“It’s a privilege to have a hand in the construction of the city, to be part of the process.”

  • Architecture
  • City


  • Marion Waller

    CEO of Pavillon de l’Arsenal

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Marion Waller is an expert on cities specialising in urban planning issues. Having studied urban planning and philosophy, she served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Jean-Louis Missika, then deputy mayor at the Paris city council in charge of urban planning and architecture. She then became an adviser to the office of the Mayor of Paris in charge of architecture, heritage, transformation of the urban landscape and energy renovation of buildings. In February this year, she was appointed CEO of Pavillon de l’Arsenal. Share the insights of a true aficionado.

They say you are an aficionado of the city. Where did this passion come from?

Marion Waller: I find it fascinating to question the city, to delve into its history and to try to understand why cities are what they are today. I’m also fascinated by all the little details that make up a city. For example, you only need look at a piece of ground or an item of furniture to know you’re in Paris.
In the city, there is also an aspect that defies definition and constitutes the soul of the city, giving it an almost a sacred aura. And it’s a privilege to have a hand in the construction of the city, to be part of the process, to constantly rethink the city in order to improve it and contribute to its history.

In your opinion, what are the main emerging challenges facing the city?

There are several. First of all, there is the question of life: how to transform buildings and public spaces by integrating life in the broadest sense, i.e. not just human beings. Energy is also a key issue. What impact does energy have on buildings and the landscape? The issue of eco-friendly materials is also important, as is the question of collectivity. How can we create shared spaces in the city? How can we help residents find themselves? How can we foster community spirit within a neighbourhood?

Marion Waller
CEO of Pavillon de l’Arsenal

You worked on the 2014 launch and subsequent roll-out of the “Réinventer Paris” call for innovative urban projects. After two editions of the competition, how do you view the real estate projects that came out of it?

Marion Waller: First of all, what strikes me is how the projects presented during the first two “Réinventer Paris” calls for projects are identical to the presentations made. Sceptics claimed that the presentation images used for the competitions were just nice pictures and nothing more. But they were wrong. These are real projects that have found their business model, put forward concrete innovations and today allow us to say: “It’s possible!”. And this fills me with happiness and pride! Because the quintessential goal of “Réinventer Paris” is to show that it is possible to build differently.
We must also remember that, at the time, green roofs, wooden buildings, co-working areas and shared premises were regarded as “daring” and people said it would never work.
“Réinventer Paris” is a way of providing proof of concept, proving that it worked, that it’s possible.
The competition has also been a great experiment that has given way to new ideas of what is normal. For example, previous project teams were not multidisciplinary. First there was the property developer, then the architect, then the final operator. With “Réinventer Paris”, we have made urban projects collective and all-encompassing right from the start. We have also involved new profiles in these project groups: sociologists, historians, neighbourhood associations, etc., were previously excluded from the urban planning process and have now become stakeholders.
The issues of greening and the use of bio-sourced materials have also become a widespread concern. In terms of versatility, “Réinventer Paris” proved that a mixture of uses was possible: the Stream Building and Morland Mixité Capitale are prime examples of this.

You advocate a revolution in the building sector in order to meet climate challenges. Can you think of a particular city that illustrates this aim?

Marion Waller: The international version of “Réinventer Paris”, called “Reinventing Cities”, allowed cities to present several initiatives. It transpired that cities mostly face the same challenges, namely global warming – how to live in cities where it is going to be very hot – population density and the reorganisation of public space to make it greener and more suitable for pedestrians.
Paris is streets ahead in several areas, including bio-sourced construction and alternatives to concrete. It is also ahead of the field in terms of prioritising redevelopment over new construction and the concept of mixed-use buildings.

To rethink the city, do urban stakeholders need to be educated differently?

There is already a need to educate the general public. There is a lack of education in architecture and urban planning in France: the subjects should be given more prominence in schools because we are urban citizens.
Meanwhile, training for professionals has mainly focused on new construction, whereas today we are living in an age of redevelopment and restoration. It is therefore necessary to shift the focus of training and learn how to transform surface area rather than create it. We must also learn how to create mixed-use locations.

Marion Waller
CEO of Pavillon de l’Arsenal

You have published an essay on environmental philosophy called Natural Artefacts dedicated to the challenges of ecological restoration. Can you tell us more about this subject, which is virtually absent from the debate in France?

Marion Waller: I have worked on ecological restoration, namely the art of repairing ecosystems damaged by fire or pollution. I was interested in the philosophical implications of ecological restoration. What does it mean for human beings to recreate nature? To what extent can we claim to create nature ourselves? What limits should we set ourselves? There is also the ethical issue of offsetting: does successfully restoring one place mean that we can destroy another?
When I wrote this essay, I was mostly interested in natural areas. But now, terms like “restoration”, “renaturation” and “rewilding” have entered the urban vocabulary. Nowadays there is a lot of talk about restoring nature in cities.

What are the main takeaways from your essay?

Marion Waller: The first takeaway concerns the development of hybrid spaces: I think it’s important to develop nature in the city on a massive scale. We mustn’t split the city in two, with humans on one side and wilderness on the other. We need to develop new landscapes and a new hybrid concept by conceiving the city as a natural space where life can flourish, where there can be more plants, more animals and where true biodiversity can exist.
The second takeaway concerns the creation of landscapes and buildings: we could be so much more imaginative. We have to break down the mental barriers we have put up, which tell us that a street must be mineral and a building must be made of concrete.

In February, you were appointed CEO of Pavillon de l’Arsenal. What are your goals for this unique place dedicated to the fabric of the city?

Marion Waller: The Pavillon de l’Arsenal is the urban planning and architecture centre for Paris and Greater Paris. We are an exhibition venue that is also closely connected to its ecosystem.
Our goal is to share the city’s challenges with the widest possible audience. We are urban citizens, and so the challenges of the city concern each one of us. We seek to share the knowledge created by urban professionals with as many people as possible.
To do this, we put on exhibitions, publish books and organise events. We always strive to focus on emerging architectural issues and to showcase solutions and projects that work. The Pavilion also dedicates a lot of time to experimentation: we have a platform called “Faire” [Do] through which we support around 15 projects every year.

I want ecology to be the guiding beacon for everything we do, as it is an essential challenge today. And we need architects, landscapers and other professionals to provide us with solutions.

The next two years will also be a special time for the Pavillon, as we are entering a period of refurbishments which will require us to organise our exhibitions outside the walls. This will also allow us to address new audiences.
I would also like to continue the role of connecting all people and organisations working on the city.

What would your ideal city look like?

I don’t think there is an ideal city. The interesting thing is the constant transformation, without there being an endpoint. What is fascinating about the city, and what makes it beautiful, is the fact that it changes and reinvents it day after day. This is something very precious which we must preserve. What I like about the city is movement, rather than arriving at the final destination.

Marion Waller

CEO of Pavillon de l’Arsenal

The Pavillon de l’Arsenal, which is an association under the French 1901 Act, is a living space for all urban disciplines. Attentive to the fabric of the city, a pioneer in emerging architectures, the urban planning and architecture centre of Paris and the metropolitan area is a sharing and learning hub accessible to all.

Since 2015, Covivio has sponsored this unique place that showcases the people who imagine and design the city.