Here are several more passages lifted from the closing chapters of Alistair Horne’s engaging Seven Ages of Paris:
Less felicitous were architectural scandals like the Tour Montparnasse (started in 1959, but not finished till 1973), greatest urban project since Haussmann, and designed to be the highest skyscraper in all Europe, menacing the ascendancy of the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Then, opened in 1977, came Richard Rogers’ [and Renzo Piano’s] Centre Pompidou, unhappy child of the first international competition ever held in Paris.
In this first passage Horne describes the Tour Montparnasse as an “architectural scandal.” He does not mention what I’ve long understood, that it was approved by Paris development authorities under cover of the protests that beset the city in 1968. He says it was “started in 1959, but not finished till 1973.” He must have meant that it was conceived by its developer who then struggled through what one would expect to be a hostile permitting process before starting construction in 1969. In any event, harkening to Guy de Maupassant’s famous line criticizing the Tour Eiffel, Wikipedia states that “the view from the top [of the Tour M.] is the most beautiful in Paris, because it is the only place from which the tower cannot be seen.” In 2008, a poll of editors on Virtualtourist found the Tour Montparnasse to be the second ugliest building in the world, beaten out for that honor only by Boston City Hall.
Regarding the Centre Pompidou, the second-place entry was submitted by a team consisting of Raimund Abraham, John Thornley and Rhode Island’s own Friedrich St. Florian. I have never seen an illustration of the design, but it cannot have been more obnoxious an insult to Paris than the Centre Pompidou. (That is my opinion. In an interview with the New York Times in 1997, St. Florian said he was consoled in his also-ran status by the belief that the Piano/Rogers design was superior.) Horne continues:
Then came François Mitterrand, whose hideous new “people’s opera” at the Bastille (begun in 1985) would dig as big a whole in Paris finances as any of those dug for dealing with the motor car. (“What is the difference between the people’s opera and the Titanic?” went a joke at the time. Answer: “The orchestra on the Titanic actually played.”) A poll conducted among Parisians in 1990 ranked the Centre Georges Pompidou as the first monument they wished to see pulled down, the Bastille Opéra the second.
To end with what beauty can do in the classical style, here is Horne’s description of a section of the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery containing the mausoleums of Paris’s great banking, merchant and commercial families:
Together they present the greatest collection of architectural singularity in all Paris. Miniature pyramids rub shoulders with gothic chapels decorated with gargoyles and lacy pinnacles. A reduced Madeleine [bank as Greek temple] vies with what seems to be a replica of the Panthéon or a tiny Taj Mahal; another caprice is a pyramid supported by turtles and illustrating on its four sides an ibis, a bullock, a car and a sunburst, the whole bombe surprise topped by a giant egg.
I went to the Centre Pompidou in 1980, only 3 years after it opened. The plexiglass tube around the escalator to the top floor was already faded and scratched, boding very ill for the “modern” materials used throughout the building. That’s the only thing I remember about the entire Beaubourg.
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My ex went in about 1996 and told me that the escalator tube was stifling hot inside.
Even in the Annanberg-produced “French in Action” video series intended to teach French by telling a simple story entirely in French, a middle class Parisian explaining Paris to a visiting American student refers to Tour Montparnasse as “quelle horreur!” and I think the French language there captures its abomination better than the literal translation.
As for Centre Pompidou, to me the horror of that ugly building seemed to make the neighborhood immediately around it seem uglier, leaving a littered, seedy, impression. Quel dommage!
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A French politician could reap beaucoup des votes by promising to dynamite the both of them (and more).
Continuing the partial avian theme, I’m sure you’ve heard the critique calling the Beaubourg “a turkey with the entrails on the outside”. Oh, to have seen Les Halles.
Imagine having invested your money in the ownership and, presumably, the occupation of a townhouse and then learning that the equally lovely houses across the street would be coming down so that the Beaubourg, or Centre Pompidou, could be built. That would certainly constitute a government “taking” – reducing the value of my property. Where would I go to get my money back? Did those Parisian property owners have any recourse? France has a tendency to revolution. This would have caused the revolutionary in me to issue a call to arms! Allons enfants de la, etc.!