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The Man Who Tried to Change the Soul of Paris

Michel Holley built a mini-city of hulking towers on the Left Bank. He thought he was creating a utopia, but most of the city disagreed.

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"At my age, unfortunately, one has no more dreams," says Michel Holley, the 87-year-old architect who once built Paris toward the sky. "One has turned toward the past."

Forty years ago, Holley’s residential towers called Olympiades were the pièce de resistance of the city’s biggest renovation in over a century. Holley drew inspiration from Le Corbusier, who famously envisioned Paris as gridded, severe high-rises. Today, the towers sway between vitality and decay. Holley, who also worked on Montparnasse Tower and the Front de Seine, led controversial, sweeping projects to accommodate immigrants, baby boomers, and cars in 1960s Paris. “I dreamed a lot, in those days,” he says. "Because these were inventions and creations in advance of their time, and I dreamed a lot, and I realized my dreams, realized my utopias."

The Olympiades in Paris. Image courtesy of Pavillon de l’Arsenal.

A new exhibit at Paris’ Pavillon de l’Arsenal, "Olympiades, Paris 13e," chronicles the 13th Arrondissement (on the Left Bank, at the east and south of Paris), where 44 towers were built between 1960 and 1970. Almost three-quarters of the district’s surface area is new since 1950.

The eight high-rises of Olympiades house more than 11,000 people and stand on a massive concrete slab 26 feet above the ground. Holley’s idea was to separate functions of this city-within-a-city, sorting spaces to walk, shop, and drive on different levels. Below the platform run roads and a parking garage. Far below are train tracks, no longer used. Immediately below the platform is a mall, including city-subsidized artists’ workshops. Restaurants and businesses dot the platform, between the towers. Nearby schools are connected to the platform, so children don’t have to cross the road. Residents can run errands on the pedestrian platform then descend to their cars without ever crossing a street.

The towers' restaurant level (left); a view from above (right).

Image courtesy of Pavillon de l’Arsenal.

But Holley’s dream has faced criticism since construction. The "vertical zoning" means parts of Olympiades are deserted at certain times. The mall closes at 9 p.m., and as restaurateurs lower metal over their storefronts, men gather in corners, emitting catcalls. Outside, wind whips between the towers. Evenings, the slab empties except for some men and dogs lingering at its edge, near the overgrown planters and vents that billow the smell of Chinese food.

"I’m sure that there is a set of quite good restaurants on the slab, but you need to be quite courageous to get there after 8," says Didier Bernateau, director of development at SCET, the urban engineering firm that leads the network of public and private companies that develop land in France. "There’s a feeling of unsafeness, and the stairs, and the coolness of the wind."

"It is the worst failure in the history of Paris’ urban projects," says Ahmad Kaddour, an artist who teaches silk-screening classes at an Olympiades workshop. "Olympiades is the death of God."

"Today it exists, so we must make do," says Jérôme Coumet, mayor of the 13th.

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Olympiades was planned to include every modern amenity, including a stadium with an ice-skating rink and swimming pool: a postwar promise for a life of bourgeois leisure. The developers, selling apartments before the towers were finished, widely advertised a "Champs-Elysées of the South." The towers are named after cities that hosted the Olympics. Discus and Javelin Streets hurtle below the platform. The mall is called Oslo. But the pool eventually measured an un-Olympic 33 by 46 feet, and the stadium burned down in 1981. The city bought the space in 1994 and installed a municipal gymnasium in 2009. On a weekday night, residents volley over rows of ping-pong tables and a tennis court.

Claude Lipari, who has lived at Olympiades since 1979, recalls excitement over the towers. "It was something really new," he says. "There was no graffiti."

Early on, however, newspapers raised alarm when citizens were evicted and their homes razed for the renovation of the 13th. These were the first large projects in the city’s history carried out by private developers, not the government, which caused distrust and later questions about who was going to fix the escalators to Olympiades, or repair the streets below. Olympiades was built on an old freight train station. SNCF, the national rail company, sold building rights on the condition of a rebuilt station on two basement levels below the parking garage.

Then, the Olympiades developers ran out of money. Los Angeles and Melbourne Towers were never built. The platform’s southern portion was never developed, and ends in a cliff. The operation’s coup de grâce was delivered by French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who took office in 1974, opposed his predecessor Georges Pompidou’s architectural "gigantism," and stopped construction on Olympiades. Of more than 50 skyscrapers Holley planned for the 13th, only 23 were built.

Michel Holley (farthest right) stands in a window of a prototype of one of his towers with his wife and a collaborator, André Martinat.

Image courtesy of Pavillon de l’Arsenal.

Today private associations own the towers. The city studied whether to municipalize the place in 2006 and decided against the expensive move. Since 1977, the city contributes about 40 percent of the maintenance costs of the public platform and the streets, and recently improved handicapped access to Olympiades.

But residents must agree to foot the bill for any larger projects, so change never comes to Olympiades, says Jean-Luc Mulot, secretary of the residents' association. He imagines a community garden would improve the place. “We don’t have a lot of green space on the platform, and it would be nice to have some,” he says.

"If it had not been stopped, Paris would have become like Manhattan, only less beautiful, because Manhattan nonetheless has a soul," says Anne Coirier, who has lived for 35 years in a tower of the 13th. "Parisians don’t so much love skyscrapers."

Holley says, "People often criticize these kinds of towers in France, often criticize that we imposed American architecture. I also dealt with the contempt of most Parisians, who said, 'Our city has her ancient character; let her die as she is; above all, don’t modernize her.'"

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Olympiades remained unpopular until the mid-70s, when immigrants from Vietnam settled the development. Later, Chinese, Laotian, and Cambodian immigrants moved there. The 13th around Olympiades is now one of the largest Chinatowns in Europe. Christmas decorations are long gone from Paris, but streets here shimmer with stringed lights and red lanterns for the Chinese New Year. Oslo mall’s 50 businesses are all Asian-owned, according to Francoise Moiroux, who curated the exhibit, including Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants. Tang Frères, Paris’ biggest chain of groceries specializing in Asian products, raised its flagship at Olympiades in 1981.

"The fact that the district is more or less specialized in Chinese food, Chinese artifacts, and so on, makes it competitive," Bernateau says. Moiroux says the immigrants saved Olympiades. Parisian vegans go there for their tofu.

A Buddhist temple nestles in a corner of the parking garage underneath Olympiades.

Image courtesy of Pavillon de l’Arsenal.

Below the parking garage, where train tracks used to run, 50 companies distribute mostly food from Asia, South America, and Africa to Paris and northern France, moving about 100 tons of merchandise each day. 150 to 200 people work in the twilight below the platform, loading and unloading. About 140 tons of rice are stocked there at a time. Crates of mangoes and carrots, bok choy and bananas, and little orange trees await delivery near boxes of aluminum take-out containers.

Nearby, a makeshift Buddhist temple nestles in the concrete.

Other parts of the manmade underground are tougher than the scrappy temple. Dirty tunnels riddle the garage, which has no pedestrian walk. "It doesn’t work well," says Coumet, the district’s mayor, "because everything that is underground is difficult to maintain. It governs itself. It’s scary."

Alain Bernarde, president of the residents’ association at Olympiades, says police are always missing from the platform’s station. The escalators and elevators frequently stop, and water pools on the slab when it rains. Bernarde also believes the platform is slightly and incrementally shifting as the years pass.

Meanwhile, Paris gentrifies outward. An extension of Metro line 14 opened in 2007, connecting Olympiades with the city center in nine minutes. New arrivals don’t mind views from afar of the Seine, even if the towers are a little ugly. Moiroux lives at Olympiades, and says it is more economically mixed and diverse than similar apartment complexes.

"I love these towers enormously," she says. "I love above all living there, because, voilà, you are privileged to enjoy a certain private intoxication: the façades are full of windows, and with the windows open, you have the impression of living outdoors."

From his spacious studio on the 29th floor of Sapporo Tower, Hadrien Lenoir can see the Pantheon, Les Invalides, the Louvre, and, with some effort, the Arc de Triomphe. He sees clear to the skyscrapers at La Defense, west of Paris. Looking south, he sees the highway that cuts through the city’s lights to Ivry.

Holley hears about Lenoir’s magnificent view. "Is he happy?" he asks. "That’s what I wanted."

Top image: The model of Paris presented at the Grand Palais in March and April, 1967, as part of the exhibition, "Du Paris des projets au Paris des chantiers," "From a Paris of plans to a Paris of construction works," with the plan for the skyscrapers of the 13th in the foreground

About the Author

  • Jacqueline Feldman is a writer and Fulbright fellow in Paris.