Does Paris need new skyscrapers?
- 18 June 2013
- From the section Europe
Paris is set to follow London's race into the skies with 12 new skyscrapers.
A hundred and twenty years ago, the English designer William Morris was asked why, in the French capital, he spent so much time at the Eiffel Tower.
"It is," he explained, "the only place I can't see it from."
Today he would probably choose the Tour Montparnasse that rises like a 59-storey black gravestone where once was a neighbourhood of political dreamers, artists and poets.
After they built this office block in 1973, the outcry was so loud, they banned new buildings over seven storeys high. But the mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, overturned that ban outside the city centre at least.
Paris city hall believes that skyscrapers - albeit of a certain sort, in certain places - are just what Paris needs.
Jerome Coumet, the young mayor of the city's 13th district, is excited by the fact that some of the new skyscrapers - including one by French architecture star Jean Nouvel - will be going up in his part of town.
"A city is something that constantly renews itself," says Mr Coumet in the office of his fine 19th-Century town hall.
"Paris attracts more tourists than any other city in the world," he says. He does not think it a bad thing that much of Paris is, as he puts it, is "a museum city".
But, says Mr Coumet, "I'm convinced that just as people go to visit the new parts of London, people will come to see extraordinary new architecture in Paris."
"French architects work all over the world," he says. "They should also be able to express themselves in Paris."
Up in the north of Paris, a huge site of railway wasteland has been cleared.
Here it is the Italian architect Renzo Piano who is about to express himself, with a 160m-high (524ft) tower of four steel and glass boxes placed on top of each other. It will house law courts. So the transparency is a metaphor, Piano says.
He was one of the architects who designed the Pompidou art centre (the one with the escalator and the pipes on the outside). And the Shard, the building that now dwarfs London's Tower Bridge.
Olivier de Monicault is president of the anti-skyscraper pressure group SOS Paris. He has a name for this sort of building - "rupture architecture" - and he hates it.
Modern architects, he says, make no attempt to fit in with the architecture of the cities they build in. "Usually the architect makes a project, then he tries to sell it in any place in the world," he says.
And, in any case, says Mr de Monicault, the last thing they want is to fit in. They want their building to stand out. Literally and as much as possible.
"[The architect] wants to become famous with his building and so he thinks he makes something very strange, very different [from] the place where he's building it," he argues.
However, Paris city hall stresses that the city is not about to become Dubai.
The new height limit of 180m is quite a lot lower than the Eiffel Tower.
"Paris is competing hard with other cities like London as an international capital," says Paris district mayor Jerome Coumet.
"Paris too must be able to offer modern office space."
But, ask city hall's opponents, what will be the demand for office blocks even 10 years from now?
Back to ground?
"Office work is destined to disappear," says philosopher Thierry Paquot, who recently published a book called La Folie des Hauteurs (Height Madness).
"We're already contracting out a lot of paperwork - accounting for example - to workers in countries like India and Morocco and every manager has his smartphone and does his own correspondence."
The world of work is undergoing a huge transformation, Paquot says, adding: "I think we're moving towards a world where people will work at home or in cafes and, when they have to meet, they'll do so not in a skyscraper but somewhere really nice."
Neither, say their critics, do skyscrapers make good economic sense.
"They cost a lot to build, to manage and to demolish properly [in accordance with] the new regulations," according to Bertrand Sauzay, former real estate director of telecom equipment maker Alcatel.
Mr Sauzay studied moving his company's headquarters into three skyscrapers in the La Defense business district west of Paris. The experience turned him into an anti-skyscraper campaigner.
In the end his company chose to renovate its old headquarters in the city centre.
There is every sign that city hall's decision to build high in Paris will be one of the issues that will decide municipal elections in March of next year.
Anne Hidalgo, the candidate the Socialist Party has selected to succeed Mr Delanoe, was not available for an interview but has often argued in favour of building much higher apartment blocks.
"We mustn't let ourselves be imprisoned by a 'heritage vision' of the city," Ms Hidalgo told the news magazine L'Express.
"We are working towards a "genero-city" which is to say a city that is open, convivial and in vibration."
Her probable conservative opponent in next year's election, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said a few days ago: "You don't embellish a city by building isolated tower blocks that disfigure it."