Paris’ Love Affair with Glass
Ever since the glass palaces of the 19th-century expositions, Paris architects have been in love with glass.
Actually, Paris’ love affair with glass and light goes back much farther to the French Gothic, especially the Rayonnant style of 13th-century Ste Chapelle.
Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau buildings return to the love of light . . .
In the more recent past, Paris has found a plethora of ways to invite in as much light as possible, from the smaller-scale glass Pyramid in front of the Louvre, to the monumental glass Tour Triangle, a high-rise under construction.
Here they are, some Parisian glass palaces of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Front de Seine – Beaugrenelle (1970s)
The Front de Seine, a collection of commercial and residential high-rises in Grenelle, arose from an urban development project during the 1970s.
The buildings give the impression of both uniformity — most are about 30 storeys — and variety.
An aside: La Cheminée du Front-de-Seine
A slender white tower rises above the buildings of Front-de-Seine: La Cheminée du Front-de-Seine. It is indeed a chimney, releasing steam from a mall’s boiler room. Its resemblance to the neuralizer in Men in Black has been noted.
The top of the chimney has become home to a family of peregrine falcons. A webcam was installed to watch over the birds, and delighted Parisians witnessed the hatching of the chicks and the first flight of the fledgling predators.
Tour Montparnasse (1973)
During my 2019 stay in Paris, I lived in the shadow of Tour Montparnasse. Sometimes the tower photobombed my pictures. Standing anywhere on Rue de Rennes, it’s unavoidable. For all my proximity to the skyscraper, I only have one night shot of it.
The appearance of the 1973 black skyscraper of Montparnasse stirred widespread scorn by many Parisians, who promptly passed stringent ordinances limiting the height of buildings within the city. For a long time, this skyscraper was a one-off in Paris.
I’m indifferent about the tower . . . except when I’m enjoying the views from its panoramic observation terrace.
Les Échelles du Baroque (1985)
It’s no coincidence that the residential Échelles du Baroque (1985) is located near Tour Montparnasse. That skyscraper, completed in 1973, was intended to inaugurate a center of business on the Left Bank. And the Échelles du Baroque was an effort to expand housing for people working in the complex.
Bofill nods to classicism in the building’s glass columns with capitals (bow windows within the apartments):
Pyramide du Louvre (1989)
For all the controversy that I. M. Pei’s Pyramide du Louvre has stirred, it’s one of the most iconic structures in Paris. Its clean geometrical lines and glass-and-metal construction recall the Grand Palais.
And the shape of the Pyramide du Louvre distantly echoes that of the Eiffel Tower.
The Tour Triangle, under construction, will connect with its precedents of Grand Palais and Tour Eiffel. Below is an aerial view of the projected tower:
More about Tour Triangle below.
Gallery of Evolution in Jardin des Plantes (renovated 1991-1994)
Although the renovation of the Gallery of Evolution is modern (1990s), the 19th-century spirit of its cast iron and glass interior shines through. The Gallery’s huge atrium and luminous glass ceiling are akin to Belle Époque glass palaces.
Built in 1889, the structure was damaged during World War II and had to be closed in 1966 due to safety concerns. Almost thirty years later, the renovated temple to evolution once again opened its doors to the public and to swarms of schoolchildren.
113 Rue Nationale (1996)
The intriguing building below was built in 1996. One of its tenants is the Institut des Systèmes Complexes.
Bibliothèque François Mitterrand (1995)
The four colossal “open books” designed for the National Library of France is conceptually attractive.
Perrault’s “book pages” gaze inward, defining a vast rectangular space.
I visited the Bibliothèque Nationale on a Saturday and noticed several groups of teens rehearsing dance routines before the reflective glass of the buildings. The trio below was focused and creative.
Here’s a library serving its community.
Piscine Josephine Baker (2006)
Taking a dip in the Joséphine Baker Swimming Pool is the closest that most people will come to swimming in the Seine. The glass-and-steel public pool is effectively a boat — or rather a barge — moored to the shore at the foot of the Bibliothèque Nationale. In warmer weather, the glass enclosure comes off.
Siège de la Banque Postale (2006)
Below is the updated exterior of the main branch of the Paris post office, completed in 2006. I admire the light effect of the whitish glass. Maybe it would even improve the experience of waiting in line.
The City of Fashion and Design (2010)
La Cité de la Mode et du Design is one of the most radical architectural adventures in Paris. Streetside, the building’s famous “green serpent” appears as a two-dimensional wavy green ribbon.
An inspiring place to pop wheelies.
Viewed from the Seine at night, the Cité glows in 3-D, like a phosphorescent snake from a sci-fi manga comic book. It’s hard to take your eyes off it.
People seem to like the building . But seeing it for the first time, they can’t believe it’s in Paris — which has, however, come a long way since Haussmann.
Novancia Business School (2011)
The Novancia Business School with its bright red and yellow glass panels offers a contemporary style that wildly contrasts with the neighbourhood’s architecture yet also oddly resonates with it. The stylized mansard roof and dormer windows echo those of nearby Haussmannian buildings.
The eco-friendly shutters can be open or closed, to regulate the building’s light and temperature.
Les Halles (2016)
Paris’ ancient marketplace has undergone two major transformations since Victor Baltard created large iron and glass pavilions in 1863.
In 1971, Baltard’s personable food market was bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall. Parisians have forever after lamented the destruction of the pavilions, especially in light of the 1970s structures that replaced them. The new “Forum les Halles” has been described as “Paris’s biggest and least pleasant shopping mall.” Former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë called Les Halles “a soulless, architecturally bombastic concrete jungle.”
I visited this incarnation of the market with a friend during the mid-1990s, and I wasn’t impressed. She took me to a nearby flea market, where she combed through old postcards trying to find an image of Baltard’s beloved old pavilions. She wanted to show me Paris’ great loss.
Although the rather uninviting market of the 1970s has been replaced, I see echoes of it in adjacent buildings:
In 2016, the shopping mall, metro station complex, and surrounding gardens were completely redesigned.
The wavy gold canopy is memorable, though the interior made me feel a bit claustrophobic. Not my cup of espresso. I’d like Baltard’s pavilions back, please.
L’Institut de l’Audition (2019)
The new Hearing Institute, in which the Pasteur Institute is a central actor, recently moved into its architecturally innovative home. Its reflective honeycomb-shaped panels mirror the buildings across Rue de Charenton.
Headquarters of Le Monde (under construction 2019)
Below: the new headquarters of the French media group Le Monde, under construction in fall 2019. Designed by the Norwegian group Snøhetta.
La Tour Triangle (to be completed 2024)
La Tour Triangle is a spectacular high-rise to be built on the site of Paris Expo Porte de Versailles, just inside the city limits. The building will include a hotel, conference center, cultural space, and restaurant. The surrounding Expo complex, currently under renovation, will host part of the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Below is a projected aerial view of the completed complex of buildings associated with La Tour Triangle:
A protracted legal battle delayed construction of the tower. When I visited the Expo site in October 2019, construction on the Tour Triangle hadn’t yet begun.
When completed, it will be the tallest building to be erected within the city limits since Tour Montparnasse. No wonder there was such controversy. Parisians, averse to allowing tall buildings in their city after the insult of Tour Montparnasse, were divided on Tour Triangle.
The structure below is not the Tour Triangle, but instead an architectural canopy marking the entrance to one of the new pavilions of the complex. Appearing like a colossal wind chime, it echoes the shape and concept of the Tour Triangle.
Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something dystopian about the panopticon digital screen surrounding public benches within the complex:
Here’s a closer look. I like the sinuous shape of the seating. Not so sure about the inescapable LED images endlessly circulating. I imagine Coke ads. But the screen is probably intended for communicating events of the 2024 Summer Olympics, and maybe advertising a nice Chablis. I suppose that would be ok.
One of the older structures of this Paris Expo site is the Dôme de Paris (built in 1959), whose roof is composed of aluminum panels.
Chinese watercolour and little red trucks
This has to be one of the coolest buildings in Paris.
The split building
I just had to include this one. The 1985 apartment building below splits down the middle into symmetrical halves.
Peering into the inner courtyard . . .
A still closer view reveals a trompe l’oeil fresco, perhaps a painted image of a traveler soaking his feet in a real tub? There must be a story here. I can see it in the man’s eyes.