Inverted peripheries: Le Boulevard Périphérique and the struggle for identity in Paris.
Architectural Humanities Research Association Conference, Queens University, Belfast, 2011.
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Le Périphérique is a 35.04kms long inner ring road built around Paris following the line of the former defensive wall demolished in 1929. Ever since it opened in 1973 there have been attempts to reduce its physical impact on the landscape. It is generally taken as marking the administrative boundary of the city. At 50 km/h it takes 26 minutes to complete a full circle, the inside of which is always marked by red distance markers, the outer side by blue. This highly visual and strongly physical boundary has been seen as having a profound impact on the psychology of those living either side: There are 2.2 million people intra muros (Parisiens) and 9.6 million extra muros (banlieusards.) The former perceived as glamorous, the latter peripheral. The road has featured in film and literature as symbolising a divide between two worlds, and at the same time being a world of its own.
This research explores the struggle for identity at this ‘periphery’ of Paris, the spatial manifestation of which begs the question: are you in Paris or not? The research charts a contemporary battle at the wall of Paris where the defence is being ‘breached’ by those outside who do not want to be seen as on the periphery and so want the symbolism of Paris extended beyond the wall; whilst at the same time the wall is ‘repaired’ or even ‘rebuilt’ by those who want to remain separate and not Parisian. Symbols, colours, signs, and material particular to one side or the other of this identity clash are the ordnance of this battle. In the case of Paris the struggle to assert identity is played both consciously and subconsciously.
The research takes a deep mapping approach to understanding the periphery, drawing upon the work of William Least Heat-Moon as well as some of the more psychogeographical thinking of from Benjamin to Sinclair. The field work was carried out in the communes of St Mandé and Montreuil
The findings suggest that Paris exhibits an ‘inverted periphery’ in which the walls of a city not seeking to extend its boundaries are being ‘attacked’ by those outside who emulate its imagery and so bring intra muros symbolism to their territory. Yet at the same time there is an institutional drive to reinforce the walls visually and retain extra muros identities. Should those seeking to reduce the physical impact of the Périphérique succeed Paris will, for the first time in its history, be left defenceless and be in risk of ‘invasion’.
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