Mary Campbell Gallagher, for ICPP, April 8, 2021
The world loves Paris for its beauty. Paris is the world’s city, and most of us think it will always be beautiful. But Paris is in danger. Its leaders are about to destroy its beauty.
The sacking of Paris did not begin yesterday, and is not just the piling up of garbage, the cutting down of trees, or the installation of new street furniture. The sacking includes skyscrapers built on the periphery of the city in the style of the universally-despised Montparnasse Tower, destroying the city’s centuries-old skyline against the wishes of the residents, and the government’s remodeling of the île de la Cité.
It was not until October, 2020 that Mayor Hidalgo called for a debate on the “aesthetic of Paris.” One might have expected an economic argument for her towers, arguing that they would be a good investment for her heavily indebted city. But instead, she has chosen to argue for towers based on their modernism. One might wonder whether Hidalgo, who won last year’s election with only 17% of the city’s registered voters, with an abstention of more than 63%, has a moral right to alter the character of her ancient city.
We argue, to the contrary, that people love beauty and history. Remember the faces of the people watching when the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire, on April 15, 2019. Parisians prayed for their cathedral to be saved. This was not the first time the cathedral was in danger. It had also been in danger after the Revolution of 1789, but in 1832, Victor Hugo published Notre Dame de Paris. The great success of that stirring novel awakened public opinion to the value of heritage, or “patrimoine,” and it saved the cathedral. The anguished crowd witnessing the fire in 2019 testifies to the continuing importance of place and of our traditional cities.
Victor Hugo referred to Paris as a collective masterpiece. For centuries, builders always sought to add to the beauty of the city. Whether Henri IV with the Place des Vosges, Cardinal Richelieu with the Palais Royal, or Napoleon I with the rue de Rivoli, the objective was always to make the city more beautiful.
Today’s unbridled “modernization” or “reinvention” of Paris adds nothing to its beauty. To the contrary, it degrades Paris. Absent any public discussion, City Hall has authorized the implementation of novel urban initiatives. On the streets of Paris we see a loss of the charm that has made the city legendary, the newspaper kiosks and the street benches designed in the 19th century by Gabriel Davioud. And let us not forget that City Hall approved the remodeled La Samaritaine on rue de Rivoli, where ancient buildings were torn down to construct a six-story high undulating glass façade for LVMH, close to the Louvre.
Ecology is a key theme of City Hall. Its efforts to reduce the use of autos have received world-wide attention. But its claims of the sustainability of towers fail to take into account the great mass of energy needed for the building material of these towers: the cement, glass, and steel. Nor are towers sustainable economically. Note that two of the skyscrapers built at La Défense since the ‘fifties have already been torn down.
The stakes are high. Paris is a treasure of the world. The Banks of the Seine were recognized for their beauty when Unesco designated Paris a World Heritage site.
As Olivier de Monicault has said, the beauty of Paris is not a “renewable resource.” But City Hall is on the verge of destroying the beauty of Paris for the sake of global financial interests. The centuries-old Paris skyline will no longer proclaim the glory of God or of France, but instead will signal craven surrender to major real estate developers and architects of transient renown. Paris will not become more financially competitive with other world capitols. It will simply be left to stand in its diminished state, which will be irreparable.
If we want to leave to our children and grandchildren the beauty of the Paris we have inherited, we must act now. Of the traditional cities in the world, Paris is the most beautiful and largest to have kept its low silhouette.
The people of Saint Petersburg fought back when the giant international corporation Gazprom wanted to build a 100-story tower in the historic center. That battle lasted five years. And the people of the city, with support from around the world, won!
Parisians, too, must count on international support. If the world allows Paris to descend into ugliness, how can we defend beauty anywhere?
Last modified: April 10, 2021