Wednesday, May 13, 2009

La Défense

There are many interesting corners of Paris to discover, most of them having been well documented and visited for generations. However, there is one part of Paris that is less a tourist attraction, but very much a part of Parisian life. It is La Défense, the financial district, named after a statue called La Défense de Paris to commemorate the soldiers who defended the city during the Franco-Prussian war. The quartier is situated west of the city, aligned with the Louvre along the Champs Elysées and easily identifiable along the skyline by it's highrises and the Grande Arche (the rectangular arch which echos l'Arc de Triomphe). Construction of the zone started in 1958 and continues to this day in fits and spurts. The latest towers proposed for construction will all be required minimum green standards for emissions, energy, to name but a few.

Like any financial district it is buzzing with activity during the weekday, then eerily dead at night and the weekends. There are a number of people who live and work in the area, but there is an overwhelming sense that La Défense is a zone, and less a neighbourhood, even with all the shops and schools scattered about. Compared to the rest of Paris, La Défense looks and feels quite alien, as if it were a piece of an American city cut out then dropped into Europe.

It is evident that the master plan was laboriously worked out, and some of what has resulted is interesting. But the construction of the numerous towers are developer fueled and badly conceived.

La Tour Aurore, seen in the reflection of another building, which will be torn and replaced by a new proposed tower by Arquitectonica.

This boardwalk is an extension of the long reaching axis spanning from the Louvre to La Défense. On the right is a cemetery, full of beautiful trees and a lovely garden. When you reach the west side of the Grande Arche all you see initially is a garden-like space, then as you walk the length of the boardwalk you realize that, oh, it's a cemetery. It really breaks up the monotony of the surrounding corporate architecture.

Dotted along the handrail of the boardwalk are metal (bronze patina?) castings of random objects found in nature. The best one was this ear. Funny how my first impluse was to place my ear on top of it to see if I could hear anything...

Some of the local youth using the Grande Arche as a performance/practice space. It's perfect for addressing an audience as it's elevated and the stairs are perfect for lounging around on. The glass panels in the background act as a wind buffer. Apparently the opening of the Grande Arche created perfect conditions for concentrating all the wind coming off the Atlantic and buffeting away business people and tourists alike.

The best part of our field trip to La Défense was not in the district itself, but just along it in Nanterre, the Tours nuages by Emile Aillaud. The complex of 18 high rise apartments was built in 1977, and have rounded façades, which in plan, resemble clouds. Adding to the cloud motif is the patterned glass mosaic tile exterior. These buildings are magnificent from afar, really the most poetic and imaginative addition to the cityscape. The colours have been masterfully combined and really do blend into the sky.

The grounds are landscaped with swells and sinuous courves. A bit Gaudi-like. Here you can also see that some of the windows have been designed in the shape of stylised raindrops.

Up close, unfortunately the buildings are in a state of disrepair. Mosaic portions which have either been pried off or damaged have been replaced by patches of plaster, and not even in the same colour as the rest of the building. People complain that round rooms are difficult to furnish, the custom windows are difficult to replace. There are probably a lot more that is not working in these buildings because there are always discussions to tear down the buildings.

There may indeed be many 'good' reasons why these towers should be torn down, but we would then lose something that is as equally concerned with imagination as it is with practicality, something sorely lacking in the art of building today.

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