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The winners of the Living City Design Competition give Paris a futuristic, green makeover.

Maximilian and Daniel Zielinski

Living City Design Competition

Jason F. McLennan, the CEO of the International Living Future Institute and the Cascadia Green Building Council, wanted to imagine a different city of the future, an alternative to the powerful but often dystopic takes provided by popular culture. “Too many visions of the future are either incredibly depressing—think Mad Max, Blade Runner—or completely unrealistic, and they’re almost always ecologically destructive,” he says. “But the right image can really shape people’s thinking about where we’re headed and what’s possible. Just think about how the ideas of a few designers in the 1920s reshaped architecture for the next seventy-five years.”

To help realize his vision, McLennan reached out to a somewhat unlikely partner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Together, they organized the first Living City Design Competition, which challenged participants to retrofit existing cities to meet or exceed the Living Building Challenge, the toughest green-building performance standard in the world. “We jumped at the chance, because we saw it as an opportunity to get the design community to think about older buildings in a fresh, almost futuristic way,” says Patrice Frey, the director of sustainability research at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a competition juror.

The contest—which came with a hefty $75,000 first prize—attracted more than 80 entries from 21 countries and addressed 69 different cities. Announced earlier this year, the winning entry, titled “Reinterpretation of Paris,” was created by two brothers, Maximilian and Daniel Zielinski, both London-based architects working at Foster + Partners. “We decided to choose a capital of the world known to all,” Maximilian Zielinski says. “At the moment, Paris is very preoccupied with its future development. People are open to sustainable development. We saw the competition as an opportunity to talk with them and eventually try to implement our ideas.”

Their vision for Paris combines, as it should, both the imminently practical and the wildly blue-sky. At the most pragmatic, they propose a laundry list of sustainable best practices, everything from retrofitting existing buildings for energy efficiency and water conservation to the introduction of renewable-energy strategies and, perhaps most importantly, the reintroduction of nature into the streetscape. They call this idea “embedding nature in the day-to-day cycle” of the city. Although none of these strategies are new, they have never been implemented simultaneously on a large urban scale.

The scheme’s most radical proposal involves transportation. The architects completely rethink traffic-choked Paris, introducing “three overlapping layers of circulation.” Simply put, they place pedestrians and bicycles (and nature) at street level, have trains and subways on existing tracks, and, utilizing Paris’s centuries-old system of underground passageways, put cars below grade. The result is a plush, green update of a grand and altogether familiar city.

So, have the Zielinskis succeeded in creating a sort of Hugh Ferriss image for the new age? Their entry’s money shot—a playful rendering of lush axial corridors converging on a luminous Eiffel Tower, with a hot air balloon floating in the foreground—clearly impressed the jurors. “We thought it was graphically compelling,” Frey says. “They took one of the best known, most loved cities in the world and introduced new elements to it. But the urban fabric and scale of the city was preserved. There was great respect for the character of the city. We also loved that it was car-free and carbon neutral.”

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