The 40th anniversary of a Parisian skyscraper

When visiting Paris, Chinese tourists are often struck by the absence of skyscrapers within the historic centre. The height of buildings in Paris is limited by the municipality. Although there has recently been some discussion about constructing higher buildings, the Eiffel tower still dominates the city. Until now, skyscrapers have, for the most part, been located outside the city itself, for example in “La Défense”, a business district. The only skyscraper in Paris is the “Montparnasse” tower. Last week, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of its construction. By Chinese standards, this skyscraper is rather small (210 meters), but it is the second tallest building in France.

Forty years ago, there were active demonstrations against its construction, and even today a certain resentment about it remains. There is a joke claiming that the best view of Paris is from the Montparnasse tower, because from there you obviously cannot see the tower.

I remember visiting this tower when I was a child. I was very impressed by the view. But at that time, I did not know that an entire district had been torn down to develop this new project. This old district was not a typical one, but had a strong artistic significance. During the first half of the 20th century, many world-famous artists lived and worked in Montparnasse.  Most of their workshops disappeared because of the construction of this tower.

Even though it has been renovated, the Montparnasse tower, the symbol of France’s post-war prosperity, appears rather dated.  We can well imagine that if the older Montparnasse district had been preserved it would have become a very distinctive Parisian quarter with a special atmosphere and many art galleries to attract tourists; it would thus have become a stronger Parisian symbol than the Montparnasse tower.

I am not writing about the Montparnasse tower in order to blame the developers. Of course, cities need to change; otherwise they would simply become open-air museums. However, in both Europe and China, municipalities need to plan urban re-development carefully, always taking into account the long-term consequences.  The consequences of development, in social, cultural and economic terms, may be more costly than the preservation of the older districts. 

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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