Architecture

Contemporary Architecture In Paris

Text and Photography: Shermeen Beg

When you think of Paris in terms of architecture, what comes to mind is perhaps the Gothic style of Notre Dame, or Renaissance palaces like the Louvre. While all these buildings and many more are still the historical and cultural crux of the French Capital, more modern buildings have been elbowing to be noticed. This wave of change probablystarted in 1972 when the completion of the Tour Montparnasse changed the horizon of Paris for ever.

The Tower made of dark concrete and tinted black glass appears to have landed from another planet, blasting tiny historic streets and artists’ studios into oblivion and is one of the few exceptions to the 121ft height restriction imposed by the French authorities. At 689ft, its gigantic monolithic proportions seemed so out of place in Paris that any further construction of skyscrapers was banned. It is sometimes said, only half-jokingly, that the view from the top is the most beautiful in Paris, since it is the only place from which one cannot see the tower. In 1977, the Pompidou Centre had been completed amidst reviews from

The New York Times claiming that the design had “turned the architecture world upside down”. This was followed by a wave of ‘Grand Projects’ that former president Francois Mitterand initiated; “a series of modern monuments to symbolize France’s central role in art, politics, and world economy at the end of the twentieth century”. These included landmark projects like Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute and I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, massive in scale but perhaps less well known are the Grand Arch by Johan Otto von Spreckelsen and the National Library by Dominique Perrault and then the Ministry of Finance complex that has the dubious honor of being Europe’s longest continuous building by Paul Chemetov and Borja Huidobro. While no trip to Paris is complete without a visit (or ten) to the Pompidou Centre,

I was in search of something more modern than that. After all in terms of design and technology 1977 can surely be deemed ‘ancient history’! I had read that authorities were using projects like the National Library to help revitalize less frequented parts of town. Being a huge fan (and skeptic) of revitalization schemes I decided to begin my foray into Paris in the 13th district of the city where the National Library is located. This was a peripheral area of the city and one I was not familiar with, so armed with maps I arrived with trepidation. I realized almost immediately that maps would not be required since the 25 story towers were visible from afar. As I approached the library I was surprised to see little in terms of ‘revitalization’, if anything the area was quite desolate; the street was lined with blank facades that were set back from the street. Four 25-story L-shaped towers (symbolizing open books) are arranged at the corners of a giant platform around a sunkengarden. While conceptually simple, this designreceived severe criticism on several counts.Dominique Perrault, failed to realize that walls of glass allowing light to flood the interior are destructive to books, and wooden boards were hastily set up to counter this problem after the grand opening.

The giant platform, covered in slippery tropical planks, is three football fields long and after much maneuverability (it was a windy day) I made my way to the east entrance and took the escalator down to the reading areas. On the ride down I appreciated the red pine trees in the sunken garden. Only later I realized there was no access to this garden, and in order to prevent the trees from smashing the windows of the reading rooms, they had been tied down using cables. The employees of the library complain of the distances they need to walk daily within the very large complex, as a result a sense of community is never established. I exited with a shudder and decided to cross the Seine in search of more inviting architecture. A distinct urge ‘to get away’ led me to the happy discovery of a footbridge by Dietmar Feichtinger. This 1000ft long structure crosses the river with an unsupported span of 620ft is sensual and elegant at once. It not only shows the softer side of Paris, but has also managed to act as a much needed connector between the two banks. As I basked in the sunlight, now that I was no longer in the shadow of the ‘books’,

I noticed the Josephine Baker floating swimming pool. While one is pleasantly surprised to find this pool, with a little investigation I found that not only does it provide an eclectic ambience to catch up on some exercise and sun time, but it walk daily within the very large complex, as a result a sense of community is never established. I exited with a shudder and decided to cross the Seine in search of more inviting architecture. A distinct urge ‘to get away’ led me to the happy discovery of a footbridge by Dietmar Feichtinger.

This 1000ft long structure crosses the river with an unsupported span of 620ft is sensual and elegant at once. It not only shows the softer side of Paris, but has also managed to act as a much needed connector between the two banks. As I basked in the sunlight, now that I was no longer in the shadow of the ‘books’, I noticed the Josephine Baker floating swimming pool. While one is pleasantly surprised to find this pool, with a little investigation I found that not only does it provide an eclectic ambience to catch up on some exercise and sun time, but it is also environmentally well thought out. The water is pumped in from the river Seine, filtered and chemically treated on the spot before filling the pool.

Later, it is treated once more before being discharged into the river.is also environmentally well thought out. The water is pumped in from the river Seine, filtered and chemically treated on the spot before filling the pool. Later, it is treated once more before being discharged into the river. After that rather pleasant detour, I crossed the river via the footbridge and entered a lovely park. As I meandered my way through, watching children play, I saw a part of a building behind some foliage. I stopped, I wondered, I raced on. Could it be? I had no recollection of Frank Gehry having built anything in Paris, and yet as I stood in front of the Cinematheque Francaise I was willing to bet my bottom euro that this was a Gehry creation. Despite my extensive travels, Mr. Gehry’s work has long eluded me, and I have to say I felt jubilation at having discovered this rather small but definitely quirky building. Built in 1994, the privately funded Cinematheque originally housed the American Centre but the cost of maintaining it was so high that shortly thereafter the Americans sold it back to the French. After several years of disuse the French Government decided to refurbish it in order to create the House of Cinema, with a film library and theatres. The building was wittily named ‘the dancer raising her tutu’ by its creator, and with its elegant sweeping lines we don’t need to ask ourselves why. Clad in a creamy limestone, it is very different from the exploration of materials Gehry usually dazzles us with, and yet it is perhaps this very absence that makes this building so delightful. Unlike many of the larger Gehry projects that provide a ‘visual’ presence, this one is tucked away like a little gem waiting to be discovered.

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