Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A redesign competition has been announced for Tour Montparnasse and its surrounding mall and plaza.
Soon, you may not be able to recognize Paris’s most hated building. The steel and glass Tour Montparnasse has loomed over the city’s Left Bank since 1973, but now the oft-loathed skyscraper is due for a €700 million makeover that should radically change its appearance. This week, an architectural competition was announced to revamp the tower, part of a plan that will also see the now sad-looking mall and grey, car-filled plaza at its foot get a major revamp. The declared objective: to create a “Parisian Times Square” in time for Paris’s possible 2024 hosting of the Olympic Games.
Manhattan’s central square might not seem the most obvious role model for the City of Light, but Paris doesn’t really have good examples of busy, skyscraper-lined plazas much closer to home. It’s also true that a major revamp of the once artistically vibrant Montparnasse neighborhood could do much to revive enthusiasm for an area that currently falls between two stools by being neither very pretty nor especially hip.
The revamp’s first objective, however, seems to be to do anything possible to mask the tower—above all getting rid of its current, unreflective sludgy brown color. According to Jean Marie Duthilleul, the architect coordinating the competition (due to be awarded in 2016) the makeover could create a tower that is "much softer, white or translucent and above all reflective,” while there is also the possibility of coating the tower with a second skin that could show grey or blue depending on the weather. Duthilleul seems keen to actively encourage fantasy:
“We accept surprises…Why not balconies or occlusions in the facade? Why not a cap to finish off the flat roof?"
To detractors, this talk of funny hats and studding the facade with external decks might sound like little more than putting lipstick on a pig. Still, the tower is arguably a building that earns more hate than it deserves. It’s a fairly standard, reasonably elegant building for its type, a slim monolith with vertical ribs that turn into streaks of golden sunlight in good weather. It just happens to have been built in the wrong place. So incongruous does it appear above the 19th century roofs of Southern Paris, it can sometimes look like a middle finger in masonry, raised to mock the city’s history.
On ground level things aren’t much better. The tacky mall underneath the tower is now tired and unloved, while cars dominate the surrounding area in ways that probably seemed ingenious and modern in 1973 but now just seem toxic and dated.
The tower’s reputation as a place to work has also been sliding down a slippery slope for some years. Like many buildings of its era, the Montparnasse tower was riddled with asbestos when it was constructed. The substance’s widespread presence in the building was exposed in 2005, while in 2013 works to remove it ended up actually releasing extra asbestos dust into the air. This caused some tenants to evacuate the building, a few never to return, and landed the building’s co-owners with a €250 million cleanup bill. It was partly this nadir that prompted the building’s revamp. While some owners may have balked at the price, the alternative was office units that proved increasingly difficult to rent.
A revamp should help things, but for the public it’s arguably down at the tower’s base that it will have most effect. As part of an already agreed remodeling due to begin in 2017, the mall’s floor space will be tripled to over 40,000 square meters, while 200-300 new public housing units will be built, squeezed into a Jenga-like stack of buildings that would be topped with trees. The surrounding space will be reconfigured to become more pedestrian-friendly, hopefully dispelling its current feel of being some lonely rock battered by a high sea of cars. Will this be enough to finally earn some love for the tower and its environs? Possibly not, but it’s worth a try.