When it comes to architecture, Paris has not been very daring in recent years. The city has not changed much since Napoléon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Hausmann to cut broad boulevards through Paris, transforming the medieval warren of alleyways into the orderly Second Empire city we know today. The stasis has not reached Italian proportions, but a Shard- and Gherkin-studded modern masterpiece, Paris is not – yet.
Last week, Paris officials granted planning permission to one of a quartet of glassy tower projects planned for La Défense, the city's postwar suburban business district. Asbestos removal in the existing buildings in preparation for demolition began this week, and in five years, Hermitage Plaza's twin towers will overtake London's not-yet-completed Shard as the tallest skyscraper in Europe. At 320 meters each, they'll fall just five meters short of the Eiffel Tower.
Rising prices in the face of strict controls on redevelopment in the core pushed planners during France's go-go three-decade postwar boom to open up La Défense to modern skyscrapers, but fast forward half a century, and the corporate ghetto aesthetic is in desperate need of an makeover. The bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 saw the completion of the district's monumental core, the Grande Arche, marking what was perhaps the nadir of La Défense's architecture. Erected as a modern, peaceful counterpart to Paris's better known Arc de Triomphe, the Grande Arche almost makes you nostalgic for the bloody Franco-Prussian battles that it stands against.
Postwar high-rises in Paris's 13th arrondissement, around Avenue and Place d'Italie, courtesy of Wikipedia.
There were other experiments with towers, but they mostly came to an end in the mid-1970s. The Italie 13 project sprinkled concrete high-rises, mainly residential, along Avenue d'Italie throughout the 13th arrondissement, but Valéry Giscard d'Estaing ended the program in 1974. The Tour Montparnasse, another relic from the tail end of France's three-decade period of postwar growth (the Trente Glorieuses, or thirty glorious years), is perhaps the most hated building in the city. It's often said that it's the best view in the city, because it's the only place in Paris where you can't see the tower. (The quip originated with Guy de Maupassant, who is said to have eaten lunch every day in the Eiffel Tower's restaurant because it was the only place in the city from which he couldn't see the Eiffel Tower.)
The '90s and 2000s saw a few new towers in La Défense, including Cristian Pompartzac's Tour Granite, but Hermitage Plaza may be the first new skyscraper project in La Défense's 2015 renewal plan to arrive on the market. The plan was initiated in 2006 by Nicholas Sarkozy, now president of France, back when he was general council president of Hauts-de-Seine, which contains La Défense and Paris's wealthiest suburbs.
The latest modernization push saw the 1974 Tour AXA become the Tour First after it got a gut renovation, exterior recladding, and over 200 feet of added height, making it the tallest skyscraper in France. Jean Nouvel's Tour Signal, one of the original four tower projects in the 2006-2015 plan, was scrapped in 2009 as a result of the worldwide financial crisis, but Paris may have dodged a bullet. The tower had enormous, off-center video screens, the top of which was originally supposed to rotate. The signal of renewal in La Défense was translated by Jean Nouvel into a castle keep, said Joëlle Ceccaldi-Raynaud, mayor of Puteaux, in a press release. A return to the middle ages.
The Hermitage Plaza towers, on the other hand, seem to have more aesthetic and financial appeal. The Hermitage Group, made up of Russian investors (no relation to Hermitage Capital Management), is leading the project with a €300 million equity investment, along with €700 million from other European investors. With another €1 billion coming from apartment and office condo sales, the total cost will be around €2 billion. Asking rents for apartments closer to the urban core can reach €15,000 per square meter, but restrictions on development mean that Heritage Plaza's developers are happy asking €12,000 a square meter for residential space in La Défense.
Beyond delivering modernized and expanded office and residential space space, the intensification plan has an environmental focus. Architects like France's Roland Castro, whose firm was involved in Sarkozy's Grand Paris transportation and development plan, have championed urban density as a way to economize on land and energy. We must build the city up instead of out, Castro write for his Living in the Sky conference. The ten Grand Paris architect teams have all said the same thing: let's put a stop to the extensive city and instead start encouraging the intensive city!
The project includes a pedestrian promenade leading to the waterfront, built over a highway. Image courtesy of Foster + Partners.
The project also marks a new direction for La Défense in the realm of urbanism. Conceived in the decades after the end of the Second World War, the suburban business district is ringed by highways. Hermitage Plaza will reconnect a small, but important, part of the waterfront with the neighborhood by decking over the RD7 highway with a pedestrian plaza just north of the Pont de Neuilly and historical axis leading to the center of Paris. The city's postwar high-rise projects included a lot of desolate open space, but the new public space at the foot of the Hermitage towers seems to work better, giving pedestrians in La Défense easy access to Neuilly-sur-Seine and onward to Paris proper for the first time since the district was established after World War II.
The towers will be unique to Paris in their mix of uses, as La Défense planners try to liven up the 9-to-5 financial district with apartments, a hotel, and cultural amenities, including an art gallery and a seawater therapy pool with panoramic views of the city, according to Hermitage Group CEO Emin Iskenderov. Gaining permission for this project has been very, very complex, he said at MIPIM in Cannes last week, since it is really the first of this kind of mixed use tower project ever in Paris.
Mass transit in La Défense is also set to get a huge boost from Nicholas Sarkozy's Grand Paris plan. Almost a hundred miles of new rail will be laid around Paris, offering the city's other suburbs better access to La Défense, which is currently difficult to access with the region's dense but centrally-focused transit network. La Défense's position on the edge of the city means that it will never be as accessible as the core, something which London realized as it allowed new towers in the sacred Square Mile. But the planned new RER and tram lines, designed to be driverless like the Métro's Line 14 line for lower operating costs, will go a long way to minimizing commutes for La Défense workers who aren't rich enough to live downtown or in the affluent West Paris neighborhoods bordering on the financial district.
Not everyone is on board with La Défense's twenty-first century renewal, though. The plan envisions new towers sprouting to the west in Nanterre, which already has its share of postwar modernist towers, but the commune has yet to accept any new ones. Patrick Jarry, with the French Communist Party, has a history of clashing with Sarkozy over his ambitions for La Défense, and in particular EPAD and Epadesa, the public bodies in charge of managing development in the business district. In 2011 Jarry criticized the fifteen towers planned by Epadesa, saying that the agency is looking for money that neither the French government nor local governments have to spend.
Rendering of La Défense after the erection of Plaza Hermitage and Tour Phare, in the background to the left of the twin towers, courtesy of Hauts-de-Seine département.
And then there's the matter of money. Hermitage Plaza's promoters have yet to announce the names of the other European equity investors, and according to AFP, many at MIPIM privately expressed skepticism about Hermitage Group's ability to finish the project in the current European economic climate. Unibail-Rodamco, Europe's largest property firm, has stumbled with its Tour Phare, another one of the four new La Défense tower projects, which had its delivery pushed from 2016 to the first quarter of 2017.
But even if the project has to wait out the European financial crisis, Paris's strict limits on growth in the historic core all but guarantee a future for tall towers on the periphery. And after a few decades of reconsideration, it looks like Paris is ready to get back into the race for the sky.