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Paris and the Triangle Tower, or a Half-Century of High-Rise Debate

The introduction of a bioclimatic local planning scheme in Paris has put the brakes on high-rise projects in the city, as illustrated by the case of the Triangle Tower. Here, Julie Gimbal looks back on half a century of rejection of tall buildings, an approach typical of the French capital that continues to influence decisions today.

The plan to build the Triangle Tower at the Porte de Versailles, on the southwestern edge of the city of Paris, has had a turbulent history, rekindled in the summer of 2022 by a new episode of controversy. Highly publicized, the case condenses a range of discourses and grievances, many of which have characterized French perception and reception of high-rise buildings since the end of the 19th century. The history of this form of architecture in France reveals the extent to which it has continually a subject of research and debate, alternately located at the margins and at the center of dogmas and utopias. It has attracted the attention of numerous observers, whose validation and de-legitimization campaigns resonate in both mainstream and specialized media. The voices of professional commentators mix with those of amateurs and local residents, and enlightened arguments are not themselves immune to critical prejudice.

Skyscrapers, towers, and high-rise buildings raise questions about the cultural and scientific definition of architecture, and invariably raise the issue of their inclusion in or outside the heritage city, in its broadest sense. The specifically Parisian history of this vertical typology, which began in the second half of the 19th century with Henri-Jules Borie’s “Aérodômes” (Borie 1865), reveals the spectrum of quarrels, intrepidness, backsliding, disappointments and frustrations that have constantly disrupted the planning process, fuelling, on the part of public opinion, disdain and even contempt for this Babelian stigma.

For the past 15 years, the case of the Triangle tower has crystallized public opinion, while for their part, the prime contractor and owner alternate in a verbal juggling act between assurance and defense, superlatives and oratorical precautions. For some, it’s the crystalline object responsible for keeping Paris in step with the world; for others, it’s the dual artifact of ferocious capitalism and political obstinacy. This bipolarization of discourse seems to limit the very possibility of any moderate observation, which would integrate into the debate reflections on urban density, functional and social mixing and the symbolic forms of the city (Chadoin 2014), all under the necessary aegis of the sustainable city “concept.” While linking the Triangle Tower project to this history, in all its thickness, would merit a lengthy development, this article seeks to shed light on one of the main problematic axes: that of urban inscription.

The return of towers to Paris

In 2003, at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, the then-mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, and architects Jean Nouvel, Christian de Portzamparc, and Dominique Perrault met to discuss the issue of height in Paris. The evening’s preamble set the scene for the discussion: Paris has never been a homogenous city with a uniform fabric. What, then, would be the conditions for inventing a living contemporary fabric, with mixed uses and forms, compatible with the inherited city? "In his opening remarks, architect and historian Jean Castex posed the question: "What kind of freedom will we be able to promote within a given framework, in order to establish the landscape of a Paris that is both a residential city and a global metropolis, with properly distributed high points? The examples of the 1954 Lafay Plan and the 1964 Height Zoning Plan illustrate past attempts at sectorized height removal on the outskirts of the hypercentre. Five years later, the Triangle Tower project was unveiled near the Porte de Versailles, the principle of which is clearly linked to the 2003 debate. Of the six sites considered by the City of Paris to host the coveted “strong signal,” the Porte de Versailles was chosen as a transitional urban space, heterogeneous in form and function.

Designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron between the two parcels of the Parc des Expositions, the 180-meter tower won the vote of the city council in 2008, which reversed itself in 2014 when it contested the lack of a competition upstream of the operation, as well as the building’s tertiary function. Rather than focusing on the details of the—absurd and futile—war being waged at Paris City Council, let’s focus on the essentialization of discourse around notions that are often open to question. Is it reasonably possible to settle the matter with a question—"for or against the towers?”—when the main term suffers from a one-sided definition? While social networks invite us to deliberate in a click, complex subjects call for a long period of collective reflection and nuanced, well-argued responses, of which the political and media turmoil of 2014 offers few examples. Finally adopted in 2015 by a narrow majority (Figure 1), the new building permit was submitted in 2017 after the organization of a public inquiry in autumn 2016, which pointed out the project’s weaknesses (program, accessibility, construction site, energy consumption, etc.). With a program corrected several times for greater mix and reversibility, the construction site was launched in February 2022 in parallel with the PNF inquiry, but not without new challenges and criticism.

Figure 1. Results of the Paris City Council vote, 2015

Compte rendu sommaire de séance des lundi 29, mardi 30 juin, mercredi 1er et jeudi 2 juillet 2015 (“Summary of minutes of the sessions of Monday, June 29, Tuesday, June 30, Wednesday, July 1, and Thursday, July 2, 2015), p. 9.

Parisian attitudes to high-rise in the second half of the 20th century

Let’s return to the two examples of plans mentioned at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal. Before the Second World War, numerous virtual experiments in the extension and modernization of Paris made the skyscraper the instrument of a sprawling, airy, mechanized and rationalized city. The culture of anticipation of the first post-war period relieved the skyscraper of its status as an exotic modern object. The second post-war period, meanwhile, corresponded to the urgent need to respond to a new social reality while preserving the achievements of the avant-garde. The reconquest of Paris that took place at this time signaled a shift from the dominant political "anti-verticality" of the pre-war period, embodied in the maintenance of the principles of the 1902 height decree, to an assumed and a priori framed liberation of heights against a backdrop of tension and/or collusion between decision-making bodies.

In 1954, city council president Bernard Lafay presented his project for the restructuring of Paris to the December session, with a drawing signed by architects Raymond Lopez and Michel Holley (Figure 2). "Alert! Paris is dying!" proclaimed the report entitled Solutions aux problèmes de Paris. This far-reaching reform mapped insalubrious districts and introduced new architectural typologies in specific sectors. It defined a crystallized Paris—the heart of the city and the affluent western 16th and 17th arrondissements—and an unhealthy Paris, which took the form of a vast crescent where so-called "soil liberation" operations were concentrated, legitimized by the dilapidation and/or misuse of urban space. The Lafay plan was not literally adopted by the city council, but it permeated the policies of the following years, including the Plan d’Urbanisme Directeur (PUD; Urban Master Plan) of 1959. This was the work of Raymond Lopez, assisted by Michel Holley at the Centre de Documentation et d’Urbanisme (CDU; Center for Documentation and Urban Planning), created in 1956 and voted by the city council the same year; the CDU was then firmly encouraged, not to say steered, by the prefecture of the Seine département. [1]

Figure 2. “Schéma organique de Paris” (“Organic plan for Paris”), from the Lafay report, 1954

Plan taken from Bernard Lafay, Problèmes de Paris. Contribution aux travaux du conseil municipal : esquisse d’un plan directeur et d’un programme d’action, Paris City Council, December 11, 1954. See Jacques Lucan, “Généalogie du regard sur Paris”, Paris-Projet, nos. 32–33, 1998, p. 29.

In the period between the issue and approval of the PUD, two other studies confirmed and refined the project for peripheral heights. Commissioned by the CDU, Michel Holley’s 1960 study, L’Espace parisien, answers a fundamental question that echoes the 2003 debate: "Can Paris adapt to modern life without losing the finery accumulated throughout its prestigious history?" While preserving the crystallized Paris, Holley developed the idea of a very low land-use coefficient, comparable to New York City’s Plot Area Ratio, which served as the basis for the development of vertical zoning in a variety of insalubrious or formerly industrial sectors. The Parisian panorama serves as a compositional guide: the principles of visual breakaways and height ceilings are transferred to the new districts, where they impose the loose implementation of standardized high-rise architecture. Michel Holley’s plan is thus seen as an organic extension of Paris.

In 1964, the CDU published a height zoning plan, a synthesis of the reflections of a group of architects including Raymond Lopez, Henri Bernard and Jean Dubuisson. This Essai de mise en valeur de l’espace parisien poses a question that, once again, echoes the 2003 discussion: "Where can we build freely in Paris, without compromising the site and artistic heritage?". Paris’s topography, marked by peripheral relief, continues to justify the principle of towers encircling the heart of the city, like an inverted image of the American city. Based on primarily aesthetic concerns, extended to the scale of the Parisian landscape, the method seeks to avoid the pitfall of a purely programmatic approach.

A brief presentation of these plans reveals two essential points: the tower is conceived as a "bouquet" in the designated sectors; its firm planning ignores democratic consultation, running the risk of intensifying popular discontent.

Shifting debate in the long term

The most recent Parisian projects—built or proposed—seem to indicate the unofficial heritage of the CDU in the approach to high-rise buildings in Paris, and its hybridization with the acupuncture principle championed by Jean Nouvel in the early 2000s. The Triangle tower is part of this history of high-rise architecture, which the city’s peripheral location would seem to “de facto” legalize: harmless, it would also make it possible to sew intramural Paris with the neighboring communes. This vision of a two-headed capital (center-periphery) has many adherents in the city’s history, but also many critics, for whom towers are harmful in the absolute and Paris a definitively horizontal city.

If towers are to be thought of and presented as a logo-object shouting their power to the entire city, then any attempt at popular consultation is effectively futile. Widely discussed for years, urban marketing and starchitecture, as supporters of competition between metropolises and tools of communication, arouse suspicion of immorality (or amorality) and vanity, the opposite of the ideas of common good and being together in the world (Younès and Paquot 2000). But if the tower were something other than this simple "tool for symbolic recharging" (Chadoin 2014) and demonstrated its ability to contribute to the urban ecosystem—social, cultural, and economic—if it were contextual, "meaningful" from the point of view of use and appropriation, then its hypothesis could at least be debated. But little is said about the social relationships in and around the Triangle Tower, while its contribution to the creation of Greater Paris remains hazy. The enrichment of the initial program (day nursery, cultural center, health center) is more of a stopgap than a holistic reflection on the impact and multi-scalar functioning of the tower. However, some of the project’s architectural qualities are neglected by commentators, such as the reversibility of the floors, the reflection on the post-Covid tertiary space and the passive and renewable energy systems (certifications announced: BREEAM Excellent, HQE Exceptionnel, label Effinergie). Some might consider that the eco-responsible face of the Triangle Tower, detailed over the years, has been manufactured on the basis of public accusations; but the long timeframe of the high-rise project also obliges us to adjust the sliders of the architectural composition—and absorb innovations—at the risk of producing an outdated architecture. While the Triangle Tower’s long itinerary has enabled some welcome adaptations, in reality it is caught up in a conflict of paradigms, or rather, expresses the hierarchical reversal of these paradigms in the space of fifteen years: that of the economy—in crisis—in 2008, and that of ecology today.

In Paris, the introduction of the bioclimatic local planning scheme has put a stop to high-rise buildings, and it is regrettable that no in-depth, referenced, multidisciplinary debate has been held on the principle of combining different types of buildings, nor on the relationship between height, density, energy footprint and living comfort. The new local planning scheme seems to unilaterally declare the obsolescence of the Triangle Tower, which remains predominantly tertiary, rather than underlining the saving grace of its avant-gardism. This new planning scheme—a 1970s-style “Giscardian” moment in the history of towers in Paris—confirms the black-and-white approach to high-rise buildings in the development of the French capital, supported by a highly critical doxa. Without a doubt, towers in Paris are part of the res publica: they are everyone’s business, or almost.

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To cite this article:

Julie Gimbal & translated by Oliver Waine, “Paris and the Triangle Tower, or a Half-Century of High-Rise Debate”, Metropolitics, 21 June 2024. URL :

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Journal supported by the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales (Institute of Human and Social Sciences) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)