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The French President's Cultural Legacy

Francois Mitterrand's 'Great Works' project paved the way for Paris to become a laboratory of contemporary urban architecture

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When he steps down from office this month, President Francois Mitterrand will have remained true to a phrase he wrote in 1975: ''In all cities, I feel like an emperor or an architect. I make decisions, I solve, I arbitrate.''

With the recent inauguration of the formidable National Library of France, President Mitterrand has presided over and seen to completion most of the architectural landmarks he commissioned during his 14 years in office. And because of his political agility and sheer persistence, he made the Ministry of Culture powerful in a way it had never been before, paving the way for Paris to become a laboratory for contemporary urban architecture.

Not since Baron Haussmann reorganized Paris in the 1850s under Napoleon III has the capital acquired so many public buildings.

Le Moniteur, France's most important architecture magazine that tracks public works, brought up essential questions that will certainly be on the minds of new government officials. It asked if such investments were financially justifiable. Le Moniteur also criticized the extraordinary maintenance costs the buildings would require, and wondered if Paris had been favored to the detriment of other cities.

''Mitterrand is a man of culture,'' says Emile Biasini, who directed the Louvre renovation and was later named secretary of state for the Grands Travaux, or Great Works. ''He wanted to bring our historical patrimony into the 20th century. But his need for culture had to be satisfied as well.''

Few countries can boast of a budget like France's for public cultural works. Indeed, half of all architectural projects in France are commissioned by the state. The ministries of culture and equipment picked up the $6-billion tab for Mitterrand's Grands Travaux.

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