The view from atop the Eiffel Tower could change dramatically in the next five years, as plans for six skyscraper projects on the outskirts of Paris are currently in the works. Yet another project received the green light recently to begin construction inside Paris city limits – making it the first building taller than 121 feet built in Paris in the last three decades.
Respected Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (whose past masterpieces include Beijing’s Bird’s Nest and the de Young Museum in San Francisco) will spearhead Le Projet Triangle, a massive 600-foot-tall ultra-modern pyramid structure in southwest Paris (about five miles from the Louvre) that is so thin from the side it hardly casts a shadow. The building will hold offices, a conference center, and a 400-room hotel.
Many people see the project as a throwback to 1972, when the Tour Montparnasse, a generally detested 689-foot-tall structure, was erected, and directly resulted in the city imposing building height limits in 1977. The largest business district of Paris, La Défense, showcases multiple skyscrapers in a compact area, but it's outside official city limits. In fact, only a handful of buildings inside Paris proper are more than 12 stories. And that’s how Parisians like it; 62 percent of residents polled say they dislike skyscrapers within the city limits, according to a poll on the World Architecture News website.
It’s a sentiment shared here in D.C., says Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and practicing urban planning consultant. Lewis has also written the Washington Post column "Shaping the City" since 1984, which focuses on urban design and planning issues. I talked to Professor Lewis about the impending growth spurt in Paris, and how it relates to L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.
After the jump: Professor Lewis's thoughts on Parisian expansion.
Washington and Paris are similar in that they're both very low, open cities. Can you tell us a bit about the history and development of the D.C. Height of Buildings Act?
When the city was first planned in the early 19th century, the leaders always envisioned it would be somewhat like Paris, low in scale. In several American cities, you started to see a change at the end of the 19th century, with the advent of the “curtain wall” construction and technology. But D.C. remained low to the ground.
But at the tail end of the 19th century, construction of the Cairo building on 16th and Q Streets caused alarm. It was built in a neighborhood of row houses, no more than four stories tall. It was 12 stories, and two or three times taller than anything around it. People thought, "Wait a minute, this is not a good idea." Because of the Cairo, the city decided it needed to limit the height of buildings. That led, in 1910, to the government passing the Height of Buildings Act. And they did it according to street widths. Buildings cannot be any higher than the width of the street it’s on, plus 20 feet. This allows for lots of air and tree growth because the sun can still shine through.
What are the main reasons why these projects are being proposed now in Paris?
Money. It’s economics. The value of real estate is directly related to how much building space there is. If I own a piece of land, and I can only build 10 stories up, that land is not worth as much if you could build 20 stories on it. What’s happening in Paris is the same sentiment as in D.C. They like the low scale, the vistas and the views. It’s the scenographic quality of the city that makes it different from some other cities. But if you cap the size of buildings, eventually you’ll run out of space and rents will go up even more. And that is what Paris is facing.
What are the negative ramifications, as you see them?
You really need to sit down with a map of Paris, do a tour of the city and area and ascertain whether there are other sites comparable to this proposed site for Le Projet Triangle. Would it be possible for another developer to come up and say, "Look, my circumstances are similar to this one. I want to build a 50-story building inside Paris, too." There’s a fear that, if we open the door, all the horses will run out of the barn. That’s the big question here. If they’re going to change the rules somewhere, there has to be a unique rationale for it. I do know there's already a vast exhibition center in that area, so perhaps that's enough. Ultimately, these are public policy issues, and one would hope in an ideal world that watchdogs, regulators, and planners would have the good sense to oversee any such changes and ensure they don’t lead to unwanted and unnecessary projects.
Of course, another factor is that there are going to be people who will be upset, because if this is built, it will change their views and the skyline greatly. I could imagine people living a kilometer or so away will say, ‘this ruins my view outside my window.’ Suddenly, there’s this white shark fin jutting above the city.
Do you favor city-wide height limits or would you rather take things on a more case-by-case basis?
There’s no simple answer. What Paris is doing is proposing to let these buildings go up, but they’re outside the historic center. My own opinion is that Paris is probably going to end up looking a little like D.C. Once you leave the District, you find much taller buildings, over in Rosslyn, in Bethesda, in Silver Spring. The historic center is staying low, and it should remain that way.
Having said that, even within the city, there are certain places for which,
because of topography or access to transit or other factors, the
height limit might be modified slightly to allow more density. But you
have to do that very selectively. The problem is that we’re somewhat
victimized by a one-size-fits-all argument. We’ve made one rule, using
a big broad paintbrush and painted one law around the whole landscape.
Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who strongly supports these projects, has promised that they will not repeat past errors (including the Tour Montparnasse). What must be done to avoid such mistakes?
What the city needs to have is very detailed, fine-grain plans that tell property owners and developers what they can and cannot do. I don’t know how well Parisian policy-makers have accomplished that in this case. But citizens need to know what the future might hold for their neighborhoods.
The Tour Montparnasse looks like a turd in a punchbowl. It’s completely out of place. Just like the Cairo still is. When you see these buildings, you look at the street and surroundings, you just know it was the wrong thing to do. This time around, they must be certain that this is an extremely logical place to put a 50-story building, both to avoid unsightly mistakes and to make sure that this exception doesn't become commonplace.
What do you think? Should Paris preserve its skyline or forgo tradition and aesthetics in favor of economic growth?
Photo via ca.gatech's Flickr.