Traditional Building Portfolio

Projet Triangle, as it will appear behind the buildings of Paris.




Peril to the Skyline in Paris

By Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D.

Paris is the world's city, but the world does not know what is going on there. The Mayor and City Council of Paris have launched plans to build six tower projects that will intrude into the low skyline of that most serenely beautiful of cities. Soon the builders will send in their pile drivers, and the need for action is urgent.

Recall that one of the key groups whose protests resulted in the late-2010 defeat of plans for the 100-story Gazprom Tower in low-lying St. Petersburg, Russia, was the St. Petersburg Union of Architects. As early as 2006, before plans were official, the Union took a courageous public stand. Readers of Traditional Building can now be the heralds who alert the world's media and raise the alarm about towers in Paris.

Towers are a radical departure for Paris, which has had some sort of height limit for hundreds of years. When towers became the worldwide Modernist fashion in the mid-20th century, Parisians loosened their local rules, but then they turned against the ugliness of the universally-hated Tour Montparnasse, and in 1977 they re-enacted strict limits. In July of 2008, however, as soon as Mayor Bertrand Delanoë's Socialist City Council delegates gained enough of a majority not to need the anti-tower Green Party, the Council struck down the height limits that had protected the skyline of Paris for more than 30 years. Media attention was scant.

For apartment buildings on the periphery of Paris, the limit will no longer be 37 meters (roughly 121 feet), but 50 meters (164 feet). More important, the City Council will build its own commercial tower projects at six of the gates of Paris. The first is the shiny 50-story, 180-meter, 590-ft, "Projet Triangle" by the Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron. Looking like a glassy slice of cheese, it is being squeezed into an access road next to an exhibit hall at the Porte de Versailles. With a 400-room hotel crammed onto its narrow floors, it will loom over the other buildings in the 15th arrondissement, most of them between six and eight stories tall, and glimmer conspicuously behind the 81-story, 324-meter, 1,063-ft., Eiffel Tower.

Traditional Building contributor Steven W. Semes, academic director of the Rome Studies Program and associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, says in his recent book The Future of the Past that visual continuity is a major component of beautiful places. Of all places on earth, surely Paris is one of the most beautiful. But Projet Triangle will rupture its visual continuity.

The City Council's second tower is a new courthouse for Paris, a 40-story, 160-meter, 524-ft., tower-in-the-park, at one end of a massive development of offices, lodgings, and schools to replace the rail yards at Clichy-Batignolles in the 17th arrondissement. In the 13th arrondissement, meanwhile, the City Council will now allow lodgings of 50 meters and office buildings of 180 meters.

Polls show that residents of Paris oppose towers by 55 to 60 percent. But although Parisians protest at public meetings, they are discouraged. Aggressive developers, Modernist architects, politicians, and bureaucrats accuse people who care about beauty and heritage of being rich fogeys who will turn Paris into a museum city to protect their own investments.

Why are the Mayor and City Council building towers? The official position is that Paris needs towers to house more young families. That would be nonsense even if there were abundant empty land in Paris and even if single towers could house more people that the boxy Parisian blocks that already make Paris one of the densest capitals in the world. In fact, as illustrations of the program for the 17th arrondissement demonstrate, when Parisians plan towers, they spread buildings apart. If Paris builds 20-story towers for lodging, it may wind up housing fewer young families, not more.

Let's be frank. Cities need money. Mayor Delanoë says bluntly that he wants towers so Paris can compete with London and Dubai as a center for international business. In other words, he will sell off the golden egg of the city's beauty in order to buy the goose of corporate tenants.

Clem Labine, editor emeritus of this magazine, urges readers to get down in the political mud to save American cities from the ravages of developers. To save Paris, we must also fight in the sludge of world opinion. The vigorous local preservationist organization SOS Paris has made fighting the towers one of its lead campaigns and seeks international support on its website. The Green Party of Paris opposes towers. The Council for European Urbanism (CEU) has just made fighting the Paris towers a priority.

Aux armes, citoyens! Individually and through our associations we can alert the media and the world. Together we can save one of the world's most beautiful skylines. Readers, do you have your laptops ready? TB

Mary Campbell Gallagher is a graduate of Harvard Law School whose business, BarWrite® and BarWrite Press, trains candidates for the bar examination and publishes study guides. A writer on urbanism, she has published articles concerning towers in Paris in and elsewhere. She addressed the annual meeting of SOS Paris on March 22 in Paris. For more information, go to



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