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In Paris, Looking Back to the Future

Mary Newsom / Nov 08 2012

For Release Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mary NewsomPARIS – I saw the future in Paris. It looks a lot like the past. To be specific, it looks like too many U.S. downtowns, although with flashier architecture.

While in the French capital earlier this year for a conference of urban planners and scholars, we toured La Défense, the huge development just west of the Seine. Half a century ago it was envisioned as the future of Paris, a district of towering offices and wide concrete plazas. Today it’s an office park whose gargantuan cube monument in the middle doesn’t make up for being dead at night.

A view of the vast plaza at la Défense, as seen from Grande Arche.

“I’m amazed to see a development like this in a city known for outstanding planning and design,” said Sandra Newman, a professor of policy studies at Johns Hopkins University who directs the Institute for Policy Studies’ International Urban Fellows program. “What were they thinking?”

“They were probably trying to imitate America,” concluded Georges Prevelakis, an urban planner and Sorbonne professor also at the Urban Fellows’ conference. “This is completely outdated.”

In other words, La Défense is badly in need of the retrofit it’s undergoing.

I’m from a city, Charlotte, whose downtown struggled for decades to add housing, nightspots and – well, life – on nights and weekends when the office workers went home. And Charlotte’s situation was common in this country.

In the U.S., when we envision places with admirable urbanism, Paris is always near the top of the list for its gracious boulevards, plentiful parks and myriad of just-steps-away delis, cafes, butchers, boutiques and bakeries. But despite that excellent example in front of their noses, the mid-century French planners and developers were, instead, replicating something like Charlotte circa 1985, only bigger, and with commuter rail.

Blank glass walls along an uninviting back street at La Défense could be anywhere USA.

The first part of La Défense opened in 1958. Today it’s a cluster of office towers with a huge treeless concrete plaza that rises up to the immense cube-shaped Grande Arche. In concept and architecture it reflects much of what went wrong with city-building in the last third of the 20th century – and not just in America. Despite the famous architects, virtually no attention was paid to the spaces between the buildings.

Nor, apparently, did they study the natural surroundings or they might have realized that the hill on which they built – home to an 1883 monument named La Défense de Paris – is naturally windy. So when Grande Arche opened in 1989 those winds, aided by skyscraper-induced wind tunnels, were so intense it was all but impossible to stand inside the cube. Today the stark geometric design has been softened by a canvas canopy and glass panels somewhat reminiscent of a funhouse hall of mirrors – all installed as windbreaks.

It’s not that La Défense is 100 percent horrible. With some 150,000 daily workers, (but only 20,000 residents) the big plazas were filled with people during the lunch hour of a warm, sunlit weekday. Some of the planning was smart, too. With demand for Paris development, building outside the city was inevitable, although I had to wonder why they didn’t build more housing, as prices inside central Paris are astronomical. Much of La Défense is built atop parking lots and highways, with transit stations (commuter rail and subway) below. In the newer section at the western end, more housing is being built, and buildings are being reoriented toward nicely landscaped terraces above the transportation infrastructure. I was cheered to see that in many office towers, the windows actually opened – a humane amenity by no means common in the U.S.

I asked our tour guide about some simple retail necessities: Pharmacy? It’s in a shopping mall hidden below the main level. Bakery? Ditto. Restaurants? Most close by 9. No butcher. No charcuterie, that quintessentially French style of deli.

In the end, the whole idea of La Défense is a monument to the power of faddish thinking by architects and planners – to the tendency to be suckered by size, and to embrace important-sounding theories about how cities should work, along with a willful suspension of belief in the visible evidence of how cities really do work. It wasn’t just the French embracing those fads, of course; that’s one reason La Défense resembles so many of America’s office parks-masquerading-as-downtowns.

These days, a huge La Défense retrofit project launched in 2006 is adding residences and retail spaces and trying to attract more small and medium-sized businesses. It’s also building yet more office towers by star-chitects such as Sir Norman Foster.

Left: Windows that can be opened, unlike many U.S. office towers.

As we looked over a scale model with the planned towers, our guide pointed to a building adjacent to a planned tower and said, off-hand, “Of course, this building will lose all its light.” Another tower, from Morphosis, looks strikingly like a huge, bent penis – not a design likely to be mimicked in America, and for once I am grateful for this country’s prudishness.

Has the French government finally learned that looking to America may not produce the best ideas for building and sustaining cities? The evidence is not cheering. Like so many U.S. cities, in La Défense they’re now pinning their hopes for enlivening the area on – wait for it – a new sports arena.

This is France, so it won’t be an NFL stadium, but a rugby arena. Somehow, that does not make me feel much better.

Mary Newsom is associate director of urban and regional affairs at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute where she directs, a website offering news and analysis about urban growth issues in the 14-county Charlotte region. Views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to