Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Grand designs for Paris a la Mitterrand

French leaders have always tried to build their way into the history books. Louis XIV constructed his magnificent Versailles chateau, Napoleon I designed his grand Arc de Triomphe, and his grandson, Napoleon III, tore up the center of the crowded city to build his spacious boulevards.

Socialist President Francois Mitterrand is no different. He plans to put his own expensive, super-modern mark on Paris - despite budgetary austerity and groans of protest from horrified traditionalists.

About these ads

Mr. Mitterrand's plans are as ambitious as those of his predecessors. Seven major projects are under way. By the end of the decade, Paris will have acquired a new opera house, two big music halls, two new museums, and a communications center.

Even the venerable Louvre is being redone. The Finance Ministry, which occupies the left wing of the former palace, is moving out to open up 72,000 square yards of space. US architect I. M. Pei has designed a new entrance to the palace's central courtyard - framing it by nothing less than a 66-foot sleek glass pyramid.

Some of the projects will not alter the city's existing skyscraperless, predominantly 19th-century skyline. The Orsay museum, for example, along the left bank of the Seine, is being built within the rococo walls of the old Orsay train station. Scheduled to open in 1986, it will house the state's entire collection of 19th-century art, from Eugene Delacroix to Henri Matisse, featuring all the Impressionists now displayed in the Jeu de Paume.

But other projects are gleaming steel structures that critics say will destroy the city's architectural harmony. The Arab World Institute on the Quai St. Bernard will confront parts of the Latin Quarter. The communications center is designed as a massive futuristic arch to finish (critics say block off) the eastern end of the Champs Elysees.

Criticism of the Louvre project has been even fiercer. No one denies that the Louvre needs more space or that something has to top the new courtyard entrance. But traditionalists say a pyramid will obstruct the spectacular view that runs through the Tuileries gardens to the Place de la Concorde and spoil the panoramic view of the elegant building.

''A monster,'' Le Figaro bellowed. The stately Le Monde intoned that Mr. Pei was treating the Louvre like Disneyland. Both newspapers were flooded with letters of support. A former culture minister criticized the design and the Louvre director resigned, largely in protest.

No matter. Mitterrand personally reviewed the proposal and gave the go-ahead. He is convinced the projects are essential to mark France's unique mix of style and technological prowess.

About these ads

''We must prove that France is a modern country, a country of the future,'' a close adviser to the President explained. ''Former President Giscard d'Estaing didn't build much. He told us that we were a small country with average capabilities. These projects will illustrate France's proper role, its greatness.''

De Gaulle would have been proud of his Socialist successor's emphasis on prestige. But the Gaullist mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, says that in a time of recession and budgetary austerity France cannot afford this prestige.

The government admits the projects will be expensive. While it hopes they will spur urban renewal in the affected areas, it admits they are disruptive. The new opera house, for example, is to have two auditoriums, a costume museum, a movie theater, and lecture rooms - and cost some $250 million. It will displace as many as 350 residents and 50 small businesses.

Minimal estimates for all seven projects total nearly $2 billion. But officials concede final expenditures could be nearly $4 billion.

''Money spent on these prestige projects could be put to better use,'' charges Jean-Baptiste Vaquin, chief urban consultant for Mayor Chirac. ''The city is concerned with other priorities such as urban housing and subsidies to business and industry.''

The political debate continues. Major construction investments must be approved in 1985 and 1986, coinciding with parliamentary elections. A right-wing majority led by Chirac might then reject the projects.

But the government believes it can advance work enough before the elections so as to make that impossible. Soon 10,000 jobs will depend on the work, and Elysee officials suggest that no politician would dare put them out of work.

In the end, the debate over the aesthetics of the projects will probably fade away. Parisian architecture has a history rich in controversy. Some of the most beloved monuments and museums were condemned at birth.

When the Eiffel Tower was built, Parisian artists denounced it as a ''disgraceful column of bolts.'' And when the Georges Pompidou Center opened seven years ago, critics compared its oil-refinery-like architecture to a mushroom.

Both the Eiffel Tower and the Pompidou Center survived, however. The tower became a symbol of Parisian elegance, and for years it was the French capital's most-visited tourist site. It lost that honor only a few years ago - to the Pompidou Center.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.