Monday, October 27, 2008

Big Iron Towers and Monsters to Come

I was walking past the rue Saint Dominique just after sunset when I happened to look west down the street. It looked like a pretty ordinary street in Paris—or indeed, in Europe—except for the gigantic iron tower looming in the distance. Although I've seen this a zillion times before, it struck me on this occasion how incongruous the Eiffel Tower looked, sitting there in the background, a hundred stories high in a city where most buildings are no more than a tenth of that height (by city ordinance). I took a picture to preserve the moment.

If you'd like to see the exact location where I took the photo, you can check it out on Google Maps here. The photo was taken looking west, right where the boulevard de la Tour Maubourg meets the rue Saint Dominique, at 5:11 PM.

This type of view may have its days numbered today. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, wants to start building skyscrapers inside the city, starting with a huge glass monstrosity nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower on the south side of the city. More than thirty years ago, when then-president of France Georges Pompidou wanted to do the same thing, he built the Front de Seine group of high-rises and the Maine-Montparnasse Tower, all of which are now renowned for their ugliness and seediness. Pompidou died before he could do much more damage, but now Delanoë wants to pick up where Pompidou left off, ruining the Paris skyline forever.

After Pompidou's mistakes, a city ordinance was passed limiting buildings to about 37 metres in height. Delanoë has apparently now set that ordinance aside. This is all the more surprising when you consider that Delanoë was a Green candidate, supposedly concerned about the environment and keeping Paris beautiful. And most of his actions are in line with that position, but now, suddenly, he has moved over to the Dark Side. I guess anyone's scruples can be dispensed with if enough money is on the table. More than two thirds of Parisians are strongly opposed to building any new high-rises, but we shall see if the government is still willing to listen to the rank and file of the electorate.

Worst of all, the first tower was designed by Jean Nouvel, one of the worst architects I've ever seen. Just about everything he designs is an unbelievable eyesore, but I guess there isn't much competition in France. It's not like they've had any Frank Lloyd Wrights any time recently.

I keep hoping that these plans will be overturned and discarded before anything is actually built, but I'm not optimistic. Maybe now is the time to visit Paris, before it starts to look like Manhattan or Tokyo.

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