Mary Campbell Gallagher, founder and president of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris and U.S. liaison to SOS Paris, has issued a shot over the bow of the vandals at the city’s gates. Her shot, in the form of an essay in Traditional Building, is called “Stop Skyscrapers in Paris: Skyscrapers Are Threatening the Beauty of the City of Light.”
It makes sense to oppose the skyscrapers, but the truth is that the vandals penetrated the city decades ago. The Pyramid at the Louvre by I.M. Pei and the Centre Pompidou by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano are only the most well known. The Tour Montparnasse is the only actual skyscraper inside the gates. Hatred for the dark, forbidding, modernist tower suffuses the Parisian population.
It would be interesting to know what people really think of the Pompidou, the Pyramid and many other modernist buildings whose existence merely proves that height is not the only facet of architecture that hurts Paris. In her paragraph on Paris’s zoning code, Gallagher quotes passages that seem to address these issues in a most contradictory manner:
The zoning law of Paris, the Plan Local d’Urbanisme (PLU), aims “to preserve the urban forms and the patrimony coming from the history of Paris, all the while permitting contemporary architectural expression.” It specifies building heights and materials for façades, among much else. Permission may be refused if a building may “undermine the character” of its surroundings.
Keeping in mind that the city loosened longstanding height restrictions in 2008, the code seeks to “preserve” historical character while “permitting contemporary architectural expression.” As if to admit that it recognizes the incongruity of these two aims, the code asserts that permission for a project may be refused if it “undermines the character” of its surroundings.
All who know much of anything about architecture recognize that modern architecture could in theory be designed to avoid undermining the character of its surroundings. But most of them also recognize that in practice, modern architecture rarely seeks to fit into its surroundings. Modern architecture is transgressive, and almost all modernist architects agree, consciously or otherwise, that it should be so.
“Paris City Hall, developers and star architects say that Paris needs skyscrapers to be modern,” or else, they say, Paris will become a museum, not a living city. This is false, of course, as any third grader can easily see. If it were true, it would be necessary to concede that Paris was a museum for centuries until modern architecture gave it life. That is obviously ridiculous.
Gallagher counters the “ville-musée” bugaboo as follows:
But opponents of skyscrapers, including French preservationist association SOS Paris and, more recently, the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris, ICPP, which I founded, strongly disagree.
Hmm. Does that mean that the opponents of skyscrapers are okay with modernist building designs so long as they are not skyscrapers? I hope not, and I do not think that could possibly be true. Or why did SOS Paris sue to save the famous Samaritaine department store, whose stretch along the Rue de Rivoli is being given “a block-long undulating glass façade, opaque, seven stories tall, without doors or windows”?
Of course Samaritaine is a focus of attention for SOS Paris because it is a preservationist organization. The funky façade on Rue de Rivoli was designed by the Japanese firm SANAA, which wanted to demolish the historic façade, thus undermining the character of arguably the second most famous of Parisian streets. That’s reason enough to complain about the completely idiotic project. But some preservationist organizations have drunk the Kool-Aid and are okay with modernist buildings’ coming to dominate a city’s fabric as it changes over time. They do not care about protecting the urban settings of the buildings they have rescued. Is SOS Paris one of them? Again, I hope not. Such organizations are, in fact, the ones who treat cities as museums, with each style pinned, catalogued and protected inside a glass case. They do not believe that continuity is as important to a city’s character as change. They do not understand how cities live and grow best when they are designed to elicit, over time, the love that pays for their repair and maintenance.
Let’s try this thought experiment: Choose your preferred Paris of the future: 1) a Paris with no skyscrapers but a growing number of low-rise modernist buildings replacing old buildings, or 2) a Paris surrounded by skyscrapers, encircled, shall we say, by La Défense, but with no more modern architecture within the périphérique – or, better yet, with all existing modernist buildings replaced by new buildings designed in the variety of traditions that make Paris famously beautiful.
I think I’d much prefer the Paris behind Door No. 2.
You really only see La Défense if you are looking down the Champs Élysées through the Arc de Triomphe or are on top of the Eiffel Tower, or from the aforementioned Arc looking down the Avenue de la Grande Armée. From street level an encirclement of Paris by La Défense-like projects would not be too obtrusive, whereas more low-rise modernism would kick you in the face whenever you were near it. So boot the vandals back outside the gates. Best would be a Paris whose leaders recognize the error of modernism, whether short or tall, inside or outside of the gates.
Meanwhile, along with Mary Campbell Gallagher, I urge readers to spread the word around the globe: Skyscrapers are threatening the beauty of the City of Light. The world needs to know that.