Architecture: Dreaming of the city: A Paris exhibition makes Marie Kalt glad that some urban visions never saw the light of day

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Where is the European city heading? La Ville, the Pompidou Centre's ambitious exhibition on the art, architecture, past and future of the city, presents the major urban debates of the past century and forces us to think. It is the first time that a major museum - with the general public in mind - has tried to present the complex ways in which modern cities develop and the ways we learn to inhabit and interpret them. It is, in short, one of the most important exhibitions of its kind.

The complex subject area is handled in five separate exhibitions, encompassing photography, literature and cinema and focusing on the work of architects, painters, photographers, film-makers and writers. The keystone of this cluster of exhibitions is 'The City, Art and Architecture in Europe 1870-1993', a multimedia display in the Grande Galerie.

Here, the city is viewed from the twin vantage points of the architect (organised by Alain Guiheux) and the artist (organised by Jean Dethier), a dualism reflected in the exhibition's concept and layout. Its central axis is a boulevard down which urban developments and milestones in the history of art and architecture in the past 100 years are disposed chronologically. Branching off this main thoroughfare are side streets, alleyways, squares and dead-ends, which offer entertaining opportunities to wander in a maze of images of the city, the imaginary projections of painters, sculptors and photographers.

For the uninitiated, wending one's way through the architectural maze is none too easy. The casual visitor would be well advised to clutch and consult the centre's specially published Petit Journal or turn to a guide to make the most of the extraordinary profusion of information on display.

On one side of the huge central avenue, 250 urban development projects tell the tale of modern town planning - a giant collage of drawings, sketches, diagrams, vistas and 3-D projections testifying to 120 years of architectural bravado, utopian idealism, braggadocio, aggression and even downright silliness.

The other side of the exhibition is devoted to the artist's vision of the city. Here we are faced with artists sensitive to the complex poetry of the city: those who revel in its magical transformation at night and those, such as Gustave Dore, who see in the city only deprivation, degradation and filth.

Artists such as Balla and Boccioni echo the futuristic architecture of Antonio Sant'Elia and celebrate the cult of urban frenzy. Picasso, Braque, Leger and other Cubists fragment the metropolis into its hard-edged components; whereas the savage vision of Grosz, Dix and Meidner is one of cultural and social breakdown prefiguring the destruction that world war was to bring.

De Chirico paints a deserted and soulless city, while Sironi discovers beauty in the suburbs. But what most artists have in common - and what makes them so different from the architects on show at the Pompidou Centre - is their negative, even apocalyptic vision of the city; over the past century they have painted a backdrop of aggression, wretchedness and unhappiness, the city as a waking nightmare from which the anxious citizen can only struggle to escape.

Fortunately, Paris itself - the real city, with its soothing panorama of grey zinc roofs - is serenely visible at the end of the Grande Galerie. The artists can say what they like, but the beauty of Paris beyond these tortured canvases is not easy to deny.

Paris is lucky to have escaped many of the changes forced on less fortunate European cities. Faced with the architect's vision of the city, you cannot help but feel a sense of relief that so few of the these visionary schemes have been made real.

It is difficult not to stand agog today at Le Corbusier's anti-urban view of the city; of how we would one day all live in great ocean-liner- like housing blocks standing high above parkland. The city as we like it - a thing of cafes, tightly packed streets, markets, galleries, traffic and concentrated energy - disappears, to be replaced by a sanitised vision of highly organised modern life. Many cities were damaged by this anti-urban thinking in the Fifties and Sixties; Paris got off lightly.

The exhibition ends, however, on a positive note: a panorama of architectural ideas of the past 50 years closes with a video display of the ideas of six leading contemporary European architects - Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhas, Leon Krier, Oriol Bohigas, Andrea Branzi and Pier Luigi Nicolin, all of whom offer intriguing ways forward in urban design.

Curiously, though, the most gripping architectural images in this important, but perhaps overpowering, exhibition, are the very ones that we would hate to see realised. These include the futuristic universe of Sant'Elia and Virgilio Marchi, 'The Avenue of Tower Houses' by Auguste Perret (who taught Le Corbusier all about concrete), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 'Project for the Frederichstrasse Station Tower' and, of course, Le Corbusier's seductive, but ultimately crazy, 1933 sketches for the reconstruction of Antwerp. These visions are far more powerful than those of the painters on show; but, intriguing though they are to look at, we must thank the Lord that none of these particular egocentricities ever saw the light of day.

'La Ville' is at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, until 9 May.