Newly Freed from Height Limits, Paris Skyline Ready to Rise

paris-champs-elysees photo

Photo: CFuga under a Creative Commons license.

One of the striking things about Paris is that, for a major city whose metropolitan area includes nearly 12 million people, there are very few buildings more than five or six stories tall. Since 1977, soon after the construction of the 689 foot tall Tour Montparnasse, a building that sticks out like a sore thumb and is widely disliked by Parisians, there has been a height limit of 121 feet on all new buildings. (The Eiffel Tower, at 1,063 feet, is by far the tallest structure in the city.) But on Tuesday, Le Monde reported, the Paris City Council voted to raise the height limit to a revolutionary 590 feet, meaning that in the next few years, the Paris skyline will have a growth spurt.

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Besides the Eiffel Tower, the Tour Montparnasse is the tallest building in Paris. Photo: Cha già José under a Creative Commons license.

That's not to say that private developers will now be allowed to run wild, or that Paris will become the new Dubai. The City Council's decision was aimed at the 13th arrondissement, in southeast Paris, where apartment buildings as tall as 150 feet and office buildings up to 590 feet will now be allowed. The new buildings will also play a role in the City Council's hotly contested program to build more subsidized housing.

The decision is in keeping with the new urban philosophy of "building Paris on Paris". Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Party deputy responsible for city planning, told Le Monde that the revised height limits reflect new thinking on the issue of a "dense, enduring city." But not everyone's on board- and some of the arguments against are environmental.

Yves Contassot, the French Green Party representative for the 13th arrondissement, voiced his party's dissent: "A tower is not eco, to build it requires an enormous amount of energy compared to a traditional building." He argued that the enormous amount of energy needed just to get people and water to the upper floors is five or six times more than that allotted by the "plan climat," the set of environmental protocols France adopted several years ago. Contassot added that the skyscraper as an architectural form is "passé."

But on the flip side of the coin is that taller buildings mean increased urban density, which means less suburban sprawl, certainly a good thing. Only 2 million of the Paris metro area's nearly 12 million residents live within the city's limits, undoubtedly because the previously strict height limits on buildings kept the number of city dwellers low as well. But is simply building (much) taller buildings the best answer to Paris' sprawl problem? Probably not- tackling the issue is more about careful and informed planning than building eco-tours. Ultimately, Lloyd reminds us, the greenest brick is the one that's already in the wall.

But whether or not towers of previously unseen heights are going to make Paris a greener place, they're coming. Two more also slated for construction outside the 13th arrondissement: the Triangle Tower (rendering below) in the 15th should open in 2015, and the 17th will soon welcome a 600 foot tall courthouse. Currently, skyscrapers are relegated to La Défense, the business district just to the west of the city that is home to 14 buildings taller than 490 feet.

But while the changed height limits will bring plenty of new buildings to Paris, don't expect to see the core of the city change in the next few years- all of the newly proposed towers are set to be built on the outskirts of the city. For now, the Champs-Elysées will maintain its historic look, the Tour Montparnasse will continue to stick out, and the Eiffel Tower's reign will go unchallenged.

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More on Paris architecture:
The Ultimate Green House: Lost In Paris House by R&Sie; Architects
Sheds Grow On Pompidou Centre in Paris
Paris Planning New Urban Airport Like New York and Toronto

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