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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.

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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.

Finally, Mitterrand had time on his side. During his first term, he and his team laid the foundations for most of the buildings, including the restoration of the Louvre Palace; the Great Arch at la Defense; the Bastille Opera; the Arab Cultural Institute; la Villette Park, Science Museum, and Music Center; and the Orsay Museum.

Plans for the latter three projects had already been under way during the former administration, and projects for the site at la Defense were being discussed when Georges Pompidou was president; but Mitterrand launched the international competitions and chose the winning projects. Except for Chinese-American I.M. Pei (who designed the Louvre restoration), all architects were chosen through international competitions.

Biasini had decided that Pei was the only architect able to work on the Louvre. Once he persuaded Mitterrand, Biasini got around the law requiring that architects be chosen in competitions when the architect's fee is to exceed $180,000 for a public building: He made Pei an associate of the Louvre's in-house architectural firm.

Pei's pyramid for the Louvre entrance is an example of how public opinion has changed over the years. At the time of its construction, the glass and metal structure was the subject of tremendous controversy. Today, it is almost universally praised.

The competition for the National Library was won by a young French architect, Dominique Perrault, and his project proved highly controversial. The main objection, Mr. Latarjet says, came from the intelligentsia, who were incensed that Mitterrand would build a library to be used by both the public and academics at the same time.

The controversy also concerned storage conditions for the books, which were originally to be stocked in the four 240-foot-high glass towers, where temperature and exposure to light were difficult to regulate. After protests by librarians and scholars all over the world, the decision was made that only one-third of the 12-million-book collection would occupy the top 11 floors in each tower. The rest would be kept on lower floors or underground.

The library is expected to open to the public in 1997, but only after a computer catalog system is designed and installed, and the books moved from their current home in a 17th-century building. The library can hold 12,000 people at a time, and has room for more than 25 million books. ''It's like a mother buying her child an outfit that's too big.'' Biasini says. ''We have enough storage space for a century.''

Now, the challenge for the next government will be finding the $200 million a year to operate the library, and completing a vast urban project on the Left Bank of the Seine. The plans for this area include 100 new apartment buildings, the same number of office buildings, parks, a school, and shops.

Unfortunately, Perrault's library is a good five years ahead of the rest of the project. The building, already mastodonic, rises from what today looks like an urban wasteland.

The same problem afflicts the enormous $580-million Ministry of Finance across the river. It is the biggest conglomerate of office buildings in Europe, and dwarfs the area around it that is still in need of development.

There is no question that Mitterrand has realized his Grands Travaux. The success of his public buildings can be measured by the crowds -- 5.6 million at La Villette, and more than 6 million at the Louvre in 1994. The money spent will always be a subject of polemic. But Mitterrand will have forever put his mark on the Parisian landscape.

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