Friday, April 22, 2011

City Planning, French Style

I just got back from spending a week in Washington DC. Before travelling there, I really only knew one thing about the city (other than the obvious fact that the capital building, white house and pentagon are all there). What I knew was that it was a pre-planned city. President Washington hired the French artist-architect Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant to create a plan to physically lay out the city before construction began.

Now, while his plan was never fully realized due to L'Enfant getting fired a year after he was hired (according to Encyclopedia Americana, he "forged ahead regardless of his orders, the budget, or landowners with prior claims."), there is no doubt that the core style and layout of Washington DC is still L'Enfant's.

L'Enfant's original plan was inspired by the city of Paris, which also had a famous architect. Napoleon III hired Prefect Baron Haussmann to *figuratively* bulldoze the slums and re-build Paris with the wide, beautiful avenues that it is known for today.

I won't bore you with all the reasons that Paris and Washington DC look the way that they do (stylistically, especially) because this blog isn't a lecture series on architecture and spread and influence of Western culture.

What I'm interested in is the idea of planning for these two, specific cities, and how it is linked with writing, at least in my mind.

Paris grew up on its own, neighbourhoods, communities and random buildings going up when needed and a little haphazardly. Then long, straight boulevards were ploughed through what was already built. People were evicted, neighbourhoods were burned (with no compensation given to the inhabitants) and Napoleon got his city, his beautiful propaganda-rich city.

Washington DC is no less a propaganda-rich city... in fact, that's what shocked me the most about visiting. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I'm not being sarcastic or condescending when saying that I believe it's a true mecca for the people of America. As a Canadian, I don't think it's wrong to have pride in your country... in fact, I think Canadians could certainly stand to have a little more national pride.

So back to the idea of planning. A capital city is not just a city. All the ideals of the country should be displayed, the core values, what is important to the people should be so shockingly clear that it feels, to a visitor, like they are being slapped in the face with it. It's like the thesis statement of an essay, or the abstract of a scientific paper.

So how is this like writing? Paris is like a rough draft manuscript written by a pantser... everything kind of falls out and build up with no clear plan, no roadmap, no civil engineers. At a certain point, the person in power (the writer) must figure out what it's really about, and then destroy his own city, his own manuscript, tear back the shambles, the slums, strip away all the stuff that does not belong. What did Napoleon III want to say about his city? Well, there's a lot of speculation, but much of it can be guessed from the city itself. Power, strength, forward-thinking. He wanted to tie himself, and his city, back to the glories of Rome and the beauty and wisdom of Greece.

...and like I've said, Paris was a model for Washington DC... so does that sound familiar? Do those core values that were important to Napoleon III sound similar? The symbol for wisdom, a snake coiled around a column, is something I saw all over Washington DC... not only that, the style, the porticos, freezes, the statuary, the paintings of the former presidents, the columns...

...oops, sorry, no more lecture :)

Washington DC would be like a pre-planned manuscript where all the core values, all the important themes and the road-map of plot and character arcs are all laid out before construction begins. Sure, it may not always go 100% according to plan, but that's okay. Everything important about the idea remains, instilled into every scene, paragraph and sentence of the manuscript.

Anyone who sees these two cities will be amazed, overpowered by what the cites says about themselves and the people within.

Shouldn't a great story do the same?

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Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)