The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, launched a city-sponsored design competition last year that invites teams of architects and developers to carry out “an urban experiment on an unparalleled scale,” with these words:

Paris has to reinvent itself. A city like Paris must be able to reinvent itself at every moment in order to meet the many challenges facing it. Particularly in terms of housing and everything relating to density, desegregation, energy, and resilience. It is important in today’s world to find new collective ways of working that will give shape to the future metropolis.

To lovers of Paris, this can only be dismaying. Reinvent Paris? The universally admired archetype of the traditional city? Given previous attempts at reinvention—think of the Centre Pompidou and the other “grands projets” of the Mitterand era—one thinks immediately of constructing barricades and waving red flags.

Of course, Paris, like many old cities, has been reinvented many times, from its days as a Roman town to the royal projects of Louis XIV and his successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The architects of Napoléon Bonaparte, Percier, and Fontaine, set the standard for the modern streetscape with their arcaded façade along the Rue de Rivoli, and the city was totally transformed in the nineteenth century by Napoléon III and his executive Baron Hausmann, becoming the exemplar of the modern city, to be imitated across the globe. But these makeovers were all intended to increase the orderliness and harmony of a city that had grown haphazardly; they were farsighted, based on a large-scale vision of the city as whole, and the new buildings complied with a wise architectural code and employed an architectural language that connected the present and the past, ultimately recalling the glory of that other great urban model, ancient Rome. The present attempts at reinvention, by contrast, are intentionally disruptive, placing their hopes in open-ended innovation and experimentation, an aesthetic crap-shoot inspired by developments far from Paris and rooted in an ideology and conception of the city that could not be more different from those that produced the city we value today.

The current drive to reinvent Paris, like those in the city’s past, is decidedly “top-down.” In 2008, the former Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and the city council removed the height limits that had been in effect since 1977 as a reaction against the hated fifty-nine-story Tour Montparnasse that looms over the southern half of the city. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, despite being from the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Socialist Delanoë, took initiatives at the national level in the same direction. The rationale given for high-rise construction in the center was familiar: to boost the city’s economic competitiveness, to alleviate a shortage of housing (especially in the “affordable” range), and to “set an important new benchmark of urban and building sustainability.” While these are worthy goals, the public was not convinced that new high-rise towers were the appropriate response, and surveys show that over 60 percent of Parisians oppose new skyscrapers in the center.

The current Mayor, also from the Socialist party, has championed approval of three new projects at three of the historic “gates” of the city along the Boulevard Périphérique, the freeway that encloses the historic center: the fifty-story Tour Triangle at the Porte de Versailles in the fifteenth arrondissement, largely dedicated to office space and designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron; a new forty-eight-story tower for the French national courts designed by Renzo Piano at Clichy-Batignoles in the seventeenth; and the Tour Duo, a pair of ungainly office towers of twenty-seven and thirty-nine stories designed by Jean Nouvel at Masséna-Bruneseau in the thirteenth. These projects, and others now under review, have received widespread support from the political authorities and the architectural profession, but continue to face strong public opposition.

In a typical illustration of the current divorce between the words architects use to describe their designs and the physical reality of the buildings that result, the authors of the Tour Triangle describe their tower as having “a dialogue with the city” and a surface whose “filigree, crystalline nature” will create an ethereal, almost transparent appearance as depicted in their renderings. They even claim the massive pyramidal tower will cast no shadows. But words and computer renderings neither change the physical properties of glass nor mitigate the bulk of a tower looming over a neighborhood of six-story buildings. Indeed, the three projects are curious responses to the city’s stated goals, since none includes any housing, and the courthouse, as a government building built with public funds, does not contribute to economic development. While the architects make the usual claims for their projects’ sustainability, all are sheathed in glass and rely on an urban development model that is automobile-dependent and destructive of the compact, pedestrian-oriented urbanism that makes Paris and other historic centers natural models of sustainable city-building. The height of the buildings, as a report by the Council for European Urbanism (CEU) points out, “seems to be an entirely symbolic gesture.” In summary, the claims of the politicians, developers, and architects for the necessity of these skyscrapers in Paris are groundless.

So what is driving this push for tall towers in a low-rise city that is universally admired as the outstanding model of what a city can be? Why this “explicit repudiation of previously successful typologies,” as the CEU report describes it? The answer lies in contemporary architectural philosophy and its demand that buildings and cities be “of their time”—that is, conform to the aesthetic fashions of the moment—whatever the consequences for the character of the place or the quality of life of the citizens. This claim presupposes that “our time” is determined by historical forces—the Zeitgeist—that cannot be denied or reversed except at the risk of being bypassed by “history.” It is assumed that the Zeitgeist requires each period to have a style of architecture that is the unique and inevitable expression of that time. The succession of styles is irreversible, and the style of our day must stand in clear contrast with all that has gone before. New buildings in historic centers must be “differentiated” from their older neighbors in order to avoid “false history.” This legibility of a building’s date of construction inevitably leads to visual dissonance, but any attempt to build new buildings in harmony with older neighbors is condemned as “pastiche” and “Disneyland.” The traditional city of a continuous fabric of human-scaled streets and squares lined with decorous and mutually deferential buildings is to be replaced by a collection of object-buildings, each a unique expression of its time. As we can see whenever such new buildings appear not singly in historic areas but gathered together in groups—as at La Défense and Paris Rive Gauche, the enclaves where modern towers were formerly confined by law—they are incapable of composing ensembles, constituting not a city but a kind of architectural zoo.

Piano’s vision of the future requires turning away from historical patterns and embracing innovation.

When asked what he would say to the opponents of his now-completed glass skyscraper in Turin, Renzo Piano responded, “I would say they are afraid of the future.” Apparently, “the future” and the designs of Piano are now the same thing—and can one imagine a better marketing pitch for an architect than that? But his vision of the future requires turning away from historical patterns and embracing innovation. Paris must be reinvented—its new development “a gigantic experiment on the city,” in the words of CEU—or it risks becoming a “museum city” like Venice, a kind of aesthetic graveyard visited only by tourists. (This is a laughable suggestion to anyone familiar with the vitality of the French capital.) To avoid this fate, the re-inventors promote a vision of “our time” owed to the French-Swiss modernist Le Corbusier and his followers in the 1920s, who rejected the traditional city in favor of isolated towers separated by parks and freeways. In his Voisin Plan of 1925, Le Corbusier proposed replacing most of the central zone on the Right Bank with a grid of high-rise towers in a pattern that New Yorkers will recognize from the post-war public housing projects the thankfully unbuilt Voisin plan inspired. (It is not coincidental, perhaps, that the Centre Pompidou hosted a major exhibition on Le Corbusier earlier this year.)

Attempts at realizing these ideas are visible all over the world, though most are now seen as colossal failures. The only thing that has changed in the versions proposed by the designers of the new Paris projects is the “filigree, crystalline” glass façades, which perhaps present a more alluring surface than the Brutalist concrete of Le Corbusier’s day. New building technologies have also given designers the capacity to make enormous buildings in bizarre shapes, twisting, contorting, leaning, and cantilevering in ways unimagined by the architects of most of the twentieth century. Many of these experimental designs can be found in the emerging cities of Asia and the Middle East, in Dubai, Shanghai, and Singapore, those frontier towns of the global marketplace where “the future” is being constructed. For Paris not to compete with these cities by imitating the materials and forms they are adopting (as ill-adapted as they are to their respective cultures and climates) would, it is thought, confine Paris to the cultural sidelines. But whereas Paris in former centuries led the world in architecture and urbanism, today it is being asked to follow the lead of cities with which it has nothing in common.

This aggressive aesthetic of “our time” is conspicuously at odds not only with our historic cities, but also with the real and pressing imperatives of our present conditions: climate change, urbanization, and the need for a sustainability that actually allows us to live together without foreclosing the quality of life for future generations. The building technology celebrated by modernist architecture—with its reliance on inherently unsustainable glass and metal exterior envelopes—and the urban development models of superblocks, isolated towers, and automobile dependence are principal contributors to our current energy crisis. Preposterously, the architects and their political supporters insist that we continue, even accelerate, the practices that produced the environmental crisis in the first place, while the obvious remedy lies all around them in the historic city. As the CEU report asks, “what if ‘the requirements of sustainable development’ include using what works; that is, what has already been sustained?” (emphasis added).

A more accurate picture of “our time,” would also have to include the rising tide of opposition to this hyper-modernist approach, not only in Paris but around the world. Popular protest, local and international, halted the construction of a 100-story tower in Saint Petersburg, Russia and a tower proposed by Pierre Cardin on the mainland opposite Venice, and successfully blocked the elimination of height limits in Washington, D.C. On the other side of the ledger, London has been transformed by a sudden forest of tall towers, the most notable so far being the “Shard,” another product of Renzo Piano’s vision of the future, with many more to come. Sadly, the French, usually sensitive to being compared to their rivals across the Channel, drew the wrong conclusion from London’s new look, electing to follow the English lead rather than defend their own distinctive and instinctive preservation of their city’s skyline.

The new skyscrapers of Paris also threaten the city’s status as a World Heritage Site. Francesco Bandarin, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, has stated that not only the banks of the Seine are at risk (the part of the city that qualified it for World Heritage designation), but also the city as a whole. Warnings that inappropriate development might jeopardize the city’s heritage status have not so far been persuasive, although France derives 84 billion Euros annually from tourism.

All of the above arguments have been made by opponents of the new towers, notably the New York attorney Mary Campbell Gallagher, who is the president and founder of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris and U.S. liaison for the main local opposition group, SOS Paris. In print, in public appearances, in an international petition drive, and in the courts, they devotedly defend the skyline and character of “the world’s most beloved and most-visited city” against would-be “innovators.” It is not an easy battle, as Gallagher notes: “Fragilely-funded Davids, we fight for urban traditions that reach through the long and tumultuous history of Paris, defending them against the Goliaths of deep-pocketed international corporations, star architects, and politicians at City Hall.” One hears echoes of “La Marseillaise” in those words!

While perhaps the most visible case, Paris is not alone. New York struggles with the same issues. While the debate in Paris has been largely focused on claims of sustainability and the cultural prestige of innovative new buildings, in New York, characteristically, the battle is framed as a stark choice between economic development and historic preservation. The latter is seen as an obstacle to growth and creating more affordable housing. The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser launches an assault against preservation regulation in his book The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Healthier, Greener, and Happier, arguing that limits on demolition and new construction within historic districts raise housing prices and shut out the middle class. Worse, they prevent the city from “adapting to an increasingly competitive global system of cities.” Similar criticisms were the basis of a report this year by the Real Estate Board of New York, which called for reductions in preservation regulations as a means of increasing affordable housing—something with which the Board has not historically been known to concern itself.

Developers want to build a new generation of super-tall, super-thin skyscrapers creating “hyper-density.”

The affordable housing argument is what the French would call a canard. Lynn Ellsworth of the preservation group The Tribeca Trust counters that “higher prices in historic districts reflect a huge untapped demand for more of what these districts offer, such as construction predictability, sunlight, architectural beauty, walkability, and livable density, the very things people want.” The shortage of affordable housing has many causes, principally the stark disparity in profit margins for developers in the luxury housing market in comparison to those building affordable units. She notes that the rising prices of properties in historic districts could be offset if developers built new neighborhoods with the same qualities found within the districts. Instead, what developers want to build in New York is a new generation of super-tall, super-thin skyscrapers creating “hyper-density” within and on top of the historic city, the enormous costs of such towers justified by the even more enormous prices the world’s wealthiest buyers are willing to pay for units on Central Park South and West 57th Street. These developments and the recent up-zonings of the Midtown East neighborhood presage a wave of new building that could dwarf New York’s already gargantuan scale.

In response to the pressures on historic districts and other valued neighborhoods, over sixty civic organizations from across the city have come together to form New Yorkers for a Human-Scale City, sponsoring public education, a petition drive, and legal action to block the progress of the hyper-density advocates. While the power of large real estate developers is enormous (and the political leadership largely in their thrall), one must never underestimate the efficacy of angry New Yorkers determined to wrest the future of their city away from unaccountable forces. The epic battles of Jane Jacobs and her allies in the 1950s and ’60s against the most powerful political force of the time, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, continue to inspire hope for the political process.

Stop reinventing and start improving.

Historic Paris and New York offer us the tools and models we need to build cities that are beautiful, sustainable, and just, but we cannot progress far in this direction if we remain obsessed with an architecture based on time instead of place, on expressing the presumed imperatives of the Zeitgeist instead of building engaging and inviting places. The creation, animation, and defense of distinctive places is an essential component of human well-being, and no amount of reinvention can substitute for its loss. While the “architecture of our time” has for nearly a century proved incapable of making cities and neighborhoods where people actually want to live, the architecture of our place galvanizes communities that create and care for their homes, streets, and civic spaces. A good place has character, something that cannot be created overnight but that is conferred over time, as it is on a person, through life experience. Only by building for longevity and durability can buildings develop character and last long enough to prove sustainable. Physical survival often depends on the “lovability” of places, notes Steven Mouzon in his book, The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability. The historic cities we love help us cultivate a cultural sustainability just as essential to our future as environmental stewardship, lowering energy consumption, and reducing our carbon footprints. Only buildings and neighborhoods that are both designed to last and capable of inspiring the love of their residents can hope to offer a return on the investment of embodied energy contained in them.

What we need is appropriate new development in historic settings. The appropriate is simply the fitting and the exemplary—having respect for what is already there and taking responsibility for what will follow. First, add only what fits in the place, not what does not belong there. This is not a difficult aesthetic judgment, but a simple recognition of what things belong together. Second, set a good example, by adding only what you want to see more of, knowing that any project thought to be successful will be imitated. We should only build what, if there were to be many more such buildings, would make a good city. In Paris, appropriate new development would require studying alternative low-rise strategies that can achieve the same economic goals, the same densities, and the same energy conservation that the current skyscraper projects propose, while applying the building types and urban patterns that made the Paris we love. In New York, it means setting reasonable limits on new development so that it does not overwhelm the existing urban scale, and encouraging the construction of new housing based on the models that most New Yorkers prefer.

Stop reinventing and start improving: that is how the cities we most admire were made in the first place, and that is how we can ensure their future. In the end, if we take care of place, time will take care of itself.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 4, on page 14
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