le mirail: regulated change

In Le Mirail, a look at the past and present (with thoughts for the future) has illustrated a planned city that was really only half-finished. Since this particular concept depends on the connectivity of all the pieces, it is hard to pin the issues of the place on lack of appropriateness of the plan.

Problems here are both architectural and institutional. While the architectural issues can be (and are being) addressed through a careful observation and response to trends within the satellite city, there are larger institutional issues that need to be resolved just to allow these architectural changes to take place. The biggest is a blind organizational structure that over-regulates stifles meager attempts at revitalization.

The changes that happen are largely dictated by regional or even national policies that have little to do with the particular situation of the city itself. And since Toulouse has followed France’s de facto policy to put all immigrants and low income group people outside the city, in this case in Le Mirail, the area has little economic diversity, no voice and hardly any extra energy to spend on group dynamics and political struggles. Therefore, all major changes have been regulated from above, and with the exception of the metro system, have had mediocre effect in changing the place, for better or worse.

One particular issue I see in designs to update or fix Le Mirail is in their scale. Every change, from the demolition of the pedestrian deck and French town replacement in Bellefontaine, to wholesale destruction of the towers themselves, is massive. At the same time, incremental interventions are smothered by strict regulations and expensive renovation requirements.

But let’s say that the government of Toulouse decides to defy France’s pro-demolition policy and rework Toulouse-Le Mirail, details first. What are some of cues in the way the place is now used that can inform its evolution?

The 3 metro stops in the area have reconnected Le Mirail to the city center of Toulouse, its first move away from isolation. In some way, the underground connection has replaced the lost pedestrian deck, by connecting people, and not their vehicles, to the three commercial centers. Although the university housing may have suffered from loss of students to city center apartments, the rest of the region only stands to gain business from this connection. Each area already has a commercial center that is somewhat active, but could expand a great deal even to meet the needs of inhabitants.

With regard to buildings, it is easy enough to add pieces, though few residents have done even that. However, because the structures were built with load bearing concrete panel systems, it is difficult to subtract anything from the mix. While anything besides aesthetic touch ups would require major work, projects to update these towers could focus more on strategic demolition, or the implementation of a second structural system to allow partial removal of the first.

The vehicular system needs attention. Designed to separate people from cars, the roads wrap the residential edges, cutting off this piece of the urban fabric from the rest of the city, which by now has grown out to it. A disorienting hexagonal system discourages non-residents from using the roads as thoroughfares, reinforcing the enclosure. Since the elevated decks have already mostly been dismantled, it is time to reconsider the ground, and pedestrian relationships alongside and between the roads. Already some sidewalks have been laid, but the path network can be much richer…it is already growing if you pay attention to the dirt tracks worn through lawns.

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