Lille and What it Means to be European

When I was a child I read books. I also played computer games and imagined in my back garden what it would be like to be a footballing hero. I did lots of things when I was a child but one of the things I started doing when I was about 14 was obsessively tracking down every word written by a particular author.

My brother gave me a book for Christmas called Microserfs and I devoured it and then read it again and then used the money from my little jobs to go buy the other books this chap – Douglas Coupland – had written. Whole sentences were burned into my memory as I explored ideas that were entirely new to me through these odd novels that often didn’t even seem to have plots. Can it be coincidence that the teenage-atheist-Me read Life After God and failed to understand it one lazy summer week spent being otherwise bored in my family home in remotest Co. Leitrim and then five years later found myself Christian?

I thought of this: I thought of how every day each of us experiences a few little moments that have just a bit more resonance than other moments—we hear a word that sticks in our mind—or maybe we have a small experience that pulls us out of ourselves, if only briefly—we share a hotel elevator with a bride in her veils, say, or a stranger gives us a piece of bread to feed to the mallard ducks in the lagoon; a small child starts a conversation with us in a Dairy Queen—or we have an episode like the one I had with the M&M cars back at the Husky station.

And if we were to collect these small moments in a notebook and save them over a period of months we would see certain trends emerge from our collection—certain voices would emerge that have been trying to speak through us. We would realize that we have been having another life altogether; one we didn’t even know was going on inside us. And maybe this other life is more important than the one we think of as being real—this clunky day-to-day world of furniture and noise and metal. So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story-making events of our lives.

I was newly online and I found an archive of all the journalism that Coupland had produced earlier in his career and I saved those articles in a text file and copied them to a floppy disk and put it in a special box with the little tab set so that no one could accidentally copy over it. I often re-read the articles, especially the ones that were about things I knew nothing about, which was most of them.

One of them was about an architect called Rem Koolhaus (one of the sentences cast in stone in my mind: “pronounced, almost unbelievably, Cool House”) and the development that he was a part of in Lille, in northern France. A copy of this article persists online. It was brimming with the optimism which was the most distinctive aspect of Coupland’s writing that I imbibed. Against the pessimists, Coupland was always seeking to remind us of the good things going on around us. We no longer died of dental abscesses and we could fly half way around the world in an afternoon. Decades later, having drunk deeply from the wells of Reformed Christianity which is anti-optimistic because it is hopeful, I would feel a need to ask my teenaged self to consider that people still do die from sore teeth and that all those airplanes were actively destroying climate stability. But I was less of a killjoy back then and when Coupland wrote about this architectural development which is a taste of “the mythology of Europe, 1992”, I wanted to go to there.

Liz Lemon

Last month I went there.

Wife-unit and I took a train from Gare du Nord which covered the 200km effortlessly in an hour and a minute and deposited us in a city very different from Paris. It was also very different from the city that Coupland visited.

Because the mythology of Europe, 2016 has taken a dark turn.

You come out of the train station and rising up all around you are the Koolhaus buildings and their siblings. There is no sentimental allusion to the past. The people who have erected the buildings of Lille have, as Koolhaus put it, been “solicited for their power to physically articulate new visions.” A depressed post-industrial city has been metamorphosed into a logistical and finance hub. People work in offices high in the sky and travel around on bicycles that are shared communally. It is immediately invigorating.

Lille 1

Back in the 90s, when the Euro was an idea in the brightest minds of Frankfurt and Nigel Farage was a middlingly-wealthy wheezebag, Coupland wrote:

Euralille looks and feels as if a lunar research station has crash-landed onto a small, respectable French market town. This is meant as a compliment.

Lille Civil Service

Coupland lists 11 trajectories that mark both the mythology of the early age of the internet and the architecture expressed in Lille.

    Transnationalism and diversity
    Vectorization
    Asynchronicity
    Deregionalization
    The obsolescence of physical space
    Rupture
    Discontinuity
    Drive thru-ness and fluidity
    Centerless cities
    De-industrialization

Lille

This excited me immensely as an adolescent because it spoke to me of the wide open future that was ahead of us all. Distance would no longer divide and history would no longer cling to us and we would tame the forces that dragged us apart from each other. Coupland, waxing lyrical about the architecture, writing:

Walls become doors; doors and walls vanish altogether; geographically distant rooms and places are afforded in-your-face visual intimacy with one another. Top becomes bottom, and vice versa. Roads and railways penetrate and flow through structures.

Lille

This is how the buildings are and they are lovely. But it turns out this is not the end of what Lille means. Coupland didn’t realise it and I definitely didn’t realise it but what he was describing was not the optimistic future of a Europe at peace with itself and making peace with others. This is not what Europe turned out to mean. The revolution he was describing was not an opening of a level field of social harmony.

He was describing neoliberalism.

Koolhaus literally described the architect as propagandist and that didn’t cause the teenaged-me to pause. For what was he propagandizing? The answer, even if he didn’t know it, is in the interview:

“Chaos simply happens. You cannot aspire to chaos; you can only be an instrument of it.”

The secret anthem of neoliberalism is that one should never let a crisis go to waste. Chaos happens, it turns out, because it is engineered. A generation after the Euralille project, the city is marked by the same racial and philosophical tensions that fracture France. It is marked by the same economic inequality that threaten the coherency of the entire society. Its homeless and its poor struggle alongside the super-fast trains. Old people queue to squander their money in sad little casinos. The mythology of Europe in 2016 is concerned more about wealth won without effort than Coupland could have dared to fear.

The month before I visited, Great Britain decided to leave Europe, a prospect unimaginable in 1992. It is still connected materially by the EU-enabled Channel Tunnel, which terminates at Lille. The audacity that dared to build a train under the sea and the confidence that tried to revitalize an entire region through architecture has drained away. Euralille is still a lovely complex. But it is little more than a shopping centre. The pavillion’s pond is dark green from uncleaned water. The square is marked by artless sprayed tags, unremoved. The concrete struts supporting the structure are visibly uncared for. The police station is clearly under-funded and is dwarfed by the fast food joints that surround it.

BK Lille

I trekked to Lille to honour my younger self and his strange passions. I found the buildings as stunning as I hoped. But I found I had lost the optimism of my earlier years. Who would have thought that concepts like “rupture” and “discontinuity” and “transnationalism” and “centre-less cities” would have a downside?! You can dress up a shopping mall and call it urban regeneration and you can dress up neoliberal economics and call it European integration but eventually the chaos you are creating will begin to show. It’s what we do when the crisis breaks out that decides whether we are right to be optimistic or have any reason to be hopeful.

That’s not the mythology of Europe, 1992. It’s the imminent reality of Europe, 2016.

Your Correspondent, The human equivalent of petrol-station sushi