Mary Gallagher: Saving Paris

Montmartre district in Paris, with Sacre Coeur in distance. (Photo by Lance Vaughn)

On Thursday, Mary Campbell Gallagher, a leader in the crusade to save Paris from skyscrapers, had an oped in Le Figaro, one of the capital’s leading newspapers in addition to Le Monde. With her permission I republish it as a guest post. It is called “Lovers of Paris the World Over Are Alarmed as it Descends into Ugliness.”

Gallagher has asked me to mention that a new collection of 49 essays, Paris Without Skyscrapers (Paris sans gratte-ciel) will be published by the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris toward the end of May. Its subtitle is “The Battle to Save the Beauty of the City of Light.”

Recently Gallagher told me that Paris’s famous (and elegant) benches and newspaper kiosks are being removed from city streets. I responded that at least, unlike the skyline of Paris, they could be returned from storage when the current insane mayor is gone. Gallagher replied that they are not being stored but trashed. Totally shocked, I replied that this must be inspired by the growing desire to destroy Western culture among leftists who arrogantly suppose they are defending non-Western cultures – whose citizens, living in or visiting Paris, probably love the old benches and kiosks quite as much as Mary and I do. I admit I phrased this idea a bit more bluntly than was advisable. Her reply was that my theory was “looney tunes.” Rather, the mayor’s intent, supposedly, is to make sure that Paris grows economically in the future and does not become just a museum, beloved for its beauty but fading compared to other world financial centers.

Whatever. Here is Mary’s essay in Le Figaro:

***

Lovers of Paris the World Over Are Alarmed as it Descends into Ugliness

By Mary Campbell Gallagher

The world loves Paris for its beauty. Paris is the world’s city, and most of us think it will always be beautiful. But Paris is in danger. Its leaders are about to destroy its beauty.

Proposed skyscraper in Paris.

The sacking of Paris did not begin yesterday, and is not just the piling up of garbage on the streets, the cutting down of trees, or the installation of banal street furniture. The sacking includes skyscrapers built on the periphery of the city in the style of the universally-despised Montparnasse Tower, destroying the city’s centuries-old skyline against the wishes of the residents, and the government’s remodeling of the île de la Cité.

It was not until October 2020 that Mayor Hidalgo called for a debate on the “aesthetic of Paris.” One might have expected an economic argument for her towers, arguing that they would be a good investment for her heavily indebted city. But instead, she has chosen to argue for towers based on their modernism. One might wonder whether Hidalgo, who won last year’s election with only 17% of the city’s registered voters, with an abstention of more than 63%, has a moral right to alter the character of her ancient city.

We argue, to the contrary, that people love beauty and history. Remember the faces of the people watching when the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire, on April 15, 2019. Parisians prayed for their cathedral to be saved. This was not the first time the cathedral was in danger. It had also been in danger after the Revolution of 1789, but in 1832, Victor Hugo published Notre Dame de Paris. The great success of that stirring novel awakened public opinion to the value of heritage, or “patrimoine,” and it saved the cathedral. The anguished crowd witnessing the fire in 2019 testifies to the continuing importance of place and of our traditional cities.

Victor Hugo referred to Paris as a collective masterpiece. For centuries, builders always sought to add to the beauty of the city. Whether Henri IV with the Place des Vosges, Cardinal Richelieu with the Palais Royal, or Napoleon I with the rue de Rivoli, the objective was always to make the city more beautiful.

Today’s unbridled “modernization”  or “reinvention” of Paris adds nothing to its beauty. To the contrary, it degrades Paris. Without any public discussion, City Hall has authorized the implementation of novel urban initiatives. On the streets of Paris we see a loss of the charm that has made the city legendary, the newspaper kiosks and the street benches designed in the 19th century by architect Gabriel Davioud. And let us not forget that City Hall approved the remodeled La Samaritaine on rue de Rivoli, where ancient buildings were torn down to construct a six-story-high undulating glass façade for giant retailer LVMH, close to the Louvre.

Ecology is a key theme of City Hall. Its efforts to reduce the use of autos have received world-wide attention. But its claims of the sustainability of towers fail to take into account the great mass of energy needed for the building material of these towers: the cement, glass, and steel. Nor are towers sustainable economically. Note that two of the skyscrapers built at La Défense since the ‘fifties have already been torn down.

The stakes are high. Paris is a treasure of the world. The banks of the Seine were recognized for their beauty when Unesco designated Paris a World Heritage site.

As Olivier de Monicault, head of SOS Paris, has said, the beauty of Paris is not a “renewable resource.” But City Hall is on the verge of destroying the beauty of Paris for the sake of global financial interests. The centuries-old Paris skyline will no longer proclaim the glory of God or of France, but instead will signal craven surrender to major real estate developers and architects of transient renown. Paris will not become more financially competitive with other world capitals. It will simply be left to stand in its diminished state, which will be irreparable.

If we want to leave to our children and grandchildren the beauty of the Paris we have inherited, we must act now. Of the traditional cities in the world, Paris is the most beautiful and largest to have kept its low silhouette.

The people of Saint Petersburg fought hard when the giant international corporation Gazprom wanted to build a 100-story tower in the historic center. That battle lasted five years. And the people of the city, with support from around the world, won!

Parisians, too, must count on international support. If the world allows Paris to descend into ugliness, how can we defend beauty anywhere?

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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10 Responses to Mary Gallagher: Saving Paris

  1. Pingback: Mary Campbell Gallagher: RIP | Architecture Here and There

  2. Deirdre says:

    I’m not sure what should be done about the kiosks, but I have a tidy solution for the benches: this seems like the perfect occasion for a literal sit-in.
    How do we communicate to Parisians that they need to do a little recon as to when bench removals will take place and then, quite simply, take a seat! If enough citizens are sitting, there’s not much the demolition crews can do, right? Take shifts! Vigilant resting is in order! As my husband said, “I think this is something we can all get *behind*”
    Seriously, though, if I were there I would happily sit in protest until the evil instinct passed.

    Like

    • John the First says:

      Good idea, but the authorities don’t like it when people commune and sit together on benches these days, even outside it might give rise to undesired imitation. Maybe one-person seats, with appropriate distance, to continue the atomization. But preferably they want them isolated at home, behind the screen.

      Like

  3. Peter Van Erp (aka Peter Khan) says:

    I guess they learned from Providence’s example with the bus stops in Exchange Place (currently known as Kennedy Plaza). At least our Parks department repairs and reinstalls our benches (See Prospect Park, for example).

    Like

  4. TBH says:

    “Her reply was that my theory was ‘looney tunes.’”

    Yes, well, unfortunately here in the 21st century it’s rather fashionable to deny reality in order to give off the appearance of [pseudo] intellectualism. No offense intended towards Ms. Gallagher; I don’t know her, and I’m sure she is a respectable and well-read lady, but I would say that her response is itself “looney tunes” for obvious reasons.

    By the way, Mayor Hidalgo is a member of France’s Socialist Party, so I wouldn’t put your concerns past her, either.

    But here’s the question I want to ask: how will removing benches and kiosks allow Paris to “grow economically?” That would be equivalent to an American politician demanding the removal of local “mom-and-pop shops” in favor of mega-mart chains in order to shove “growth” down the throats of your average Joe, because he knows better than them. How are benches and kiosks hurting the growth of Paris, anyway? More importantly, does Paris really even need to become another financial megapolis?

    I think it’s ironic that Ms. Gallagher dismisses your premise when, in fact, her own article describes how Paris would be left as just another fading and irreparable puppet city to anti-Western globalists and their pet starchitects (most of whom tend to be “woke leftists”) who don’t care about the cultural and economic impacts they leave behind.

    Sorry; I did enjoy Ms. Gallagher’s article. I just found her response to you lacking.

    Like

    • Well, TBH, Ms. Gallagher did complain about my using her remarks from private emails, and her complaint was merited, though I thought she would not mind. I should have been more discreet. In any event, Mary gives the game away by remarking that Mayor Hidalgo “has chosen to argue for towers based on their modernism.” And of course ever since Corbusier and CIAM, modernism has sought to eradicate traditional architecture in order to undermine obstacles to socialism, including the masses’ love for things associated with Western culture, such as beauty. Now, I don’t think most of today’s modernist architects buy into that, or are even aware of it, but every time they put up a modernist building they contribute to the goals of Corbusier and modernism, whether they realize it or not. Maybe that includes removing beautiful benches and kiosks as well as beautiful buildings.

      Like

  5. Carroll Westfall says:

    Brava, Mary!
    Well, Paris could become what Venice has become, a place where overnight tourists outnumber Venetians and the economy depends on tourism, and has since the late 18th c. And finally Venice has had the courage to outlaw large cruise ships within certain limits, courage or farsightedness.

    Like

  6. barry schiller says:

    please keep us informed about how the international community, especially those of us who have visited Paris and hope to do so again can help defend it.
    I’d add, this mantra “Paris is not a museum” is bipartisan and was also used by (misnamed) “conservative” politicians like Chirac to justify modernism. Its not just the Montparnasse Tower, the Pompidou Center, not a high-rise, is ugly and horrible and it seems to have helped degrade the area around it which I now would avoid.
    And its not just Paris. I heard “centre ville” merchants decry the (misnamed) “socialist” government facilitating vast shopping malls on the outskirts that were sucking life out of downtowns in provincial cities all over.
    But I do applaud the Paris Mayor for taking on the auto culture which has also degraded the beauty, with parking structures, the giving over of some of the banks of the Seine for fast car traffic, the city walls replaced by the peripherique auto beltway that separates adjacent streetscapes. the traffic around the Etoile,…

    Like

  7. John the First says:

    “If the world allows Paris to descend into ugliness, how can we defend beauty anywhere?”

    But you already have the answer yourself, by means of democratic vote. The people, the holy cows of democracy, by means of the power of quantity will decide on good taste and come to the rescue. If not, all is lost.

    Like

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