Is Paris trying to copy London or something? There’s new evidence that the French capital has caught London’s skyscraper bug, at least. Yesterday, the Conseil de Paris approved the first tall tower to be built within the city since 1973, ending the longstanding habit of banishing them to the outlying Défense district in order to keep inner Paris’s late-19th-century appearance intact.
The just-approved 180 metre (600ft)-high Tour Triangle – a glass pyramid already being dubbed “the Toblerone” – is no one-off either. This May, the foundation stone was laid for the stacked slabs of Renzo Piano’s new 160 metre (525ft)-high Palace of Justice. On Paris’s south-eastern edge, leaning twin towers designed by Jean Nouvel are planned for completion in 2020, sticking up like two metal fingers over the Seine quays.
Meanwhile, in the city’s heart, a controversial plan was voted through this June for a (lower, but scarcely less striking) revamp of the historic Samaritaine department store, with a new translucent facade that resembles a “giant shower curtain”. While these projects are mostly on the fringes of the inner city, they still suggest that Paris’ days as a bastion of architectural conservation and micromanaged preservation might be over.
Those days won’t be mourned by everyone. For decades, there has been talk of Paris as a ville musée, an architectural showcase whose 19th-century appearance has been fixed as immutably as an insect trapped in amber: intricate, gorgeous – and dead. The more business-friendly sections of the French press, meanwhile have occasionally looked wistfully across to London, with its forest of new towers, its open doors to big money – even its rather less demure nightlife – as an example of a city truly embracing the 21st century.
Is this really fair? Certainly the immaculate preservation of inner Paris seems to have gone hand in hand with an indifference to anything further out. Looking at the noxious sprawl around the city’s péripherique ring road gives the impression of a city that has turned itself smugly inward. The truth is that, following the unpopularity of the early 1970s Tour Montparnasse, Paris hasn’t yet built towers in its centre partly because it doesn’t really need them. Built consistently up to heights of four to six storeys, inner Paris is already one of the most densely populated spots in the western world. The city proper has a density of over 21,500 people per square kilometre within its narrow limits, while the suburbs of Levallois-Perret, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais and Montrouge are denser still. Nowhere in any UK city comes remotely near this. Britain’s closest equivalent is the London borough of Islington, which comes in at a mere 13,886 residents per square kilometre.
Paris is currently trying to up this residential density yet further, while largely sticking within its current height limits. The city has partnered with France’s national railways SNCF and the city transport body RATP to build 2,000 homes (50% for social rent) on unused railway land within Paris proper, part of a projected (if ambitious) plan for 10,000 new flats every year. By 2020, the city also plans to have converted 250,000 square metres of office space into homes, much of it in under-used Haussmann-era buildings originally built as residences. Add to all this plans to keep the city affordable by introducing rent controls next month and the bold move of allowing skyscrapers within Paris comes to look like a bit of a sideshow.
Seen in this light, London’s current yen for building office and luxury housing towers isn’t a sign of a city leading the way towards true modernity. London’s tower frenzy is essentially a way to counteract years of building low. It’s a pathetically misguided attempt at that, presented as essential for a growing city but actually doing almost nothing to ease the city’s acute housing shortage for anyone but the rich. Admittedly, a few shiny glass insertions into the Paris skyline may make the city look a little different – and more London-like – when seen from high up. But it’s London that needs to get real and catch up with Paris, not the other way round.
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