10 July 2008

Sous le (gratte)ciel de Paris

One of the proposed designs that may change our view of Paris

As one rides the train from Beynes, the view of Paris begins in fleeting glimpses as one arrives at Sèvres. (Look! Over those trees — it’s the Eiffel Tower!) As one draws nearer, the city seems to open up, and on clear days one can see other monuments, too, particularly the church of Sacré Coeur on top of Montmartre, where I live. For anyone who loves Paris, or any kind of urban beauty, the train ride is a moving experience in more ways than one: it’s entirely comparable to the first sighting of the Emerald City. And it’s about to change.

Until now, the Parisian skyline hasn’t been marked by skyscrapers, and that’s by design. The exception, the Tour Montparnasse (which stands atop the terminal station for the train from Beynes), codified the rule. Completed in 1973, the 59-story building is too plain to be ugly, but in a city renowned for beauty, it sticks out, and it blocks the view of many other, more pleasing things. So pronounced was the public outcry against the Tour Montparnasse that, in 1975, the city passed a law prohibiting the construction of any building more than 7 stories tall, which was the traditional height for apartment buildings such as the one I live in; one finds skyscrapers, rather puny compared with those of other urban centers, only on the outskirts of Paris.

Another proposed design

This means that from almost any prominent spot in town, it’s possible to see the landmarks: the spire of Sainte-Chapelle, the gable of the Garnier opera house, the towers of Notre Dame, the domes of the Panthéon and the Hôtel des Invalides, the bubbles and pipes of the Pompidou Center. Though my apartment is turned the wrong direction to see from my window, if I stood on my roof I’d have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower on one side and Sacré Coeur on the other, and many other monuments besides. On clear days, you can line up the Arch of the Carousel, at the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Arc de la Défense in a harmonious trajectory across miles and centuries; the twin façades of the Assemblée and the church of the Madeleine engage in a dialogue across the Seine and the Place de la Concorde.

Almost anywhere you turn, from almost anywhere you stand, you see the Tour Montparnasse. It’s often said that the best place to view the city is from the Montparnasse observation deck, because that’s the only place where you don’t see the Tour. Periodically there are calls for the Tour to be torn down, and a sometime advocate for its destruction is the city’s mayor, Socialist Bertrand Delanoë.

That’s why it’s ironic that Delanoë is now leading the vanguard to build new and taller structures. The city this week passed a new ordinance permitting buildings as tall as 50 meters, and Delanoë is advocating the construction of skyscrapers.

Delanoë: Up!

His reasoning is clear enough. There’s a serious shortage of affordable housing in Paris, forcing lower-income families into the suburban tenements that have become a hotbed of unrest; and even a Socialist can appreciate the economic stimulus that multiple, major building projects create. With little space available, the only direction to build is up. Moreover, as one of his aides remarked to the press, “Paris isn’t a museum, it’s a living city. It isn’t finished yet.”

But it’s unclear that Delanoë will succeed, because a reported 60 percent of voters oppose such construction, for a variety of reasons. The Greens, for example, oppose skyscrapers on environmental grounds: they’re harder to heat (or cool) and light, and they require elevators. French sociologists sneer at high-rise housing as “rabbit cages”: stacked, cramped, and dehumanizing. Others (like me) oppose skyscrapers on aesthetic grounds: the French word grandeur can mean “greatness” or “bigness,” yet they’re not the same thing, and Paris’ grandeur lies in its beauty, not its size.

Yet another proposed design

The city’s infrequent forays into height and modern architecture have not been successful. The Bastille opera house is pleasing from precisely one angle and plug-ugly from every other; it’s also constantly falling apart. The Mitterrand library looks best from a distance, not from the wasted heath of its plaza, and it’s only barely functional as a library. And the Tour Montparnasse isn’t exactly a prizewinner, except as the tallest office building in France and second-tallest in Europe.

As an expatriate, my affection for Paris is profound and profoundly conservative, as well. I didn’t come here because it looks like other cities, I came here because it looks like Paris. Even if I were a fan of modern architecture (I am at best a grudging admirer), I’d likely have objections to Delanoë’s plans for the city.

Yet I’m reminded of an earlier experiment in modern construction, one that outraged Parisians 125 years ago: the Eiffel Tower. People called it a monstrosity, an eyesore. It ruined the skyline, they said, and they yearned to see it torn down — as it was intended to be. Within a few generations, the Tower had become the universal symbol of Paris, the leading representative of the city’s grace, the focus of aspiration for people like me.

Gustave Eiffel designed his tower to demonstrate a new construction method that, with its steel girders and bolts, would permit buildings far taller than ever before. He applied this method to bridges, too, and to the Statue of Liberty. The first skyscraper, the Flatiron Building in New York, was built using his methods, as has been every high-rise since. Which is to say that, without Eiffel, New York wouldn’t look like New York, the other city I love.

So my plan now is to wait and see — and to enjoy the view for as long as I can.

As it appears today —
Photographed from atop the Tour Montparnasse
(Of all places)