational urban algoculture façade installed at the Pavillon de l'Arsenal during the "Algocultures" exhibition, XTU Architects and AlgoSource Technologies, engineers, 2013. © Antoine Espinasseau
The architecture of inhabited milieux now calls for a recosmicization of human existence—in other words, to re-establishing a world (kosmos) understood as a commons rather than the one impaired by a modernity that enforcing divides between subject and object, as well as between nature and culture. It therefore calls on sciences such as ecology and ethology, but also poetics, which relates to a form of radicality. An extended and “radical” ecology—such as the one that Michel Deguy foresees in a possible alliance with poetry[7]—should thus be in capacity to poïetically take into account these various dimensions or stratifications of environments. We must realize that the milieux within an environment[8] do not form a mosaic—partes extra partes—but intermingle and overlap. That is what the study of human and animal milieux teaches us. A singular milieu is already by and in itself a multiplicity. The fame of Uexküll’s[9] tick stems from the fact that with it, we are able to easily isolate the components of a very simple milieu/Umwelt/environment-world (but nevertheless already plural), while human milieux involve countless components. Such is the case of cities, which form a complex setting in which plurality and heterogeneity are clearly apparent. They are indeed cities rather than a singular city (and, in each city, there are many different “urban milieux”). What we sometimes refer to as the “generic city” hasn’t absorbed the infinite variety between cities and within cities.
If we are to talk about nature-as-city, it is in a sense that plays havoc with our idea of nature and what is “natural.” The oncoming city (or “what comes after the city”) can open up the space of a thousand different milieux that are highly “breathable” and fascinating. The city-as-nature isn’t a “natural” city but one that re-engages with the elements and the living in an unprecedented and “artist” manner. Firstly, with the Earth, which isn’t only an element, but rather the melee of all elements. One could imagine this nature-as-city as involving a great deal of transformations and thoroughly mingled with technology, but—in forms that wouldn’t be spectacular and adulterated—allied with the forces of nature, alleviated from the excess mythological and symbolic weight.

The challenge of a beautiful living Paris

The challenge of establishing other relationships between humans and nature appears all the more critical that we are now becoming strongly aware that the vulnerability of biodiversity is associated with that of human cultures. Everyone can see, with Paul Ricœur, that “the man of technique adds a further layer of fragility in his own works.”[10] The contemporary technological acceleration has increased the potential for annihilation. There are many great fears at the dawn of the third millennium: the fear of a sixth mass extinction, genetic manipulation, pollution, concerns over human health and survival, grievances of melancholy… The impacts of technoscientific development, which appear irreversible and cumulative, can lead not only to counter-productivity, but to counter-development, or even to posing extreme danger to living environments—an analysis further developed throughout Ivan Illich’s work, which radically anticipates many issues involving ecology and the ethics of living together.

By taking into account places, atmospheric conditions, soil fertility, squares, parks, gardens, the banks of the Seine, and pedestrian streets, it is the whole urban quality in terms of beauty and living well that is at stake.  

How can the turn of vulnerability, which is obvious and conveys powerful emotions, resonances, and “letting go” be a source of synergistic rebounds?[11] Questioning what could revitalize the Greater Paris metropolis, in times of climate threat, uncertainty, and devastation,[12] involves giving credence to new aspirations and figures animating urban narratives. Clearly, several beacons are at work, there is a weaving of a hybrid canvas disseminating and extolling the accords between the living and the artifact. By taking into account places, atmospheric conditions, soil fertility, squares, parks, gardens, the banks of the Seine, and pedestrian streets, it is the whole urban quality in terms of beauty and living well that is at stake. How can we go from the fragment of the redevelopment of railway stations to a thought of territories in their continuity? If polycentralities are initiated with the metamorphosis of the railway stations of the Greater Paris, how can all the ecosystems and natural/cultural territories be better regenerated?

Working on building reliances, and synergistic and symbiotic rebounds

Edgar Morin has been incessantly pointing out the challenge of building reliances,13 namely the art of interconnecting and connecting, between species, between oneself and others, between oneself and oneself. In this articulation, the pulses and alternations that are specific to the various bodily, socioanthropological, or cosmic phenomena are then transmuted. Relayed by void space, and openings, rapport (logos) between different realities is thus built: cycles of nature that are subject to the irregularity of variations, whether they are telluric or biological alternations and dynamics, or those of the seasons, of the sunrise and sunset, the heart, breath, sleep and wake, or concerning the rituals of social life, repeated or modified. Though the waters, air, and soils aren’t intact anymore, the elements remain a vital force that speaks to us of the secrets of Gaia and life. Gaston Bachelard explored the oneiric force of the elements, primordial matter with the ability to transport us, to make us “become one” with the world and “take part in its living whole,” through a “holistic and dynamic vision that reappears in the epistemology of contemporary ecology.”[14]
In this context, possible creative mendings can be observed, intimately associated with existential being-there. Other healths, solidarities and happy frugalities[15] must be cultivated, highlighting the importance of proximities that could reinvent other recreational ways. Appropriate ways to produce food can be deployed (market gardening, agricultural parks, vineyards, urban farms, vegetated roofs, community gardens…), with a focus on permaculture, local food systems, recycling, renewable energies, access to farmland and its preservation, all generate new landscapes. The challenges are political, scientific, esthetic, and ethical at the same time. In this dynamic process, based on diversities of practices and knowledge, on heritage and innovations, and which is part of an upheaval of imaginaries and value systems, what seems minor proves major, and encounters take on a power of salvation.
Other entanglements between the long term and the short term, permanence and transience, are at play, contributing to an alternative way of envisioning ourselves in relation to the world. Different kinds of agreements aim to reveal, to conserve, to fertilize, are involved, taking into account geographic, tectonic, climatic, atmospheric, biological, technical, and cultural elements. That is how landscapes at the edges between the city and the countryside, sensible densities preserving unbuilt spaces of forests, meadows, gardens and parks are imagined, but also wild nature, through the creation of breathable atmospheres… Such practices and anticipations engage us on the path of restored connections, initiate reevaluations and connections between different time frames, between stabilities and instabilities, set the near and the distant, and here and there, in resonance.

Accommodating the new cosmoesthetic imaginaries of a symbiotic Paris

What cosmoesthetics can lend itself to re-enchanting Greater Paris? To which beauty are we referring to at the very moment when the megalopolis is losing its boundaries? The demarcated city of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance stemmed from a cosmicity that has taken on other figures. There is a widely shared view that we are experiencing a rise of ugliness and exclusion, leading to things that are unbearable to the greater number. How could we inhabit Paris and its metropolis while experiencing the rhythms of nature—day and night, the seasons, a relationship to the sky, the wind, and the sun, to plants, and, more generally, the richness of biodiversity and the pulses of the universe? It is obvious that nature and the landscape form the crucible of a shared common good. The territories we inherited are very uncomfortable, of limited viability, and inequitable. As early as the mid-twentieth century, Ian L. McHarg was already advocating for connecting design to nature.[16] The enmeshing of highly differentiated spatiotemporal scales and their compatibility are proving decisive to unite the city to its geography and its bioterritorial characteristics. How can mobility, great sociotechnical infrastructure, and agriculture be reintegrated within the great natural spaces, as well as cultural and singular sites? The metropolitan reconfigurations that are accelerating and intensifying travel aren’t only the imprint of the passage from one place to another, modifying ecosystems; they are also tensors of existential opening, through which the large-scale vision of geography forms an alliance with that of inhabited microplaces and living soils[17].

Dreaming of a beautiful Paris that would be a forest city, a river city, an open park, water, atmosphere…

Far from the imaginary of an idealized nature, these are imaginaries of reinvention of a tangible city-as-nature, hybridizing with forests, meadows, wild lands, and riverbanks, which are biodiversity reserves as well as spaces for unwinding. These are the edges of the woods, underbrush, pastures, ecological corridors, the result of guerilla gardening, parks and gardens… The metamorphosis of public spaces, mass transit, and road infrastructure into places that are rich in urban practices and biodiversity reflect the quest for new balances. These challenges have only barely begun shifting towards what Michel Serres called the natural contract,[18] however. Michel Serres advocated for a new pact given the general weakening caused by unbridled exploitation. Taking new holistic measures will make the extended Paris beautiful. Environmental footprint, metabolism, climate threat, biodiversity, cycles, and recycling: [19] all these conditions bring the scales of space and time closer and get them to intertwine, thus generating new accommodating and supportive ecologies. A whole new era of care[20] is at stake. Thinking, imagining, cooperating represent driving forces in seeking out and outlining possible ways of surviving and living. Scientific and artistic productions, econarratives, ecofictions,[21] and ecofights play a part in a collective drive towards embracing nature and our connections with it.
In these multiple and cooperative imaginaries that are emerging, the call for beauty[22] returns like a refrain, as a series of advents that are extolled over time by poets, charging us with emotion and inviting us to share the sensible.[23] Indeed, the esthetic advent is an also an ethic that allows us to resist “foulness” by opening encounters that can make the environmental, social, and existential dimensions hold together. This will ultimately respark ecosophic[24] and ecopoetic horizons of the sparing use of places so that we can coexist and cohabit. Other issues of social and environmental justice are engaged through the recognition of the values of openness and mutual aid. These are ways of doing and redoing that are decisive for the earthly city, so that metamorphoses in ethics, esthetics, and politics can give rise to ways of remaining in corhythms, and soaring.

Article published in the book La beauté d'une ville - Controverses esthétiques et transition écologique à Paris.
Co-published by the Pavillon de l'Arsenal and Wildproject, 2021.
For sale in French on the 

Chris Younès

Psychosociologist and PhD/HDR (accreditation to supervise research) in Philosophy Chris Younès is a professor at ESA (École Spéciale d’Architecture, Paris) and the founder and member of the Gerphau laboratory (EA 7486, ENSA Paris-la-Villette), as well as of the thematic research network PhilAU (French Ministry of Culture and ENSA Clermont-Ferrand). She is also a cofounder and member of ARENA (Architectural Research European Network) and a member of EUROPAN’s scientific council.
Her work and research elaborate on the question of the places we inhabit at the crossroads between nature and the artifact, ethics, esthetics, and politics. She has edited upwards of twenty collective publications and authored many articles and books, including Architectures de l’existence. Éthique. Esthétique. Politique [Architectures of Existence. Ethics, Esthetics, Politics] (Paris: Hermann, 2018).

1. Richard Powers, The Overstory (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).
2. François Cheng, “Considérations sur la beauté” [Considerations on Beauty], interview by Chris Younès, Ecologik, no. 4 (August/September 2008).
3. Jean¬-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Desert [Désert], trans. C. Dickson (Boston : David R. Godine, 2009).
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ecological awareness and the communion of the living, which are at the very heart of Le Clézio’s work, have led him to write a splendid introduction to the French translation of Aldo Leopold’s seminal A Sand County Almanac, which he views as heralding new times: “The prophetic gaze that Aldo Leopold has cast on our contemporary world has lost none of its sharpness, and his words are the seed of the promise of much more magic for future harvests. This book benefits us all.” See the “Introduction,” in Almanach d’un comté des sables (Paris: Flammarion, 2017).
7. Michel Deguy, “Écologie et poésie” [Ecology and Poetry], in La Fin dans le monde [The End in the World] (Paris: Hermann, 2009).
8. Benoît Goetz and Chris Younès, “Mille milieux : éléments pour une intro¬ duction à l’architecture des milieux” [A Thousand Milieux: Elements for an Introduction to the Architecture of Environments], Le Portique, no. 25 (2010),
9. Jakob von Uexküll, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans. trans. by Joseph D. O’Neil (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Originally published in 1934.
10. Paul Ricœur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia [L’Idéologie et l’Utopie], trans. George H. Taylor (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).
11. Roberto D’Arienzo and Chris Younès (coed.), Synergies urbaines : pour un métabolisme collectif des villes [Urban Synergie: For a Collective Urban Metabolism] (Geneva: MētisPresses, 2018).
12. See Thierry Paquot, Désastres urbains : les villes meurent aussi [Urban Disasters: Cities Die Too] (Paris: La Découverte, 2015).
13. Edgar Morin, La Méthode 6 : éthique [Method 6: Ethics] (Paris: Seuil, 2004).
14. Jean-¬Jacques Wunenburger, “Gaston Bachelard et la médiance des matières arche¬cosmiques” [Gaston Bachelard and the Mediance of Archecocosmic Matter], in Chris Younès et Thierry Paquot (ed.), Philosophie, ville et architecture: la renaissance des quatre éléments [Philosophy, City, and Architecture: the Revival of the Four Elements] (Paris: La Découverte, 2002).
15. See the “Manifesto for a Happy Frugality,” published by architects Philippe Madeci and Dominique Gauzin-Müller, along with engineer Alain Bornel, on January 18, 2018.
16. Ian L. McHarg, Design with Nature (New York: Garden City, 1969).
17. Bruno Latour, After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis (Oxford: Polity Press, 2021).
18. Michel Serres, The Natural Contract [Le Contrat naturel], trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).
19. Roberto D’Arienzo and Chris Younès (coed.), Recycler l’urbain : pour une écologie des milieux habités [Recycling of Urban Remainders: For an Ecology of Inhabited Milieux] (Geneva: MētisPresses, 2014).
20. Chris Younès, Architectures de l’existence : éthique. esthétique. politique [Architectures of Existence: Ethics, Esthetics, Politics] (Paris: Hermann, 2018).
21. Richard Powers, The Overstory, op. cit.
22. Hannah Arendt, “La beauté et le jugement esthétique”, in Qu’est- ce que la politique ?, trans. Sylvie Courtine-Denamy (Paris: Seuil, 2001), p. 200.
23. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Esthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible [Le Partage du sensible], trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004).
24. Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies [Les Trois Écologies], trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton (Paris: Galilée, 1989).