Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

City Beaches: Coming to a Park near You; the Urban Beach on the Bank of the Seine Has Proved to Be a Hit with Parisians. but Would It Work as Well in East London?

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

City Beaches: Coming to a Park near You; the Urban Beach on the Bank of the Seine Has Proved to Be a Hit with Parisians. but Would It Work as Well in East London?

Article excerpt

Byline: Rowan Moore Architecture critic

FUTURE historians will record the great decade of the Noughties, now nearly expired, as the time of playground urbanism.

There were, admittedly, a few other events, such as war, terror and financial meltdown, but it has been a time when mayors and cultural leaders have tried to cheer up city dwellers by treating them as big kids. Roman emperors knew they had to keep people happy with bread and circuses: modern mayors, reckoning that we have enough bread, focus on the second part.

In London we started the decade with the London Eye, a fairground ride turned city icon, and later, Tate Modern invited people to slide down helter-skelters or lie on the ground and goggle at an artificial sun. In Copenhagen, a timberboarded floating swimming pool was installed in the harbour, decorated with nautical references.

The greatest playground of all was Paris Plage, the beach installed on the bank of the Seine every August since 2002. It was the creation of the socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoe, for the benefit of Parisians unable to join the city's summer evacuation to the south. Its success was overwhelming, bringing in people from neglected suburbs and spawning imitations in other cities. Its only problems were overcrowding, and a perception that it was a little vulgar.

Now an "urban beach" is planned as part of a makeover of Victoria Park in east London, to be completed in time for the Olympics. There is also a plan to restore a beach in Bishops Park, Fulham, which was popular in Edwardian times. Known as the "Margate Sands", it preceded Paris Plage by a century, even if it was not quite as spectacular.

There have been other attempts to bring the Paris Plage to London but they haven't stuck, and the following wind of the Olympics may be the best chance of bringing a little of its magic over here. It could then be the first of several London beaches. And I hope it does, because the urban beach is one of those things you have to be pretty miserable not to like.

"Sous les paves la plage" was one of the slogans of would-be revolutionaries of 1968. It referred to the fact that when you rip up paving stones to hurl at the gendarmerie, you reveal the sand on which they are bedded but also a romantic idea that beneath a veneer of bourgeois order the world was a great big beach. Mayor Delanoe managed to take this slogan literally, while leaving that bourgeois order safely intact.

By putting out sand, sun loungers, parasols and showers on embankments usually raddled with traffic, and allowing a few temporary bars and cafes to set up business, he brought to the centre of his august city the freedoms that usually belong by the sea: sunbathing, playing petanque, removing (though toplessness was banned) most of your clothes, doing nothing in particular. …

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