“Paris Without Skyscrapers”

My favorite shot of central Paris taken during a trip there in 2003, I believe.

There is an infinity of reasons why Paris should not build skyscrapers. Each street, each building, amounts to such a reason. You could say each citizen of Paris, each citizen of the world is a reason. But one reason I found on a history website today as I sat down to write this review, but which did not show up in the book, is that Paris sits on top of a huge maze of unmapped tunnels that could collapse at any time (and regularly do collapse). That sounds like a pretty good reason. Buildings in Paris have a weight limit in order to forestall such collapses. Height limits? That is another matter.

A book in the making for close to a decade and a half has just been published by the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris (ICPP) and SOS Paris. The late Mary Campbell Gallagher was associated with both groups and served as editor of Paris Without Skyscrapers. Subtitled “The Battle to Save the Beauty of the City of Light,” the volume contains 54 essays, written over the past 15 years, touching just about every base in the discourse over highrises in Paris. The book is graced by famous and charming cartoons about city planning by the architect and urban theorist Léon Krier.

Andrés Duany, the founder of the New Urbanist movement, said: “This book is important because Paris is important.” The late philosopher Roger Scruton said: “To destroy the example of Paris as a city of civilized streets, built in humane local stone, for the sake of the antiquated and discredited doctrines of the architectural modernists would be a crime against the civilization of France and against the European idea of the city.”

Most of the essays in the book evoke the same sentiment, whether for aesthetic, historic, environmental or economic reasons. Some are beautiful, others are insightful, many are both, others neither. Together, they assemble the full range of reasons (almost) why Paris should build no skyscrapers. One of the several proposed in 2008 has been built. It steals France’s judiciary from the Îsle de la Cité, the seat of French justice for a thousand years. It is a set of glass boxes that slithered from the office of French architect Jean Nouvel. He ignored the fact that the only skyscraper in Paris until 2018, the Tour Montparnasse, has been the most hated building in the city since it went up in the 1970s. Why would anyone expect Nouvel to care?

What the harridan Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, has in store for her city and its citizens would be the crime of the century. She has proposed 7-12 towers, but if those are built, more will be. And it is not only skyscrapers. She is removing the city’s historic benches and newspaper kiosks, not to put them in storage until the insanity passes, but to junk them. Most Parisians oppose her, but unless they and citizens of the world can stop it – and, in addition, halt modern architecture that doesn’t qualify as skyscrapers – we won’t have Paris anymore.

Almost all of the essays in Paris Without Skyscrapers are very short. I wrote the book’s final essay, reprinted below.

***

Paris Awaits its Silent Tipping Point

Paris is the world’s most beautiful city. It has rivals, but only Paris is famous for being the world’s most beautiful city. Neither the fame nor the beauty of Paris arises from its wealth. What wealth it has arises from its beauty, and its reputation for beauty. And yet the beauty of Paris, like all beauty, is fragile. Not only can it vanish, but it can vanish before anyone notices.

Victor Hugo said, “To err is human, to loaf is Parisian.” G.K. Chesterton said, “London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” Cole Porter said, “I love Paris when it sizzles.” In Casablanca, Rick said to Ilsa, “We’ll always have Paris.”

None of these great lines about Paris refers to its beauty, but without it they would all have gone unsaid. To be the most beautiful city is to be in the deepest sense the greatest city. So it is sad that what Mr. Rick said may at last be on the verge of falsehood. We may not always have Paris.

Paris should look at another great city that once rivaled Paris in beauty. London has sold its beauty for a mess of towers. Paris now aspires to be London, and it imagines that skyscrapers can bring it London’s status. That is as iffy as the euro, and London’s financial influence long predated its towers. Yet if this future for Paris is possible, it will be so only at the cost of its beauty.

London did not need to lose all of its beauty to lose its reputation for beauty. Paris will never lose all of its beauty, but it may lose enough to lose its reputation for beauty. Can it gain enough money and jobs to make up for that? It would be a crap shoot, risking its greatest asset, possibly for nothing.

If all of the towers planned today do rise, Paris will still be beautiful, but its beauty may have suffered a silent blow more deadly than the sight of the first five or six new skyscrapers in the encroaching distance. Paris may have been given a final shove toward a point beyond which the decline and fall of its beauty will be impossible to stop.

Paris already creeps toward that tipping point, very slowly it is true. Yet are its citizens, let alone its leaders, worried? Hardly. All is not lost at this moment, but who will know when it is? At what moment will Paris have lost enough beauty that its reputation for beauty is in doubt? How many towers will that take? Who will make that judgment? Will they be heard over the noise of those who do not care?

At some point, the erosion of the beauty of Paris could gather a momentum that cannot be stopped even if the danger becomes widely recognized. Then all will be lost.

Stop the skyscrapers, or we will not always have Paris.

Famous Paris buildings (left) justaposed against proposed skyscrapers. (ICPP, SOS Paris)

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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7 Responses to “Paris Without Skyscrapers”

  1. LazyReader says:

    Paris doesnt have skyscrapers; It wasn’t an aesthetic choice……it was an infrastructure issue. The city has weight restrictions imposed on buildings to keep from putting too much strain on the threadbare mine shafts beneath them, hence Paris’ lack of skyscrapers. These tunnels collapse…Gypsum and limestone had been mined beneath Paris since the 13th century. As the city grew, so did the tunnels, but nobody bothered to keep track of how many were being dug or how far they extended in any particular direction. All will take is a minor quake to bury the city whole. And indeed France did nothing til, the 1950s….. Had they i wouldnt hark if building extensions would raise modest height levels. The existence of these tourist destinations reflects a long tradition of state fostering of cultural production. During the monarchy, the arts and well as humanistic knowledge cultivated by the court were means to display the wealth and superiority….Over the course of the 19th – 20th century, as France lagged behind England and Germany in terms of industrial production and scientific knowledge production, it constantly promoted its cultural and artistic traditions as evidence of its superiority to other nations. Modern architecture is difficult because its scientifically challenging….
    Classicism is nice but with no purpose is slated for wrecking balls….or repurposement

    Paris has issues is not to become a frozen museum/tourist mirror of itself. Other destination cities face the same problem, especially as property prices increase and the creative classes must move out. San Francisco, New Orleans, Kyoto, Venice also face the same problem. How to preserve and enhance those historical aspects that make it attractive as a destination while growing a current dynamic living. Post war Paris….needed thousands of homes and the buildings that define it were largely unsuitable, unsafe, claptraps.

    Periurbanization or as we in America call it “Urban Sprawl”
    anti-sprawl policies have caused a six-fold increase in land prices and significantly increased housing prices. This represents a transfer of wealth from low-income people who rent and/or have recently purchased homes to high-income people who have long owned their homes and may be landlords of rented homes.

    The population of the city of Paris reached a historic high of 2.9 million in 1921 but then declined; between 1954 and 1999 it declined at every census, to 2.1 million and lost 14,000 a year. Architecture be damned…Paris suburbs are becoming more popular…
    – more convenient parking
    – better lightning
    – better location (financially etc
    – reduced congestion
    – accessibility to adjacent facilities like pools, lifestyle centers, parks, outdoor recreations, clubs

    Urban planners envision cities…then try to impose cities then watch the people flee cities. Economist Thomas Sowell said it ever so nicely. “There are no solutions, only tradeoffs”
    Paris is 2.1 million in a nation of 67 million apparently We are not all Parisians.

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    • John the First says:

      “During the monarchy, the arts and well as humanistic knowledge cultivated by the court were means to display the wealth and superiority…”

      And the US, inheritor of European humanist culture betrayed it, while advocating it’s superiority. So it leads today a lingering life, marginalized by an US and consequently Anglo-Saxon exported culture of brutalism, of a kind the world has never seen.

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  2. Lily Bogosian says:

    I am saddened to read of what Paris is up to these days architecturally. I have spent many happy days, weeks and months walking the city and riding its bus lines for micro and macro views of the city, and it never disappoints. I suspect that, as it is so in Providence, Parisians are not worried because their city regulators are expected to defend their interests, and given the state of financial and social anxiety that pervades the world, most citizens are struggling to make their lives tolerable. We need advocates to represent our interests, and we don’t always have the time to scrutinize their interests. Still, a closer look at buildings that have risen in recent history, such as the Montparnasse Tower have had few champions since being built, and I am certain that the anti-tower proponents are fuming, as they are here, because those who have the time to understand how the landscape will be negatively altered are putting out fires in every neighborhood and arrondissement where a developer with a few dollars or euros to spend can wreak havoc in the name of more money in they pockets.

    >

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  3. John the First says:

    In the sphere of critique on modernist architecture there is always a suggestion that modernism is sort of a ‘alien’ hijack of the discipline of architecture, and a forcible hijack of societal spheres dealing with architecture, all this happening at the cost of the pubic which mostly does not like it. Certainly this is a powerful political strategy in which there is truth, but modernist architecture ultimately cannot be anything else than an expression of modern societies as a whole, based upon what are at least broadly dominant tendencies of these societies.

    I suggest that modernism is the product of two extreme tendencies which modern societies tend to exhibit. The one extreme is overly abstract formalism and too much formalism, and the other is a working towards primal forms , and ultimately sensualist formlessness.

    Examples of extreme formalist tendencies.
    The US can be considered to be an exporter of cultural forms, thus starting with the US, it can be observed that the US is a country formed by passionate adventurers and freedom loving people, on the long run though the US turned into a country which can be said, in its attempt to produce a new form society, to have become obsessed with theory, thus becoming governed ever more by the abstract formal. The US is also the country of, if I may say so, obsession with management theories, which are also exported. The US by now is also a country formed by ever extending hyper-large government.
    On the whole, globally, the world becomes ever more controlled by large and smaller institutions producing tons of formal policy documents, which leads to ever more formally designed societies, from the top towards the bottom, penetrating the whole of society.

    To just pick one example out of the countless: the lockdown and distancing policies during the alleged pandemic were an expression of society working towards extreme life and society strangling formalism, now on a scale which knows no historical precedent. The obsession with all too abstract ideological creeds and the formal adherence to creeds is another sign of lifeless formalism.
    This rigid formalism expresses itself in architecture, as it does in all other spheres.

    The opposite tendency, towards formlessness, also expresses itself in modernist architecture, though the possibility of arriving at more formlessness in architecture is of course very limited, the most limited of all societal expressions of forms in that respect. Thus modernist architecture also started to exhibit tendencies toward the production of primal (primitive) forms, though such structures are still anomalies. The Sydney Opera House and the proposition of a new national library in Prague by Jan Kaplicky are examples of moving towards primal forms, where the latter is an attempt to move towards primal sea-creature-like form. A swing towards formlessness is relative, it expresses itself in deformation of form, in modern indulgence in ever more formless sensualism, and in moving towards primal forms. Far on the horizon is the formless primal soup, where all forms emerge and tend to degrade towards if society does not intelligently maintains it forms, and intelligently (and humanly) produces new forms.

    The attack on gender, gender allegedly being a societal construct is an attack on form, towards a great plasticity of form, deformation of form, ultimately towards dissolving of form. The reshaping of marriage, originally being a form of unity based on the male and female is a deformation of a classical (yin-yang-form) principle. Emancipation of females, in cases when unintelligently and rigidly applied by formal policy makers is a matter of destruction and deformation of form through radical equalization. The new form and role of the female then becomes a construct of formal policy makers, instead of a new form produced ‘organically’ by society itself, ‘organically’ in accordance with its new level. Broadly the whole twentieth century consists of destruction of form (tradition), which is at the one hand necessary, but at the other hand leads toward relative formlessness and rigid reshaping, producing lifeless ideological forms. The tendency of appreciation of nature in modern times is another expression, which is, besides other things, a matter of trying to escape from lifeless formalism, by indulging in primal form (in the case of extreme back to nature philosophies).

    Many examples of expressions toward extreme formalism and the opposite could be added, in fact most people without being aware of it, or being half aware experience them every day. Society is a form, producing, reshaping and maintaining a wide variety of forms all the time.

    Summarizing the whole: modern society either strangles form through rigid formalism, deforms (mistreats) forms, tends towards the dissolving of form, the formless, tends towards formless sensualism and the primal, and strangles the possibility of intelligent humanely-organic reshaping of forms.

    Forms produced by society are an expression of its evolution, rigid formalism and too much formalism stifles evolution, and movements towards primal forms and sensualist formlessness are regressive evolutionary movements.

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    • John the First says:

      “The new form and role of the female then becomes a construct of formal policy makers”

      Should be:

      The new role-form of the female then becomes a formal construct of policy makers.

      To add some general notes:
      Locking in content and consequently its possibilities of expression is the result of too much formalism. Unintelligent and inappropriate expression of content is the result of deformation and regressive moving towards primal form. Total absence of intelligent expression is the result of sensualist formlessness.

      Like

  4. Lewis says:

    Maybe the French finally feel that things are under sufficient control that they no longer need to preserve the free sight lines Baron Haussman engineered into the boulevards for the benefit of French artillery.

    Like

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