Landmarks Parisians Love to Hate
Who could not love the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur – two of the monuments that epitomize Paris throughout the world? The Eiffel Tower is so loved that a number of cities have duplicated the Gustave Eiffel’s inverted bridge design – including such far-flung cities as Almaty, Kazhakstan, Luolang, China and the epicenter of glitz – Las Vegas.
So who dares to criticize these famed landmarks? Parisians, of course. Perhaps one of the great paradoxes of the City of Light (named so, not for its lighting system but for its luminary thinkers), is the fact that Paris city planners have come up with some of the boldest, daring designs only to be immediately mocked and ridiculed for their efforts – but rarely into oblivion.
Whereas the Centre Pompidou survived its critics, Napoleon I’s humongous elephant intended for the Place de la Bastille was one of the few landmarks that didn’t stick. (I’m hoping an elephant makes it into the future Les Halles canopy – because Les Halles needs all the good luck it can get).
So here are some of the top landmarks on Parisian’s Love to Hate List:
1. Tour Montparnasse – The Tour Montparnasse located in Paris’s 14th arrondissement has to take the cake for the eyesore that most Parisians agree is the ultimate assault on the Parisian landscape. Built in 1973 (back when skyscrapers represented soaring capitalism, soaring oil prices, and soaring inflation at its best), the Tour was France’s tallest skyscraper, tallest in Europe, and totally out of context with a neighborhood known for its painters, writers, down-and-out expats. The excuse for planting this phallic wonder was the demolition of the old Montparnasse train station. A huge concrete esplanade connects the new faux-dome gare to the black tower of business. The esplanade is a great wind conductor and the ideal place to catch a cold on a wet, rainy November day as you run to catch your train for the burbs. Most of the time, the bits of chipped concrete mar the otherwise monotonous gray concourse. The site seems perpetually under construction – although it was built much more recently than some of the surrounding buildings.
There’s one consolation regarding the Tour Montparnasse. You can take an elevator to the top floor for a great view of the Eiffel Tower. You can even enjoy overpriced cocktails here. (We did this once – and it was very pleasant). In order to enter the Tour Montparnasse, you’ll be required to go through a security check. The surrounding grounds and the lobby are regularly patrolled. Being the least-loved landmark in Paris has its downside. Over the years, there’s been talk of demolishing this monument that should have packed up and joined its skyscraper friends at La Defense. Parisgirl suggests moving the landmark, floor by floor, to a new local in an orderly fashion, thereby relieving the City of Paris of not only an eyesore, but a security headache for the neighborhood.
2.The Sacre Coeur
That familiar white dome that we’ve seen painted and repainted so many times is, for many of us visitors, the classic image of ‘romantic Paris’ Not so for Emile Zola’s character Guillaume Froment in the novel Paris:
“I know of no more idiotic nonsense, Paris crowned, dominated by this idolatrous temple, built to glorify the absurd.”
Hated by Republicans who saw the church as an encroachment on the powers of the state, and also by a branch of church conservatives, it was described by one conservative 19th-century contemporary, Leon Bloy, this way:
“It is the heart of Jesus turned into a boutique.” (Part of this accusation arose from the fact that Sacre Coeur was constructed thanks to the generous donations of those who believed in its symbolism of reconciliation and world peace). The donations made it impossible for the state to stop its construction!
Republican leader Gambetta stated: “It’s an incessant provocation to civil war.” It was on this hill that combattants for La Commune murdered one of the clergy members and also where Commune members perished. The fledgling French republic feared the meddling of the Vatican in French affairs, and remained sensitive to the separation of religion and state issues, so much so that the Sacre Coeur became a symbol of the Vatican – and ‘foreign’ influence on France. A very conservative newspaper La Lanterne portrayed the dome of the Sacre Coeur as an all-encompassing cape belonging to a less than benevolent-looking pope. Nowadays, such portrayals appear quite unbelieveable.
Today, critics might be more likely to compare the pristine white domes to a landmark more fitting for Eurodisney – when it comes architectural aesthetics. Still, the dome isn’t new to Paris. Some of Sacre Coeur’s predecessors include the Pantheon and Les Invalides.
Regardless of whatever past squabbles the Sacre Coeur’s construction may have stirred up – I’ll always love the view of this white stone edifice on a sunny afternoon (especially from the Musee d’Orsay cafe). Step out on the balcony on a sunny day and you’ll see the familiar white dome exuding peace and tranquility over the city landscape.
3. Centre Pompidou
“Follow the oil fumes,” said one Parisian when I asked if I was headed in the right direction for the Centre Pompidou. An oil refinery is the usual comparison for Renzo Piano, Richard and Sue Rogers’ color-coded, tubular encrusted cube. In 1977, this strange bird landed like an alien space craft – just a hop, skip and a jump from Notre Dame Cathedral (but fortunately separated from Notre Dame’s Ile de la Cite by the Seine River. Unlike its contemporary, the Tour Montparnasse, Pompidou has grown on Parisians. I think some of the reasons for Centre Pompidou’s success is the fact that Pompidou quickly became a place where students gathered. Many complained that its multi-lingual library wasn’t accessible, but I started using the library from its inception – and continue to use the library (which now has a door tucked round the corner from the main entrance). There’s also free Wi-fi access and free internet on library computers. But the major difference between the Tour Montparnasse and Pompidou is Pompidou’s sense of whimsy. Those that ridiculed the oil refinery couldn’t ignore the delight of their kids running around the Stravinsky fountain. And finally, isn’t it our kids that eventually lead us to appreciate great architecture?
4.Bastille Opera House
Part of former president Francois Mitterand’s ‘Great Projects’, the Bastille Opera House was constructed by Uruguayan-Canadian Carlos Ott. The structure may not have received the scathing comments reserved for the more outrageous – ‘in your face’ attitude of Centre Pompidou, but it has also not gained too many admirers for the same reason that Mitterand’s other ‘Great Project’ the Left Bank National Library leaves some of us feeling lukewarm.
Neither the the opera house nor the library really ‘worked’ when they were first built – so the ‘great projects’ have ended up being ‘great long-term projects’ (even Centre Pompidou had to go through major renovations just thirty odd years after its inception). (Brought to you by the same folks who introduced the 35 work week).
The fact is that the Bastille Opera House’s acoustics aren’t really exceptional by standards expected of a major European opera house. Secondly, although the opera provides ample seating, the majority of the opera house complex is devoted to opera production. Spectators are something of an afterthought. Structural problems occurred soon after the building was opened (1989) i.e. leaks, and pieces falling from the ceiling.
The facade presented to Place de la Bastille’s traffic circle is that of a large gray and tinted black glass semi-circle. The landmark blends well with the landscape of Parisians going to work – men and women in black. So, of course, the Bastille Opera House is probably here to stay. It fits. Nothing more, nothing less.
5.The I.M. Pei Pyramid
The idea of planting a glass pyramid smack in the center of the Louvre Museum‘s esplanade was not well received by all Parisians. Some felt the contrast between the museum’s baroque facade and the geometric glass construction was jarring – to say the least.
The defense that Napoleon had always wanted to include a pyramid in the Louvre design didn’t do much to assuage opinion, but, now almost twenty years since its installation, the pyramid entrance has more or less met with approval.
Whether you love or hate the pyramid, one cannot deny that it brilliantly serves its purpose of bringing museum-goers into the Louvre in a monumental procession. Flanked by angular fountains, the esplanade is clearly a pleasant place to wait. At night the I.M. Pei becomes one more brilliant beacon in the Parisian landscape. Napoleon may have lost Paris – but his spirit must wander happily between the pyramid at the Louvre and the obelisk at Place de la Concorde. Delusions of grandeur – or reality?
6. St. Sulpice
We know St. Sulpice church because of the Da Vinci code. But there are plenty of reasons to love St. Sulpice even without a good old-fashioned mystery story. Eugene Delacroix left behind the legacy of one of his last works just to the left of the main entrance: three mural paintings in the Chapel of the Two Angels. It’s 6,500 pipe organ designed by Chalgrin is considered to be the largest organ in Europe. (Free organ concerts every Sunday after the 10 am mass.)
But none of these attributes spared St. Sulpice from artist and writers’ barbs. It’s true that the 13th century church, renovated in the 17th century, doesn’t inspire praise. Its two lopsided towers (the northern tower is taller than Notre Dame de Paris and the southern tower isn’t quite finished) look somewhat like two matronly sisters sitting at a bus stop. The Visconti fountain in the church square with its frisky lions perks up an otherwise lumbering facade.
Other writers have been less kind including Parisians as well as ex-pats. Henry Miller described the towers as being ‘fat belfries’ and the poet Raoul Ponchon wrote: “I hate the towers of Saint Sulpice. Whenever I happen to come across them, I piss on them.”
(Parisgirl discourages you from doing this).
St. Sulpice deserves a second chance (in my opinion) and remember that sometimes lackluster facades have beauteous interiors. Don’t miss this church in spite of the naysayers.
7. Forum des Halles
What used to be Paris’s wholesale market since the middle ages was demolished as part of a huge urban renewal project back in the sixties and seventies. To replace the turn-of-the century market stalls, Parisians were treated to perhaps the greatest fiasco of the 20th century – the Forum des Halles. No one quite knew what to do with this no-man’s land housing an underground shopping mall – until Paris’s current mayor, Bertand Delanoe decided to open bidding for a new project.
The winner – an environmentally aware ‘Canopy design’ has yet to see the light of day. In the meantime, here’s plenty of new fodder for Parisians to chew. We can’t wait to see the outcome and hopefully – solution – to one of the major blights on the Parisian landscape.
8. The Eiffel Tower
Why would anyone hate the Eiffel Tower? That glittering beacon which reminds each of us visitors, “Yes, Dorothy, you’re in Paris, France!” Although, I haven’t heard any Parisians badmouth the Eiffel Tower in recent times, it was certainly not the case when Gustave Eiffel had the gall to build the largest structure in Europe (and the world) by using one of his bridge designs (inverted) as the basis for this unusual structure. Keeping in mind that the Eiffel Tower appeared on the Parisian horizon a mere 15 years after the ornate Garnier Opera House was built, you might better understand the horror of some of Paris’s most famous residents. Here’s what the likes of Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas, the younger, had to say about the Eiffel Tower:
Published in Le Temps “Protest against the tower of Monsieur Eiffel”: We come, we writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the -up to now- intact beauty of Paris, to protest with all our strength and all our indignation, in the name of the underestimated taste of the French, in the name of the threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which the malignancy of the public, often imprinted with a good sense and the spirit for justice, has already baptized with the name “Tower of Babel”. (Signed by Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Gounod, Charles Garnier (who constructed the 19th century Opera House) and many other ‘concerned’ Parisians.
Part of what makes Paris a vibrant and cosmopolitan city is the boldness of city planners to try out new ideas – even at the risk of ridicule and mockery.
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