Update: Vandals versus Paris

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A skyscraper as seen on the horizon, center right, beyond Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint Louis.

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.”

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Cover of book due out soon, edited by Mary Campbell Gallagher and illustrated by Leon Krier.

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.

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La Defense seen from the Arc de Triomphe, with Tour Montparnasse at right. (author photo)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Update: Vandals versus Paris

  1. csbcohen says:

    As a brief resident in my teens [in the ’60s] and an intermittent visitor since I’d go for no 2. I like the distant view of La Deffence down Av de la grande armée [especially its fantastic arch], but I’m not so keen on it close up [unless you are going up the arch]. In the early days, before it was surrounded, the exhibition centre there looked amazing. As for Montparnasse I think the hatred may well stem as much from the fact that it is a quite hideous station to navigate internally as for its dull dark stump popping up uninvited in vistas to the south. Then of course there is Mitterand’s TGB, anathema to anyone who has used the original Bib nat

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  2. Nikos Angelos Salingaros says:

    David,

    Almost everybody knows this is open war against Paris, which we are certainly going to lose. The reason is the unimaginably enormous profit to be made by destruction and building new monsters. Even if those are on a human scale within the Haussmannian height limit, as you so rightly point out. If they are “fashionable”, they are anti-human.

    There is really no hope for educating decision makers. “The then-mayor said elected officials must not be guided by polls, but by the general interest. He cited young families needing apartments, and he invoked the competition among world cities.” Evidently ignorant of data showing how children brought up in skyscrapers suffer from that.

    Heart in the Right Street, by Nicholas Boys-Smith

    I’m a contributor to the “Paris Without Skyscrapers” book, by the way. But no one is going to listen to us. Waiting to hear from those who actually live and work in Parisian skyscrapers, to complain about their experience — but so far only a deafening silence. The users don’t seem to mind, and might even enjoy it. Is that the case?

    Nikos

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    • kristen says:

      Hi Nikos…re: the “deafening silence” of those who live/work in Paris skyscrapers: has anyone ever asked them if they have — or don’t have — complaints about living/working in the towers? An interesting idea, though I think the responses would most likely disappoint…

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  3. LazyReader says:

    Skyscrapers wouldn’t be an issue if they set height limits and the architecture were the style the rest of the city.

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