A Walk Down the Champs Elysees

Noor Atari All of my high expectations were met and even surpassed as I finally arrived at the world-renowned Avenue de Champs Elysees in Paris, France as a study-abroad student through Duke's International Honors Program. Probably the most famous of streets along with the presidential Pennsylvania Avenue of the United States and the royal Buckingham Avenue of England, this Parisian boulevard is bursting with life no matter what time of day. From the fashionable cafes where the intellectuals debate and the tourists get a taste of France to the highly geometric parks where individuals relax and couples romance, the Champs Elysees has it all.If I were a tourist who could afford the considerable finances of traveling abroad, this would be all I have to write home about. But while touristy travel is culturally invigorating, it cannot measure up to the experience of a student abroad. As a third-year civil engineering student hoping to gain creative inspirations by traveling elsewhere, I had the chance to look past what simply meets the eye to see the engineering that makes society work. In the case of the Champs Elysees, what the day tourist does not see is the intricacies of architecture and engineering that, figuratively speaking, lie beneath the surface but, literally speaking, lie beneath the ground - the hidden infrastructure of Paris. A scene of relaxed, naturally flowing traffic replaces that of a stressful jumble of cars waiting to park thanks to the inconspicuously-engineered parking decks below ground. With a simple swipe of a credit card, any driver can pay and park below the Champs Elysees in one of the thousands of underground parking spaces...away from the peaceful parks and the popular shops but at the same time right next to them. The ever-increasing tourist population is also accomodated by means of several underground subway lines, able to quickly transport massive traffic to and from all parts of Paris. And above ground the engineering comes through even higher. The seemingly all-too-expensive string of charming buildings turns out to be merely a facade--a pretense of architecture, engineered within economic bounds, where only the front elevation is decorated for show and what rests behind is veiled from the sight of the scrutinizing public. And finally, social considerations in design are most evident in the strict requirement that the Avenue de champs Elysees be laser-lined along the great axis that connects some of the most famous Parisian monuments, a requirement in harmony with a long-lasting French practice. So whereas it might seem a mystery to a tourist as to why the Champs Elysees is such a social and economic success, to a student of design it is all too clear: careful engineering.
Yet there is more to study in a study abroad than just engineering, and the International Honors Program emphasizes this with its comparative area studies requirement - a mixture of foreign language courses and cultural courses designed to supplement engineering studies. As a result of my academic background in the French language and culture, I felt better equipped in my immersion into the Parisian way of life; along the journey I was even able to make a few French friends. Even as an engineer, what I found most fascinating and insightful in my summer travel to France was the cultural differences and in particular, the French perspective on American culture. Oddly enough, there seems to be dueling sentiments, where the younger generations admire and perhaps mimic Americans while the older generations to some extent resesnt the changed induced by American culture. There is an entire spectrum of attitudes; the French seem to embrace the American ingenuity in modern film, and they have come to adopt the recent American exercise-o-mania. On the other hand, the French strongly dislike the fast food chains of the new era and, on a broader view, the contagious fast-paced life led by so Americans. Whether the French dislikes and likes are warranted is debatable, but the outsider's perspective is undoubtedly refreshing and worthwhile. After all, looking through the cultural lens of the other reveals a telling reflection of one's self and own culture.
The previous discussion might lead one to wonder why an engineer should be so concerned about comparative area studies and culture in the first place; why should engineers care about culture? A simple answer is that engineers are not human calculators but instead are implementers of social needs and demands in design, and so intrinsically engineering cannot be removed from culture. A good case example of this intimate relationship between culture and engineering deals with a modern engineering effort in a region of Paris known as La Defense. Designed as a response to global modernization in the 1970s, La Defense mimics New York City's high-rise commercial centers with its plethora of skyscrapers and glass and steel structures. the engineers of La Defense were innovative, calling for a larger-than-life platform separating mass transportation from walking grounds. The design gives pedestrians undisturbed walking freedom above the platform, whereas road traffic and subway lines are confined to the under part of the platform. La Defense was carefully implemented and well-funded, and the final result is nothing short of impressive. With its outdoor art sculptures and abundant water fountains, La Defense is truly a dazzling jewel to the eye.
And yet today any day tourist will report that the region is largely unpopular and scarcely inhabited. As a matter of fact, I photographed over a role of film on the region and the number of pedestrians in all the pictures combined can be counted on the fingers of a single hand! The French politicians and investors must be desperately seeking answers, and the answers I can offer all point to the duality of culture and engineering. Simply put, the engineers tried to create the right buildings in the wrong place; as it has been realized, La Defense is an ultra-modern, urban mega-center in the midst of one of the world's most historic cities. Even as a study abroad student for one summer, I was made aware of a deep-rooted French nostalgia and high reverence held by everyone towards the nation's glorious past. So La Defense came as an intruder, a drop of oil in a large pool of water - never able to mix and be part of the greater Parisian region. had the engineers implemented the same design scheme elsewhere, it may have been hailed as a great civil engineering success and a revolutionary movement towards more conscientious urban planning. But because of the incompatibilities between the antiquated cultural fabric of Paris and the modern engineering of La Defense, the project might be labeled an implementation failure. Yet closer examination of public structures and their individual public reception reveals clues on how to avoid future engineering oversights. Most importantly, it should be pointed out that despite the region's lack of success, the central structure, also known as the Great arch, is largely accepted and even adored by most Parisians. Taking the French tradition of colossal arches, the Great Arch is a revitalization of classical ideas and an appropriate translation into modern design and materials. Shaped as a hollow cube and made of concrete and steel, the building was cleverly position along the grand axis so as to provide a continuation to the never-ending line of monuments discussed earlier, at the same time keeping the line of sight clear for future additions. Because of this awareness and consideration of cultural dimensions, engineers were able to conceive a successful structure in an unsuccessful region.
And what sensible discussion of successful structures in Paris can omit the timeless beauty of the Eiffel tower? As it turned out, my first view of this undisputed symbol of France was indeed dramatic. On the night of the French Independence Day celebration, I was sitting on the Champs de Mars - a large public green - watching the fireworks illuminating the skies in the horizon, and there it was, the Eiffel tower, forming a striking silhouette in the forefront! After that breathtaking experience, I made it a ritual to pick up dinner from the Champs Elysees and eat my food at this same spot near the Eiffel Tower. Even after so many visits, I still found it fascinating to think about how the structure transitioned from being largely rejected by Parisians at conception to being on nearly every postcard in France. This complete turnaround in public opinion should be a motivation for all engineers to dare to develop pioneering styles and novel concepts. Sometimes the greatest projects face the worst adversity.
As an engineering, I will surely face adversity in the years to come, yet with the valuable lessons I gained from my study abroad in France, the uphill climb will hopefully become but a leveled promenade. By using the other culture's engineering successes as guidance and their failures as precautions, I hope to develop more prudent and more culturally-informed designs. All in all, everything that the French country has to offer, including the Eiffel tower, La Defense, and the Champs Elysees, has served as imaginative inspirations for the future and priceless memories for the present. This study abroad experience, too wonderful for words, was made possible by the support of Dr. Miguel Medina through his International Honors Program and the financial backing of the Lord Foundation. By encouraging engineers to study abroad, the International Honors Program has redefined the very definition of an engineer, a definition that now puts greater emphasis on the inherent cultural responsibilities. And in today's ever-changing world, this is a definite change for the better.
Written by Noor Atari for the Fall 2002 DukEngineer magazine. At the time, Noor was a junior majoring in civil engineering and planning to obtain the architectural engineering certificate. Noor graduated in May, 2003.