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Could the City of Light Become the City of Height?

Paris has traditionally eschewed tall buildings, but a new wave of architects are looking to change that.

Monolithic, dazzling in sunlight and almost 700 feet tall, Paris's Tour Montparnasse is probably the most hated building in all of France. Central Paris's only true skyscraper, the tower has been vilified ever since its completion in 1973, when its arrival caused a public outcry that led to a strict citywide cap in tall buildings in 1977.

Celebrating its 40th birthday this month, the Tour Montparnasse is still widely vilified, both for its bald intrusion into the historic skyline  and for its setting in a bland, traffic snarled modernist quarter at odds in height and style with its surrounding districts. Low opinions of the tower seem to be widely shared: a 2008 international poll named it the world's second ugliest building.

General view of the Paris skyline and the Montparnasse Tower. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

But while age has not mellowed attitudes to the tower, Paris is nonetheless cautiously allowing skyscrapers back into the city. After Paris relaxed its laws to allow building heights of up to 180 meters (around 590 feet) three years ago, towers are encroaching once more, and not just in the consistently high-rise Défense finance district.

For defenders of these forthcoming buildings, this is a healthy sign of Paris shrugging off the Ville Musée tag and competing in an international market where its real estate offerings are starting to look antiquated and obsolescent. For skeptics, the new developments seem to create a slippery slope, part of a stealthy attack on Paris' visual identity designed to boost developers profits rather the shared wealth of the city at large. Just as Washington, D.C., endlessly debates the risks of getting rid of its height limits, so too are Parisians discussing if and where existing rules should be relaxed.

Until recently Paris maintained a long-standing compromise that placated both pro and anti urban tower camps. Since the late 1950s, tall buildings have been largely quarantined (with the Tour Montparnasse as a glaring exception) within La Défense, just west of Paris Intramuros, the area within the city’s 19th century fortifications that has long been considered Paris proper. While La Défense's towers are clearly visible from the Arc de Triomphe and overshadow what is probably the richest district in the Paris metro area, they are neither so central nor so tall as to intrude on Paris's iconic skyline. 

Hermitage Plaza. Rendering courtesy Foster and Partners.

Even in La Défense, where the first of a new wave of towers was inaugurated this Tuesday, planned developments are pushing up to levels where they will be visible across large sections of the city. The Norman Foster and Partners-designed Hermitage Plaza, expected to be completed in 2019, will consist of twin towers taller than London’s Shard, currently Europe’s tallest building, but just shorter than the Eiffel Tower. A mixed development combining offices and shops with apartments, its Russian developer says it will resolve what he sees as Paris's lack of luxury property compared to New York and Miami.

But while the Hermitage Plaza is only the tallest of many planned developments in La Défense, it remains far less controversial than plans to build tall within Paris Intramuros itself. In the Batignolles quarter west of Montmartre, the city is building a 525-foot high Renzo Piano-designed Palace of Justice, a striking tower stepped like a ziggurat, with gardens on the roof of each level. About half a mile south of the Eiffel Tower, the 590-foot shard-shaped Tour Triangle designed by Herzog and De Meuron is also going up. And reaching the maximum legal height in a yet more prominent position are Jean Nouvel’s two leaning towers, dubbed Duo, which are due for completion in 2017 on the Seine Left Bank quayside.

Paris's Tour Duo project. Rendering courtesy Ateliers Jean Nouvel



Tour Triangle, rendering courtesy Herzog & de Meuron (left);  Paris Courthouse for Etablissement Public du Palais de Justice de Paris + Bouygues Bâtiment. Rendering courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

It must be said, developers proposing new towers in Paris have so far been reined in effectively by the authorities.  While these new developments have been allowed to break previous height restrictions, the city is still chastened by its 40-year-old mistake. Unlike the Tour Montparnasse, all of the new towers still remain on the fringes of the historic center, and while Jean Nouvel’s buildings promise to be an ugly mess, the new Palace of Justice at least shows some attempts to create something different and attractive. It’s inevitable, nonetheless, that sight lines to the Eiffel Tower and other monuments will be affected in some areas, notably around the Tour Triangle.

But even if the effect these towers could have on Paris’ skyline has been minimized, are they really the godsend their developers claim? Paris currently has office vacancy rates of over 7 percent, as companies reject high rent levels in the city core to relocate farther out in the Paris region. What Paris needs more of may not be taller, shinier spaces to rent out but customers for vacant spaces that already exist, plus improved transport links to get to them (La Défense’s metro and train links aren’t the best). It's understandable that many want to prevent Paris becoming a dead city forever crystallized in sugar for the benefit of tourists. But the city is also right to plan as prudently as possible, not permanently altering its historic allure for the sake of economic gains that are sketchy at best.

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