Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Watch your head! … and La Défense

I happened across an accident in the underpass that carries traffic on the Champs beneath the Arc de Triomphe today. The underpass has a very limited vertical clearance (2.4 m, or about 7'10"), and abundant signs warn motorists of this. Nevertheless, from time to time, an inattentive or impaired driver tries to take the underpass even though his vehicle is over the limit, and when the vehicle and the underpass meet, the underpass always wins.

On this occasion, a van had had its upper portion sheared away by the underpass. There's always clearance for the driver, so the driver always survives (unharmed if he's wearing seat belts), but the truck usually doesn't fare so well. The driver in this case (not visible in the photo) looked physically fine, but rather shaken and worried. There really isn't much of an excuse for getting stuck with this clearance problem, so he'll have a lot of explaining to do, and maybe a balloon to blow into.

I've seen it before, though, so this is hardly a unique occurrence. Vans, tractor-trailer rigs, etc. The only thing I really worry about is a tour bus. Tour buses often have passengers riding on a high deck, and if such a deck hit the underpass, the resulting carnage would be catastrophic. Fortunately, that has never happened, but it's probably just a matter of time.

After taking a few pics of this accident, I went up to La Défense. La Défense is a suburb of Paris that contains some of the most sought-after business real estate in the world. It's a planned suburb that has no motor vehicles at ground level. The surface plaza is purely pedestrian, ringed by tall skyscrapers, and all cars, buses, trains, etc., are constrained to pass underground. As a result, it's a really nice place to work. I shot some video of it that I'll be editing into a short feature on the area Real Soon Now.

In the old days, the pedestrian plaza at La Défense was completely open. Nowadays, though, greed has taken its toll, and more and more useless structures and “developments” are encroaching on the wide open space of the plaza. I don't consider this a welcome change.

At the same time, however, a lot has been updated at La Défense. The development of the zone first started way back in the late 1950s, and it took a while for it to catch on. It's doing very well today, but some of the older structures are showing their age. Fortunately, extensive renovation has fixed a lot of that.

For example, the CNIT, built in 1958, has been renovated for the third time. It's famous for having one of the largest unsupported roof structures in the world. The roof is a huge vault supported at three points on the ground, with no internal columns or supports of any kind. There's 200,000 square feet of floor space beneath the roof. It originally was an exhibition center, but today it's a mix of conference halls and a dual-level shopping center. It's pretty nice, and the most recent renovation has made it very modern. And that gigantic vaulted ceiling is still impressive—its center point is 20 stories off the floor.

Then there's the Grande Arche, a 40-story, hollow cube that contains office space. It's a bit odd looking, but interesting. It has “clouds” inside that I originally took to be temporary structures, but in fact they are a permanent part of the building. It's so large that the towers of Notre-Dame could fit inside.

It used to be possible to take an elevator up to the roof of the Grande Arche for a stunning view of La Défense and Paris, but the observation deck has now been closed, and will be turned into office space. Once again, money determines everything.

Opposite the CNIT on the plaza is the Quatre Temps shopping center, once the largest in Europe (I'm not sure if that's still true). More than 200 stores on several levels occupy the center. It has just been renovated as well, and now looks a lot more like a modern American shopping center. It was built back in the early 1970s, so the old decor was very dated. The new design looks very nice, and they've added a huge multi-level food court that's very nice as well, plus the inevitable multiplex cinema., which replaces an IMAX theater that apparently didn't earn its keep.

These days, there are almost 40 skyscrapers at La Défense, with about a dozen under construction or planned. Periodically they tear stuff down and rebuild it, which seems wasteful, but I guess that's how things go in high-priced areas like this one. There are a handful of residential towers, but I don't know that it's an ideal place to live. The area is extremely busy and animated during the business day, but it's a ghost town at night, to the point of being spooky. It's a great place to work, though. I used to work there.

Given the combined Easter/Passover holidays, La Défense wasn't as busy as usual when I visited today. It's busiest in the morning, at lunchtime (all French people eat lunch at exactly the same time), and in the evening when everyone leaves work. At other times during the day, it's quiet but there are still quite a few people (tens of thousands work in the towers). At night, it's just you, the wind, and the occasional gang.

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