Turning an Abandoned Industrial Island Into a Green Cultural Center in Paris

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Video screen capture. Ile Seguin - Rives de Seine

Ile Seguin - Rives de Seine/Video screen capture

In 1929, Louis Renault set up shop on the Ile Seguin, a small island in the Seine River just southwest of Paris. At the end of the century, what was once the largest factory in France lay abandoned, its automobile production moved elsewhere. But if all goes according to plan, by 2017, the Ile Seguin will have been transformed into a near-utopian cultural hub, where the arts, business and residential life mix and sustainability is at the forefront.

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A New Eco-Neighborhood

The renewal of the site was first proposed in 1997, five years after Renault closed shop. The island and the adjacent mainland cover 74 hectares in the city of Boulogne-Bilancourt. The idea is to develop the empty industrial space into a thriving urban center, with 500,000m2 of housing (one third of it for low-income residents), 250,000m2 of office space and 250,000m2 for shops and public space.

The project will focus equally on sustainable development and creating a quality living environment. The socially diverse "eco-neighborhood" will focus on public transportation over individual cars (an ironic turn for an old automobile plant) and feature large public spaces, filled with plant life and pedestrian walkways.

"An Island of Culture, the Extraordinary & Innovation"

The centerpiece of the renovation will be the Ile Seguin. Plans include a large music complex with recording and performance spaces and a modern art center at either end of the island. A cinema, restaurants, a hotel, and a school will be built between them, but public green space will take priority. The planning team is aiming to use 100% renewable energy.

To make it happen, high-profile architect Jean Nouvel has been brought on board to coordinate the efforts of a team of architects. Nouvel has designed a green tower (without hallways) for Los Angeles and the unusual Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

Is This How to Design Cities?

Boulogne-Bilancourt plans to begin construction next year, and aims to have everything finished by 2017. If all goes well, in a few years the Paris suburb could be held up as a model for urban design made for people, with the environment in mind. But what is the value of a pre-packaged area as opposed to organic urban development? We've raised eyebrows before at questionable plans to create brand-new "green" communities in the suburbs.

Mat has argued that containing urban sprawl is more important than flashy green buildings. He quotes Stephen Platt of Cambridge Architectural Research: "The key problem is making this a long-term socially acceptable place where people will want to live and prosper."

Nouvel's team has put sustainable development at the core of the project without losing sight of the fact that they're designing a space for people to live, work and play. While Boulogne-Bilancourt is a suburb, it is more dense than sprawling. The project is based on renovating an already-developed (and abandoned) area; it is not breaking new ground.

Ultimately, I think the odds are in favor of the Ile Seguin being a success. If it becomes the cultural hub Nouvel and company imagine, people will want to live there- and not move further away from the city center. If it's powered by renewable energy and eschews cars for public transportation, all the better.

Watch a video presentation of the project (in French).