The French President's Cultural Legacy
Francois Mitterrand's 'Great Works' project paved the way for Paris to become a laboratory of contemporary urban architecture
When he steps down from office this month, President Francois Mitterrand will have remained true to a phrase he wrote in 1975: ''In all cities, I feel like an emperor or an architect. I make decisions, I solve, I arbitrate.''Skip to next paragraph
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With the recent inauguration of the formidable National Library of France, President Mitterrand has presided over and seen to completion most of the architectural landmarks he commissioned during his 14 years in office. And because of his political agility and sheer persistence, he made the Ministry of Culture powerful in a way it had never been before, paving the way for Paris to become a laboratory for contemporary urban architecture.
Not since Baron Haussmann reorganized Paris in the 1850s under Napoleon III has the capital acquired so many public buildings.
Le Moniteur, France's most important architecture magazine that tracks public works, brought up essential questions that will certainly be on the minds of new government officials. It asked if such investments were financially justifiable. Le Moniteur also criticized the extraordinary maintenance costs the buildings would require, and wondered if Paris had been favored to the detriment of other cities.
''Mitterrand is a man of culture,'' says Emile Biasini, who directed the Louvre renovation and was later named secretary of state for the Grands Travaux, or Great Works. ''He wanted to bring our historical patrimony into the 20th century. But his need for culture had to be satisfied as well.''
Few countries can boast of a budget like France's for public cultural works. Indeed, half of all architectural projects in France are commissioned by the state. The ministries of culture and equipment picked up the $6-billion tab for Mitterrand's Grands Travaux.
According to Paris architect Yves Bour, it was also an economic project to relaunch the construction industry, which ended up giving a tremendous boost to architects. ''While the Grand Travaux left by the wayside the need for housing, they democratized architecture. Foreign architects came to work in Paris, and French architects are now asked to build outside of France. At the same time, people were given a sense of what architecture can be,'' he says.
Several factors are responsible for Mitterrand's success as president-builder extraordinaire: First, the president's motivation to realize a cultural project driven by architecture. In 1981, still a presidential candidate, Mitterrand said in an interview that ''the success of a civilization is judged by its architecture.'' In a 1982 speech to a contractor's association, he said, ''We will have achieved nothing if in the next 10 years we have not created the basis for an urban civilization.''
Second, Mitterrand succeeded in eliciting support from other officials. The flamboyant Jack Lang, minister of culture for a large part of Mitterrand's tenure, provided crucial help. In 1959, when the Ministry of Culture was founded by writer Andre Malraux, the goal was to erase an elitist, bourgeois culture and make cultural events accessible to everyone. Mr. Lang was determined to follow Malraux's policy, and managed, with Mitterrand's help, to make his ministry increasingly powerful.
''Lang was the orchestra conductor of the Grands Travaux,'' says Bernard Latarjet, an adviser to the president. ''And Mitterrand listened to him very closely.''
Third, Mitterrand entrusted the running of the projects to Emile Biasini, who had worked with Malraux and had the reputation of being a man who got on with the job, no matter what stood in his way. Biasini, a Gaullist, also ensured a good relationship with the Gaullist mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, whose cooperation was essential to the Paris projects.