Wednesday, July 4, 2007

La Grande Arche - Paris, France

La Grande Arche is the paramount landmark, the crowning monument of Paris’s Place de la Défense. It is the eastern terminus of the monumental Voie Triomphale (Triumphal Way), extending from the Cour Carrée of the Louvre through the Tuileries Gardens and down the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe; the axis then continues for almost 4 miles (6 kilometers) along the Avenue de la Grande Armée and through La place de la Concorde to cross the Pont de Neuilly and enter La Défense.

La Défense is dominated by ultramodern geometric office or apartment towers, 30 stories high and more, apparently randomly arranged over a large, paved plane. It also boasts conference centers, an exhibition hall, gardens, and a massive public pedestrian open space, beneath which is Paris’s largest shopping complex, restaurants, and a cinema. It was conceived in 1931, when a competition was held to extend the Louvre–Champs Elysées axis. None of the thirty-five classical revival or modernist entries from French architects was realized. The aim had been to continue the French tradition of innovative architecture but for various reasons, no doubt including the 1930s Depression and World War II, little of the kind was built. In 1951, La Défense was zoned for commercial use, and seven years later a specifically appointed agency produced a thirty-year master plan;

revised in 1964, it provided for twenty towers, each of twenty-five stories. Developers and the public disagreed over taller buildings, but the mediocre development—someone has described them as “all of the postmodernist ‘could-be-anywhere’ style”—emerged as “a forest of towers” of various heights. Finally, a new monument was built at La Défense “as a counterweight for the Arc de Triomphe”: La Grande Arche—innovative architecture par excellence and a daring technical achievement.

The construction of La Grande Arche was among the more controversial and certainly the grandest of President François Mitterrand’s so-called Grands Projets; initiated at a cost of Fr 15 billion (about U.S.$2.2 billion), the program was intended to build a series of monuments that symbolized France’s central place in the world at the end of the twentieth century. A design competition was held in July 1982, and the 424 entries were reduced to a short list of four for a second stage in April 1983. That was won by the Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen (1929–1987), in collaboration with the civil engineer Erik Reitzel; their scheme was chosen by an international panel of judges for its “purity and strength.” Work began in 1985 in the hope that the building would be completed in 1989 to coincide with the celebration of the bicentenary of the French Revolution. The budget for the project was Fr 2.9 billion (U.S.$420 million). Von Spreckelsen, frustrated by French bureaucracy and dissatisfied with his own design, later withdrew from the project. He died before the building was finished.

La Grande Arche, dedicated to the French concept of Fraternité, is in fact a square arch, a 330,000-ton (300,000-tonne), 352-foot (110-meter), hollowed-out, chamfered cube that houses in its massive legs thirty-five stories of offices, reached by elevators in freestanding transparent shafts. Most offices are occupied by French government ministries, as well as the Fondation des Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights Commission), the World Road Association, and some large private companies. There are also showrooms, a large exhibition hall, and a conference center. The narrower surfaces of the pre-stressed concrete frame building are faced with Italian Carrara marble and gray granite; glass walls facing into the hollow provide daylight to the offices. The imposing structure is rotated very slightly off perpendicular to the grand axis, in order to accommodate the placement of foundation piles. Around its base and under a suspended fabric canopy known as “the Cloud” are fountains and sculptures by famous artists, including Joan Miró.

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