"In the past two months, architects and planners from all over the world have conjured up...ideas for a bigger, bolder Paris.
Their metropolis is still imaginary, but President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he is serious about creating what he calls the Grand Paris (Greater Paris) of the future. In an ambitious exercise in function and fantasy, he has launched an international competition to create a vision for the city.
'Be audacious,' Mr. Sarkozy urged architects when he announced the project: Apply energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive technology to create the first 'post-Kyoto' urban centre. Few other limits were set. The thorny question of the future political configuration of the Paris metropolitan region was left aside for the politicians. Competitors were free to draw the geographical boundaries of a future Paris as they thought best.
Some of the biggest names in architecture - including Jean Nouvel of France, Richard Rogers of Britain and Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands - accepted the challenge. In all, 38 groups submitted proposals last month. No details have been released, but Mr. Sarkozy is expected to announce the 10 winning teams next week. Each will then produce an in-depth plan by year's end.
The competition has been welcomed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for creative thinking on a large scale in a European setting.
Still, many urban experts and architects also suspect that it may never amount to more than an exercise - or produce only one or two prestige projects that Mr. Sarkozy could claim as his legacy.
The days when a French head of state could order up sweeping changes in Paris ended with Napoleon, they say. Big urban projects, which almost certainly would require major changes in public transit and rail lines, also cost big money. The biggest obstacle may be that deciding on a common vision for Greater Pariswould entail an unprecedented degree of political co-operation.
Still, there is general agreement among architects and urban specialists that the region badly needs a visionary road map for the future."