Our Man in Paris |

The French Don’t Believe in Towers

Why pig-breeding is outlawed in Paris, who was its first secular thinker, and what both have to do with the two ugliest buildings in the city | Column

Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon
FILE PHOTO - The logo of the Paris candidacy for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games is seen July 11, 2017 on the Montparnasse tower behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Picture taken July 11, 2017.  REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo
FILE PHOTO - The logo of the Paris candidacy for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games is seen July 11, 2017 on the Montparnasse tower behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Picture taken July 11, Credit: Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS
Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon

1.

On October 13, 1131, the crown prince, Philip, eldest son of France’s King Louis VI, set out to ride his horse through the alleyways of the Marais district of Paris. When a little piggy scurried out from one of the courtyards and got tangled in his horse’s legs, the horse bucked and threw its royal rider. The 15-year-old prince died of his injuries the next day, his brother went on to become Louis VII and pig-breeding has been outlawed in Paris ever since.

Nearly every municipal regulation in Paris has some colorful historical background and is recorded in such fervent language that modern city council members have trouble amending or annulling city bylaws. They feel the weight of history bearing down on every decision to add a traffic sign or raise a sidewalk. Paris has no “Stop” signs; it has grapevines that cannot be picked, and when soldiers pass by these vines, they must hoist their weapons in honor. And there are thousands more such regulations.

2.

One of the city’s best-known bylaws is the ban on high-rise towers. This is a relatively new regulation, dating from 1974; it was put on the books as soon as the biggest obstacle to its passing was removed – when President Georges Pompidou so graciously died that April.

George Pompidou wanted to build the largest tower in EuropeCredit: Egon Steiner / German Federal Ar

Pompidou believed in skyscrapers. Essentially, he believed in “modernizing” the city, as the term was understood in the 1970s. He commissioned numerous public sculptures from Yaacov Agam; authorized the use of pesticides sprayed from the air; was onboard one of the first Concorde flights; disbanded the police’s vice squad; abolished movie and theater censorship; cut the ribbon on the country’s first shopping malls; lowered the purchase tax on cars and doubled it on bicycles. Above all, though, Pompidou did his utmost to get skyscrapers built in the heart of Paris.

3.

Pompidou was the only president of the Fifth Republic to die in office. A lot of people feel that his death saved the city. He was behind the Front de Seine real estate project – a row of tall buildings along the river front in the 15th arrondissement. For that one, they would have forgiven him. But he also wanted to build the tallest structure in Europe, and thus the Montparnasse Tower – a 210-meter-high (690 foot) office building – arose on the city skyline. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to call it “ugly.” It goes beyond that mere adjective to embody an ideal of ugliness.

Year after year it tops architects’ polls and public surveys for the title of “Most Hated Monument” by a huge margin over the next in the rankings (to be discussed below). The French aren’t the only ones who hate it. In online polls, the Montparnasse Tower frequently appears among the top three candidates for the title of “World’s Ugliest Building,” neck and neck with Boston City Hall. Every mayor elected since the tower’s completion in 1973 has tried to have it torn down. But hard as it is to build a building in Paris, it’s 10 times harder to tear it down.

The Montparnasse Tower was never the tallest building in Europe, and for five years now it hasn’t even been the tallest office building in France. But it still exists, complete with an observatory for tourists and a panoramic restaurant. If it were demolished, hundreds of business owners, investors and office landlords could sue the city for compensation, and the bill could easily top 1 billion euros (about $1.2 billion). So last month, a more modest undertaking was begun: a competition (backed by a 300-million-euro budget) for architects to come up with a design that would camouflage the tower within the Paris skyline. If you can’t blast it to bits, at least try to make it disappear.

FILE PHOTO - Montparnasse tower looms over ParisCredit: Steven Strehl

4.

Last month, the city council reluctantly discussed the second-most-hated building in Paris: the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. The Catholic church that stands atop Montmartre hill is the last remaining building from the time of the “moral order” of the late 19th century. It was erected in a bid to rebuff the growing tide of secularism in French society, with a monument higher than that adversary’s most prominent symbol, the Eiffel Tower. A proposal to tear down the basilica was submitted by mile Zola before it was even built, and many more voices joined the call when the building was dedicated in 1919.

For decades to come, the Communist Party, and leftist movements generally, included a plank in their platform calling for the building’s demolition. It certainly didn’t help that it was built in a style described by the nine architects involved as “Romano-Byzantine.” The fervor only abated when François Mitterrand came to power, and the left seemed to forgive and forget the whole Sacré-Coeur thing.

5.

Paris will host the 2024 Olympics. This year’s referendum on the communal budget (a small portion of the municipal budget that is dedicated to causes voted upon by the residents) focused mainly on the upcoming Games. But one proposal that citizens could vote for resurrected the anti-Sacré-Coeur sentiment. It stated: “I am a resident of Montmartre and my proposal is to raze the Sacré-Coeur Basilica to its foundations in a mass celebratory public event that will last all night. This cathedral is an insult to the memory of Parisians who fought for the separation of church and state, and regardless is an ugly blemish on the city’s beautiful face. No precise economic estimate has been calculated for the proposal, but the cost would be negligible compared to the benefit.”

Out of the 2,446 proposals that were submitted to the city’s website, this one garnered the most support. The municipality then had to convene and formally reject the request – for procedural reasons: The basilica belongs to the Vatican and is funded by it, hence city hall does not have the authority to tear it down.

Naturally, the story doesn’t end there. In 1907, when the democratic council realized it could not prevent the basilica’s construction, it decided to change the name of the street in Montmartre where the church is located to Rue de Chevalier de la Barre. The knight François-Jean de la Barre was executed in 1766 for the offense of failing to doff his hat when he passed by a religious procession next to Notre Dame, and is considered the first secular thinker. And the city council wasn’t done yet – it had a giant statue of de la Barre erected opposite the church doors (though in a goodwill gesture 20 years later, the statue was moved to an adjacent square).

6.

Following the death of the crown prince, his feeble-minded brother, Louis, later ascended to the throne as King Louis VII. As king, he launched the Second Crusade to Jerusalem, which depleted the kingdom’s coffers and greatly weakened it, and he also fell out with his wife, the Duchess of Aquitaine, who subsequently married British King Henry II. France lost the province of Aquitaine to England, sparking the beginning of the Hundred Years War. In Paris, city bylaws are nothing to scoff at.

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