Looming Debate

The battle over building heights in Paris pits a popular socialist mayor against real estate developers who would love to see the City of Light enter the twenty-first century.

I looked all over the French capital for someone who knew someone who knew Bertrand Delanoë. No luck. The most popular man in Paris is also one of its most private citizens. The 58-year-old mayor is a human citadel. People I interviewed for this article—people who work with him—made a point of telling me that they have never had a personal conversation with him. Jean-François Legaret, mayor of the first arrondissement and a political opponent, has tried for seven years to obtain a private audience with Delanoë. He is still waiting. The two mayors never sat down to discuss one of the largest Parisian urban-renewal projects to date, the renovation of the Les Halles district, located in the middle of Legaret’s jurisdiction. “It’s bizarre,” he says. “Delanoë, who has the reputation of being a great communicator, refuses to talk to me.”

Delanoë, a prominent Socialist and a likely candidate in the next presidential election, doesn’t make friends with just anybody. He loves to buddy up to Parisians though. He didn’t consult with Legaret on Les Halles, but he has solicited the opinion of his fellow citizens on the project through countless online surveys and numerous neighborhood discussion groups. It was daunting. A slim man with a guarded affability, Delanoë comes to life as a leader when he is center stage. He is never happier than when he takes some abuse at one of those public events where hot topics such as building heights, tramway lines, or the best loca­tion for low-income housing elicit scathing comments from the audience. The impish expression on his face implies that he has heard it all before, and that he is ready to counter with a peremp­tory remark.

The mayor rarely gives interviews, preferring press conferences during which he is personable, spontaneous, and candid with journalists who are then allowed to banter with him but not (God forbid) disagree. Early in his tenure, Delanoë, an openly gay man, was stabbed almost fatally by a psychopath, a shocking incident that might explain his studied aloofness today. In a way, Delanoë is like the city he has been elected to govern. Paris is a guarded municipality, its monuments and historical heritage protected by draconian rules and regulations, its economic growth limited by antiquated laws, its cultural diversity stifled by gentrification, and its territorial expansion checked by a peripheral beltway that forms a bulwark as impenetrable as the bureaucratic layers inside city hall.

Built in 1973, the “périph,” as Parisians call the beltway, is a 22-mile-long concrete ribbon that chokes the 41-square-mile capital inside city limits that have been set in stone for more than 150 years. A traffic-clogged highway with 34 tentacular ramps on both sides, the périph is a roaring cyclotron. Delanoë’s authority does not extend beyond this modern-day fortification. On the other side, though, the surrounding suburbs form a patchwork of small towns that add up to a thriving metropolis of more than four million. Together, Paris and its suburbs total a little more than six million people, many of them commuting into the city on a daily basis.

One of Delanoë’s priorities has been to blur the line separating affluent Parisians from their often less privileged neighbors. In the last decades, Paris has steadily lost its working-class residents, who migrate to poorer bedroom communities beyond the city limits—a trend Delanoë wants to stop. To breach the physical as well as psychological barrier that keeps Paris locked in and suburbia locked out, he wants to create a series of attractive meeting grounds over the dividing line. Work is under way to turn sections of a concrete canopy, which the city is building over the périph to buffer noise and reduce pollution, into public gardens and recreational areas. These beautifully landscaped boulevards, where bus terminals will be located, are expected to ease traffic and improve commutes.

Whether it will work remains to be seen, but this solution is a typical Delanoë move. The former head of a PR agency, the mayor likes projects that “speak”—those that tell a good story and make his political intentions clear. With the public Delanoë speaks the language of the heart, according to Yo Kaminagai, design manager at the RATP, the public-transportation company that works in daily partnership with the mayor’s office. “He is clever, even mischievous. In this town, it’s the only way to be innovative while respecting the fetters of tradition.” Delanoë uses his clout to promote small punctual interventions that improve the quality of life of Parisians. He is less supportive of projects that flaunt the vitality of corporations and financial institutions eager to pitch towering office buildings inside Paris (most prestigious headquarters are now clustered in a suburban business district known as La Défense). For tall structures to be erected, Delanoë would have to change existing regulations that cap the height of buildings at 82 feet in the center of Paris (a hateful exception is the 1972 Tour Montparnasse, at 688 feet) and 121 feet near the périph. After asking a dozen architects to come up with proposals for “typically Parisian towers,” the mayor declared cautiously that he was not totally opposed to a few skyscrapers on the fringes, as long as they were “aesthetically ambitious and environmentally exacting.”

Delanoë would rather spend taxpayers’ money improving the urban experience than sweetening deals to attract big investment. He knows that living well is the most effective business incentive and the reason everyone wants to come to Paris. To boost economic exchanges between Paris and the regions around it, he tries to get people to live closer together and share the same amenities. He supports urban-renewal projects near the edge of town, in traditionally underprivileged sectors facing the périph. There, small apartment buildings, designed by big-name architects like Christian de Portzamparc, give low-income families a chance to live comfortably and stylishly within the city limits, only minutes away from their suburban counterparts. “Wait another year and the buildings will be covered with graffiti,” quipped a typically cynical New Yorker upon discovering that a cluster of smart-looking buildings was in fact a “project.” Delanoë may be sly, but he is not cynical. Under his administration, public-housing developments are built to look and feel as citified as chic downtown dwellings. A new circular tramway line runs through them in the middle of tree-lined esplanades that are as appealing and lively as the boulevards in the center of the capital. “A tramway line is more than a means of transportation; it’s a pretext to revitalize an entire district,” says architect Antoine Grumbach, who did the urban planning for the new T3 tram that has turned the once lonesome southern frontier of Paris into a desirable neighborhood.

Delanoë’s ideas are not always well received, even within his own party, but everyone seems to agree that it’s imperative to create better communication between Paris and the surrounding towns. The capital can no longer afford to be a museum of its glorious past. It needs to jump over the beltway, reach out to the suburbs, and become the center of the metropolis that encircles it. But under the pretext of helping him achieve this goal, Delanoë’s political opponents are launching a campaign, spear­­headed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to create a new administrative chain of command to supervise the economic development of a new urban entity that would incorporate the capital and its suburbs, an area whose outer boundaries are still to be determined but that has already been named Grand Paris. In the wrong hands, this proposal might be used to undermine Del­anoë’s authority. And, indeed, recently reelected by a landslide vote that reaffirmed the left-leaning preferences of the historically defiant Parisians, the mayor has many enemies in the pro-business Sarkozy government.

The question of Paris and its suburbs is linked to that of building heights because it is at the frontier between these two worlds that city planners propose to challenge the traditional size limits and build skyscrapers. Architect Yves Lion claims he inadvertently set off the tower debate in 2000 when he won a competition to rehabilitate a no-man’s-land at the edge of the beltway. His plan included covering the périph and erecting 20- to 40-story apartment buildings. “I didn’t mean to get everyone excited about issues of heights,” he now says. But excited they got: the politicians, the press, the people of Paris. Tall buildings are anathema here for many reasons. The City of Light is built atop a city of shadows. Paris is laid over a subterranean limestone quarry, its huge system of ancient tunnels weakening the ground. Its low-rise skyline is the product of geological circumstances. But there is another reality—a political one—that has shaped the way the city looks: Parisians don’t like authority. They’re an unruly bunch, known to tear down or burn symbols of oppression. In fact, the architectural form that is most typically Parisian is not the mansard roofline or the Haussmann facade but the barricade. A low struc­ture, usually made of a pile of cobblestones and pieces of trash from construction sites, it has been the type of edifice local residents choose most often to express their pol­itical views. Tall buildings in Paris? You must be kidding! To Parisians it would be an open invitation to dissent.

But Lion, like so many French architects, would like to see Paris compete in terms of contemporary architecture with cities like Barcelona, Berlin, and London. He says he enjoys working with clients in cities that are much more dynamic, much more creative—and much more polluted—than Paris, adding, “Yet at the same time, I can’t wait to fly back home where I can walk wherever I want and breathe freely. It’s not just the nice streets and the clean air I crave; it’s the democracy.” As annoying as it is, a convoluted “democratic” process safeguards the public good in Paris, he says. Indeed, in an unprecedented move, Delanoë has imposed on private developers the same time-consuming competition-and-jury review procedure foisted on public projects. “Things are so stagnant in this administratively driven city,” Lion says about this design-by-committee method, “but even I’m grateful for all the resistance. In Paris I feel there is hope for the human race. But they do get on my nerves!”

Unpopular with real estate developers, speculators, and small-time builders, Delanoë’s measure has worked. Modest buildings, instead of being razed to the ground to make room for luxury apartments, have been reconditioned. Areas that would otherwise have been gentrified are now equipped with day-care centers, senior housing, clinics, and playgrounds. For a more affluent elite though, the mayor’s quality-of-life and social-diversity objectives are paltry goals. At dinner parties and family gatherings around town, there is always someone willing to disparage Delanoë’s achievements. Someone to denounce Vélib’, the new citywide self-service bike-rental network, as a health hazard, bemoaning the fact that out-of-shape Parisians use the bikes as they would exercise machines, with resulting sports injuries as well as traffic accidents. Someone to mock the mayor’s public-transportation policies, with umpteen dedicated bus lanes that create more congestion, and thus more fumes and pollution. Or someone to make fun of the newspeak that now describes sidewalks as “civilized spaces,” a fancy name for wider asphalt surfaces made to look like obstacle courses to accommodate rows of bicycle racks, special wheelchair ramps, parking bays for delivery vans, two-wheeler lanes, street plantings, and lovers’ benches.

Sharing public space with others sometimes means mingling with the masses. “We have been accused of being too down-market,” says Christophe Girard, the mayor’s cultural deputy, who came up with the Paris-Plage idea—a summerlong fair that transforms the quays along the Seine into a crowded boardwalk, complete with parasols, lounge chairs, potted palm trees, snow-cone vendors, bathing-suit contests, jazz bands, and beach games. More Biarritz than Coney Island, the faux seaside atmosphere is conceived as yet another antigentrification rally. While the affluent leave Paris during July and August to go to the beach, less privileged suburbanites flock to the city to get their share of sand and sunscreen. “We want folks to apprehend Paris in another mode, in a less goal-oriented fashion,” Girard says, referring to the Situationist doctrine of the 1960s, a left-wing movement that advocated deliberate “disorientation” as a cure for conspicuous-consumption boredom. In the same spirit is an event called Nuit Blanche, another brainchild of Girard. A popular art jamboree that lasts from sunset to sunrise, with installations in unlikely venues, it is designed to draw crowds of Parisians and out-of-towners together for a night and send them wandering toward improbable parts of the city they would otherwise have no reason to explore.

Delanoë was 18 years old in 1968, and though he was not in Paris during the students’ revolt that year, he is a member of a generation influenced by the ideology of that time. His vision of Paris stems from a culture of dissent that condemned the constant hype required to sell consumer goods and products. Fortunately for Delanoë, many local architects are willing to resist the pressures of the market economy. “I am very happy that Paris is not a design museum,” Grumbach says. “We’re here to do a city, not a collection of objects. A collection of objects never amounts to a city. Look at New York. There’s an array of amazing buildings there, but look at the poor quality of the public space! In contrast, compare this with the quality of the street­scape in Paris.”

This antispectacular stance is a Delanoë trademark. His choice of architects for the rehabilitation of Les Halles is an example. David Mangin won the preliminary competition for the master plan with a minimalist scheme that Legaret, the mayor of the first arrondissement, bitterly characterized as “a nonproject, with a nonprogram for a nonbudget.” Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti won the second competition, for the final phase of the project, with a design that Legaret then dismissed as a weak architectural solution. The elegant translucent canopy that will spread its wings over Les Halles’s commercial center is indeed an unobtrusive structure, not the grand architectural gesture likely to appeal to Parisians who would like to see the city demonstrate the vitality of its financial community with truly dramatic buildings. Will Jean Nouvel’s competition-winning proposal for a new Philharmonic Hall satisfy them? Or what about the hush-hush Rem Koolhaas project soon to be unveiled? No cigar. Dominique Alba, director of the Paris Arsenal museum and the authority on contemporary architecture, bristles every time someone calls her hometown a museum city. “The architectural heritage of Paris is so rich, it swallows the most novel urban forms,” she explains. “There are plenty of exciting new buildings around, but they do not stick out.”

Mercifully few and far between inside Paris, the tall apartment buildings and office towers that “stick out” were built in the 1970s in accordance with poorly understood Le Corbusier design principles. They serve as deterrents rather than examples. A group of them, in the Beaugrenelle neighborhood, is undergoing a major overhaul in an attempt to humanize the way they impact pedestrian traffic at street level. In another corner of the city, in the 13th arrondissement, Delanoë asked urban planners to tone down the monumental uniformity of an ambitious development started by his predecessor, Jean Tiberi. Called Paris Rive Gauche, it is home to the Mitterand branch of the national library, an imposing landmark designed by architect Dominique Perrault. It is also the setting for a large avenue bordered with typical glass-and-marble office buildings. The mayor instructed Portzamparc, Lion, and Bruno Fortier, the architects in charge of overseeing continuation of the project, to add housing for students and low-income families, to make room for parks and playgrounds, to rehabilitate old structures, and in general to use more varied forms, textures, building materials, and colors.

A tour of Masséna-Nord, the new segment of Paris Rive Gauche, could serve as a primer for the Delanoë vision. First you cross the Seine on the latest Parisian footbridge, an elegant double span by Dietmar Feichtinger. Walking south, past the steps of the library, you wind your way into a residential neighborhood whose friendly streetscape, conceived by Portzamparc, is a brilliant demonstration of his airy “open-block” concept. The narrow streets showcase a medley of colorful facades. Turning corners or crossing courtyards, you discover odd-looking sights: the Frigos, a gently dilapidated warehouse squatted by artists; the Grands Moulins, an ancient mill renovated by Rudy Ricciotti, now the cultural hub of the new Paris Diderot Uni­versity campus; the Biopark, a science research center designed by Valode & Pistre; the hybrid building of a new architecture school, the work of Frédéric Borel, who incorporated an old factory and its smokestack into a complex composition; the Lavoisier chemistry school, a pharaonic construction in varnished concrete by Agence X-TU; the Buffon labs, fittingly convoluted like a still, by François Chochon and Laurent Pierre; and the Lamarck biology study complex, an assemblage of cubes in earthy colors by Jean Guervilly and Françoise Mauffret.

This dizzying display of talent is nice, but you wonder: Does it look like Paris? You can’t see the Eiffel Tower from there, nor can you spot the silhouette of Notre Dame in the distance. Yet there is an easy feeling, a human scale, a playfulness, and a sense of harmony and order that is the product of centuries of savoir faire. You could live there, in this strangely exciting place—only a ten-minute subway ride to the Louvre. This would be the perfect location for a Parisian pied-à-terre.

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