Paris: A city of heights?

You may be able to convince Londoners that a flashy new tower in the city is a good thing – but not

Paris is not as conservative a city as one might think, writes Poirier [Reuters]

The storm had been brewing for weeks. Desperate to gain a majority over the the Triangle Tower, the first skyscraper project in Paris for 41 years, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo had been working hard at promoting a project that most Parisians have rejected since the idea was launched in 2008.

A dramatic vote on Monday at lunchtime was supposed to definitely kickstart – or bury once and for all – the controversial scheme. However, after a tight majority of 83 ballots to 78 voted against it, the vote was declared null and void by the mayor, on a technicality. Hidalgo has now appealed to the Justice to organise a new vote. Such confusion has fuelled even more heated debates and the hashtag #TourTriangle has been the top trend on French twitter since.

Although Hidalgo, a socialist, usually enjoys a majority in the city council, the topic of architecture in Paris is very divisive and fiery and politics don’t always come into play. An unlikely alliance of Greens, Rightists, Centrists and Communists fought tooth and nail against the Triangle Tower.

Environmentally unsound

The first to oppose the project as early as 2008 were the Greens who deemed it environmentally unsound. They argued that it was unsustainable on all accounts: costing a lot in energy, dedicated mostly to businesses and not to Parisians, and belonging to an already passe brand of gigantic glass buildings such as The Shard, the kind which fits better in Shanghai or London.

If Paris still deserves today its epithet the City of Lights, it is precisely because the light can freely flow into its streets and gardens, undisturbed by high-rise buildings such as Le Triangle.

Confided to the distinguished world architects Jacques Herzog and Thierry de Meuron (responsible for the Beijing Stadium and the London Tate Modern’s restructuration), “Le Triangle” was conceived as a 180-metre high tower (in comparison, the Eiffel Tower is 324-metres high and Montparnasse Tower just above 200 metres) with 90 percent of its space dedicated to offices and the rest to shops and a creche. Budgeted at around $625 million, it was to be financed by private investors. Hidalgo argued that 5,000 jobs were going to be created for its construction over a five-year period.

But such practical and pragmatic views are probably not the way to go about architecture in Paris. Of all people, Hidalgo should have known that Paris is a city like no other. You may be able to convince Londoners that another big tower in the City is a good thing for the economy, but not Parisians.

Paris, the most visited city in the world, with 31 million visitors a year (47 million for Greater Paris), is in many ways unique. One of the most densely inhabited cities in the western world, nearly on par with Calcutta, Paris also boasts the highest number of boutiques per inhabitants. And by shops, the Parisians usually mean bakeries, butchers, cheesemongers, patisseries, bookshops and all independent trading places, even though the ratio of franchises has skyrocketed in Paris in the last 10 years with Starbucks coffees and clothes shops replacing old artisan shops.

City of Lights

If Paris still deserves today its epithet the “City of Lights”, it is precisely because the light can freely flow into its streets and gardens, undisturbed by high-rise buildings such as Le Triangle. As a born and bred Parisian, who has lived almost half her life in London, I oppose skyscrapers projects such as Le Triangle in Paris (we already tried it, it is called La Defense) but I welcome audacious and innovative architecture to complement the beauty of Paris. And Paris is certainly not devoid of such architectural creativity.

Rebel Architecture – The pedreiro and the master planner

Paris is not as conservative a city as one might think. If Baron Haussmann gave her its definite flavour in the 1870s, by piercing huge avenues (to enable the army quell rebellions) and setting the standard of the Parisian immeuble, which should not rise above Notre Dame’s belfry, Paris has also changed little by little.

Over the last 70 years, Paris has proved both audacious and experimental, for better and for worse. Le Corbusier, for instance, wanted to completely erase the historical centre of Paris and build instead his favourite barres, or tower blocks. Luckily, he was not followed.

The ring road that encircles Paris, known as Le Peripherique, is now partly covered by gardens, which open up the capital to its banlieues. Whole new quartiers have emerged, for instance from the old docks in the 13th arrondissement. The new National Library was created on this sort of “Left-South Bank” and an immense new district of shops, businesses, institutions, universities, cinemas and residential homes have sprung up.

French presidents have also always been keen on leaving their prints on the French capital: Georges Pompidou was known for being a daring modernist and famously planned to destroy the Orsay Museum (then a train station) and luckily gave us the Pompidou Centre instead; Francois Mitterrand gave us the Louvre Pyramid, while Jacques Chirac commissioned the Branly Museum dedicated to African art. All great architectural successes.

Parisians are not opposed to modernity, quite the opposite. They are simply more aware than most of posterity.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of ‘Touche, A French woman’s take on the English’.