Thoughts on the Parisian Skyline, modern vs. preservation

Modern vs. preservation: Parisians have finally decided to raise the height limit in Paris.

Paris skyline from Pompidu Center
Paris skyline from Pompidu Center
I was poking through my photos from December and it made me remember some ideas I had while in Paris.  Paris has been around so long that it has built up an urban texture that is beyond robust.  There’s just so much of it that it all just becomes background noise.
Marais District, Paris, winter 2010
Marais District, Paris, winter 2010

The city of Paris deliberately keeps all buildings under a 37 meters, resulting in a very consistent skyline that doesn’t compete with the Eiffel Tower. The monuments thrust up and act as classic landmarks From the top of the Pompidu Center, (which was begrudgingly allowed to rise above the height restriction)  you look across a fairly even skyline of residential roofs and that makes it easy to see the Eiffel Tower.The heights of Paris are found elsewhere.  Around the 1970s, the city of Paris decided to enhance an outlying district in line with the Champs Elysees, the statue in the middle of the round-a-bout there was called “La Défense de Paris”. The result was a new financial district that departs from the rules and allows large modern buildings. It has been so successful that they’ve decided to keep expanding the area with increasingly adventurous modern architecture.

La Defense at night
La Defense at night

There is this extreme contrast between most of the neighborhoods (arrondissements) where every building looks like it was built in 1730, and La Défense.  The exception to this rule 18 years ago was the Tour Montparnasse, which is still widely despised by Parisians. I couldn’t bring myself to go to the top for the view, mostly because they’re willing to charge, yet the structure has very little charm.

It’s still worth stating that Paris is a city with a distinct contrast between modern and traditional districts. Who knows? that may change in the coming years. There are of course exceptions to the unrelenting pattern such as the Branly Museum near the Sein, a stones throw from the Eiffel Tower.

musée du quai Branly
musée du quai Branly from the Eiffel Tower

This is a very current and modern museum that, ironically, or not houses anything, but modern art. I was glad to see a lot of French kids at the museum, so that more than justifies the mission.

From the standpoint of a visitor, the distinctive style and traditional texture of the architecture can be both impressive and draconian in a Imagineering® fashion. I’ve listened to French architects lament the suffocating stricture they hold, while the tourists and writers still wander through the streets in awe. Of course, many quaint little villages all around Europe can have that feel, each with their own unique architecture and personality, yet in Paris, it’s the immense scale and consistency that impresses. Every street is lined with 6 or 7 stories of what is or used to be residential flats adorned with what would be considered outrageous and extravagant detailing in the states. At ground level are small boutiques, large chain boutiques, with the occasional real estate office, repair shop, or Monoprix thrown in. Cafes and brasseries tend to gravitate to the corners.

musée du quai Branly, Exterior with Eiffel Tower
Musée du quai Branly, color and form

Professions such as dentists, internists, attorneys and psychologists that eschew store frontage usually have discreet name plaques at the ground level indicating their presence somewhere upstairs, shoe horned in between oh-so-haute boutiques. In contrast to U.S. professional businesses that seem to invite more attention, it’s as if French professionals should be spoken of in hushed tones.

What struck me was the evidence of so many years and so many man hours of effort to build in such a distinct and consistent style and form. It just goes on and on. It will be interesting to see how the change in rules intrudes.