Paris' wide boulevards and elegant buildings date from the 19th century. But now a ban on building height has been overturned, and the city is set to get 12 new skyscrapers. But will this threaten the city's identity?
A hundred and twenty years ago, English artist William Morris was asked why, in Paris, he spent so much time at the Eiffel Tower.
"It is," he explained, "the only place I can't see it from."
Today he'd choose The Tour Montparnasse, a building that rises like a 59-storey black gravestone where a neighborhood of political dreamers, artists and poets like Morris once stood. After this office block was constructed in 1973 the outcry was so loud, that construction of new buildings was restricted to seven stories high. But the mayor overturned that ban on locations outside the city center. The skyscraper builders are back in town.
"A city is something that constantly renews itself," said Jerome Coumet , the young mayor of one Paris district. "I'm convinced that just as people go to visit the new parts of London, people will come to see extraordinary new architecture in Paris."
Coumet said he's glad that some of the new skyscrapers – including one by French architecture star Jean Nouvel - will be going up in his part of town.
"Some detractors talk about Paris as a city-museum. Well Paris is a city-museum. It is the city that attracts the greatest number of visitors anywhere in the world. That is an important economic resource. But it's not the only one," Coumet said. "Paris is also competing hard with other cities like London as an international capital… economically and architecturally. French architects work all over the world. They should also be able to express themselves in Paris."
Renzo Piano worked on Western Europe's tallest skyscraper, The Shard. Will his design please Parisians?
Up in the north of Paris, a hydraulic breaker gets busy on a huge site of railway wasteland. Here it's Italian architect Renzo Piano who is about to express himself with a 160 meter-high tower of four steel and glass boxes. It will house law courts. The transparency is a metaphor, Piano says. He was one of the architects who designed the Pompidou art center… the one with the pipes on the outside. And the Shard, the building that now dwarfs London's Tower Bridge. Olivier de Monicault is president of the anti-skyscraper pressure group SOS Paris. He has a name for this sort of building: "rupture architecture." And he hates it.
"Now, when you have modern architecture, usually the architect makes a project, then he tries to sell it to any place in the world," said de Monicault. "He doesn't make his project especially for a place. He wants to become famous with his building, and so he thinks he makes something very strange, very different from the place where he's building it."
Office buildings: a thing of the past?
Paris City Hall stresses that the city on the Seine is not about to become Dubai. The new height limit of 180 metres (590 feet) is still a good deal lower than the Eiffel Tower, which tops out at 324 meters (1,063 feet). Officials say they just want to provide office space for the internet age. But, ask their opponents, what will be the demand for office blocks ten years from now? Philosopher Thierry Paquot recently published a book called "Height Madness."
"Office work is destined to disappear," said Thierry Paquot. "We're already contracting out a lot of paperwork - accounting for example - to workers in countries like India and Morocco and every manager has his smartphone and does his own correspondence so the world of work is undergoing a huge transformation. I think we're moving towards a world where people will work at home or in cafes and, when necessary, they have to meet they'll do so not in a skyscraper but somewhere really nice."
A few meters away from the site of the new Renzo Piano tower, men play boules on the edge of a little, 19th Century public garden. What do people here think of what they're about to build next door?
Locals have differing opinions. Some applaud the effort, as it will foster more jobs. Others lament the loss of a modest skyline.
"I don't know if it will fit well in the decor basically," said one woman in the park. "Adding an extra building… a very high building will just make things less pretty."
The debate's set to get heated during City Council elections next year. The main right-wing challenger for the mayor's job has just said she is against the building of new skyscrapers in the city, but for now, the buildings will continue.