Streetscapes: The Bland Leading the Bland

P1120653Paris is famous for the Art Nouveau beauty of the 19th-century street furniture that grew out of Haussmann’s town planning, from the Wallace fountains – financed by the British philanthropist Richard Wallace – to newspaper kiosks, street lamps, railings, Morris columns for advertising, benches, and so on. Even the few remaining “vespasiennes” – named after the Roman emperor Vespasian, who purportedly introduced public urinals of this kind to Rome – are objects of outlandish beauty. On the Internet, there is a short film that can be viewed of Alfred Hitchcock visiting the one beside the Prison de la Santé in Paris’s 14th arrondissement. 

Old-fashioned English street furniture is no less striking. The red Royal Mail pillar boxes and red telephone boxes, matching the red double-decker buses, say “England” to everyone throughout the world. The telephone boxes, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, were a thing of beauty and it was one of the most asinine decisions ever in the 1980s to remove many of them because “they no longer meet the needs of our customers. Few people like to use them. They are expensive and difficult to clean and maintain and cannot be used by handicapped people”. Only some 11,000 remain of the previous 73,000. Admittedly, everyone has mobile phones now, but had they been allowed to stand they could have been repurposed as Internet posts, or something else. But there you go – England is an old hand at asinine decisions and allowing cultural wealth to slip like sand through its fingers.

The above relates clearly to Paris and London, but what about street furniture in the little villages of France? Up until recently, all was well. Most villages maintained pleasant fittings that were either 19th-century or in keeping with that time, from pretty lantern-style lamp posts to the bollards, benches, bus shelters and street dustbins. But now something is happening, and it isn’t nice. In Touraine, it is creeping in everywhere. The same uniformly tasteless or downright ugly intruders are ubiquitous. 

As one enters a village by car or bike, one sees a red tubular steel “7″, hung with flower baskets, and announcing “village fleuri” or some such redundant piece of information. The next thing are the plant pots. I mean those giant plastic plant pots that you can plant a tree in, and come either in a terracotta colour or more garish versions. There are new bollards, like something out of a science fiction film, and the benches are like barbecue grills and uncomfortable, apparently in semi-conformity with the “anti-sit/lie”philosophy and CPTD (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) theories from the United States, mostly related to discouraging homeless people from sitting or lying down and wordlessly instructing them to “go away”.

A case in point is the little village of Reignac-sur-Indre, near where I live. The main village square is in fact triangular, and boasts a friendly bar-café called La Joie de Vivre, a flower shop, a store run by the local dairy, a bakery and a now defunct butcher’s shop, with nearby a pharmacy and Superette mini-market. A year and a half ago, this square had nice fully-grown trees and a gentle, ramshackle appearance, with cars parked there, the occasional pizza van or fruit and vegetable seller. Then the municipal council decided to move in for the kill. The resulting changes were to cost them a quarter of a million euros – the money coming from the regional council, the state, the Réserve Parlementaire and the Commune de Reignac – and the result is disastrous. 

The nice old trees were pulled up and replaced with puny saplings that will take half a century to reach the growth of their predecessors, the parking was severely delimited, so nobody can actually stop there any more, and a sort of tiered cobblestone effect was introduced that seems more urban than rural, possibly with skateboards in mind. The plastic plant pots suddenly popped up everywhere, as did bollards that look like cattle-prods, the barbecue-grill benches, hideous smoke-stack-style rubbish bins, and a water fountain that was clearly inspired either by a black granite tombstone or by the monolith in 2001 a Space Odyssey. The red iron “7″ greets you as you enter the village and sees you off as you hurriedly leave, and the overall effect is absurdly brutalist and urban – showing no sensitivity to the beautiful old stone of this pretty village on the Indre river. 

The cherry on the cake is the Orwellian electronic billboard, which now glares down on nearly every village square. Why a little village of 1,000 inhabitants or less needs a giant lumino-kinetic electronic billboard to announce the date of a jumble sale or the opening times of the pharmacy is beyond me – but there it is, bulldozing sleepy little Reignac into the 21st century. In short, a quarter of a million euros to replace a gently shabby-chic beauty with brutish cast-iron hideousness. Bravo, Reignac… Photos of the atrocities can be viewed below. I am only grateful that my own village, being incredibly poor, has not embarked on this ultra-modern design binge.

Who decides these things? Well, the mayor does, and conscientious mayors also involve the municipal council. They then have access to “mobilier urbain” sites to choose their street furniture, and doubtless big-city designers who pop down from Paris on the TGV to pontificate, decree and line their pockets with euro-grants. 

It’s all so depressing.

In the 1970s, I worked for three months as an Information Officer at the UK Design Centre in London’s Haymarket. Apart from talking authoritatively to school parties about things I knew absolutely nothing about, one of my jobs was to lead visiting municipal bods to the archives and show them the catalogues of available street lamps or benches or whatever to adorn their home towns. The choice was wide and also ranged from the truly lovely to the downright unsightly, but at least there was a choice. More and more, the villages around here seem to be making the same decisions – from the red “7” to the giant plastic flower pots to the electronic billboards – as if in a blundering frenzy of unthinking mutual emulation. The iron space débris they’ve dumped on Reignac’s little square would be just about tolerable, or at least unsurprising, on some futuristic esplanade in a re-developed urban slum   – but not here, not in charming, picture-perfect rural France. 

This sort of crass municipal action reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Binsey Poplars, which is about how easy it is to destroy the beautiful. The poem was inspired by the witless felling of a graceful row of poplar trees near the village of Binsey, Oxfordshire, in 1879:

 
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
            Not spared, not one
            That dandled a sandalled
            Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
 
O if we but knew what we do
            When we delve or hew—
    Hack and rack the growing green!
            Since country is so tender
    To touch, her being so slender,
    That, like this sleek and seeing ball
    But a prick will make no eye at all,
            Where we, even where we mean
            To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
    Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
            Strokes of havoc unselve
            The sweet especial scene,
            Rural scene, a rural scene,
            Sweet especial rural scene.
 
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© 2017 Adrian Mathews