Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Developers of the first skyscraper to go up in 40 years are selling it as a shard of luminous crystal, not a looming tower.
The second time’s the charm for Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Last week, she won a significant victory when the Paris City Council voted in favor of building a new tower in Paris, the first skyscraper to go up in more than 40 years.
As building stories go, this one’s a political thriller. The June 30 referendum on the Triangle—the work of Herzog & de Meuron, the expert Swiss architecture firm—was the second vote taken. Back in November, the council defeated the proposal by a narrow margin, 83–78, in a secret ballot designed to give cover to sympathetic allies and opponents alike.
Here’s the twist: A handful of council members bragged about the non they intended to cast prior to the vote. Because the number of disclosed votes was larger than the margin by which the measure failed, Mayor Hidalgo declared the vote invalid. Despite a slim win that was immediately nullified, populists and the media declared victory. Le Monde called the Triangle “inadéquat” and “célibataire.” A Left Party politician described it as “megalomanical,” “anti-social,” and “anti-ecological.”
“Even the Triangle’s greatest defenders would admit that, at 590 feet, it was wildly out of scale,” offered Richard J. Williams in Foreign Policy in the wake of the November vote. “Only the Eiffel Tower, the Grande Arche de La Défense, and a handful of the city’s other icons compare.”
But the Triangle’s defenders rallied, winning a second ballot 87–74.* So what changed? Well, supporters of the skyscraper lied.
Fière et heureuse que Triangle puisse voir le jour à Paris. pic.twitter.com/BcjYV13BUk— Anne Hidalgo (@Anne_Hidalgo) June 30, 2015
To be sure, Mayor Hidalgo secured some legitimate changes to the building’s programming, concessions that may have swung some votes. Some planned office space will be reserved instead for childcare and cultural uses, The Guardian reports. The design itself, however, is much the same as the one put forward last winter. Any changes to the building submitted to the council were imperceptible.
All along, the designers and supporters of Tour Triangle have been describing the project as “invisible.” As we say in the States, that’s pure applesauce. Here’s Williams again:
At the same time the Triangle’s architects were trying to persuade Parisians of their vision’s beauty, they were also trying to convince them that they’d hardly notice this new hulking presence in their midst. One can see this strategy at work on the tower’s website, which spends a great deal of effort trying to make the building disappear. You won’t notice it, the developers say soothingly, because it’s made of glass. It’s really about access, they say, pointing to the nearly 60,000 square feet of new public space the complex adds. It won’t cause unwelcome shadows, they note, because of its tapering form. Almost everything the architects say has one message: This building is invisible. Even in the renderings, the Triangle dissolves against the grey Parisian sky. As if to reinforce this strange duality, the renderings omit Paris’s one true existing skyscraper: the wildly unpopular Tour Montparnasse, built in 1973.
Do Mayor Hidalgo, Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, and assorted developers think that they can slip a skyscraper past Paris residents and their elected representatives? The architects can be forgiven for privileging views that do not include the dread Tour Montparnasse, but some of the renderings do seem to suggest that the Triangle is a shard of luminous crystal, not a looming physical tower. That’s a misleading impression to say the least.
By the firm’s description of the project, you’d scarcely know that it’s a skyscraper. But glass isn’t going to make the building go away. Apprehensive Parisians fear that the elimination of the city’s height act in 2010 means that developers and politicians intend to build denser and higher in Paris. And they do. No one who fears that skyscrapers will ruin Paris is going to be mollified by the suggestion that Tour Triangle will create a “strong link” between the petit and grand parcs of the Parc des Expositions.
To the extent that Mayor Hidalgo won the vote by convincing voters that a building isn’t a building, she and they are going to be disappointed by the outcome. A skyscraper will introduce congestion, cast shadows, and interrupt quaint 19th-century views—in Paris or anywhere else in the world.
Instead of pretending that Paris won’t notice a new skyscraper, the Triangle’s backers might appeal to beauty. (An argument that Herzog & de Meuron, or rather their clients, appear reluctant to make.) What developers and politicians must do is convince voters that the changes brought on by building for density outweigh the changes brought on by freezing the city in time—economic stagnation, unaffordable housing, and income inequality.
Don’t call the Triangle invisible. Call it what it is: an alternative.
* Correction: An earlier version of this report indicated that the second vote was conducted by secret ballot. The story has been corrected.