The Big, Bad, and Ugly of Modern Parisian Architecture

In Paris, Books-1, The Art of Travel Fall 2014 by Annie1 Comment

I picked up David Downie’s Paris, Paris thinking that it would be a collection of personal short stories about Paris, but much to my surprise, it turned to be a conglomerate of short histories of different aspects of Paris—everything from Coco Chanel’s reserved table at Angelina to the depths of the catacombs. What most stood out to me were his chapters on the shameful attempts at modern architecture in Paris while Mitterand was in office as president. When I think about Parisian architecture, I think about this:


Georges-Eugène Haussmann directed an almost complete renovation of the city from 1853-1870 and built the Paris that we see today. All of the grands boulevards, parks, fountains, and a large portion of the apartment buildings and general infrastructure came from this renovation.

Decades later, François Mittérand (1981-1995) littered the city with “modern” eyesores in an attempt to keep the city up to date. They’re big, bag, ugly, and you can’t miss them. But since they’re not really worth a proper visit, I decided to make them part of my running routine. So, a few times a week, I lace up my FlyKnits, pop in some Stromae, and take to the streets to see these monuments myself. First stop is the national library.


Along the banks of the Seine at Tolbiac lies the Bibliothèque François Mittérand (1998, Antoine Grumblach), a one-billion-dollar-plus division of the Bibliothèque de France, which is locally called the TGB (Très Grande Bibliothèque) and is a play-on-words of France’s famous high-speed rail system (TGV, Train à Grande Vitesse). Four glass L-shaped buildings that tower above a sad-looking square are meant to look like open books. Unfortunately, the architect didn’t think about the sun damage that the books would endure while being housed in giant glass towers, so consequently, most of the glass shell is covered in cardboard panels so as to shield the sensitive skin of the books from the demon sun. Among its other faults are pine trees in the courtyard that are girded to the ground by steel cables so that they won’t fly into the glass towers, and an unsurprisingly inefficient miniature train that retrieves books. When it was being built, workers held strikes against “inhumane working conditions” and a “fundamentally flawed computer system”. Today, it emits an awkward trying-too-hard-to-be-modern atmosphere that just doesn’t really flow well in this historical city.

Ministere-des-Finances-et-V3Next, I spring across the bridge at Bercy, which boasts a rather regal viaduct that the metro runs on top of and which leads me to the Ministry of Finance (1989, Paul Chemetov, Borja Huidobro). When it was built, it was the longest continuous building in Europe and is composed of 35 kilometers (23 miles) of hallways. Some call it the Bercy Fortress, alluding to its reputation as a dark department with obtuse civil servants.  It has been critiqued as “futuristic”, “Stalinesque”, and “nightmarish” and even its most seasoned workers get lost inside. One side of it juts out onto the edge of the Seine, which does nothing more but accentuate the beauty of the old buildings around it. Behind the fortress is a long park that is full of moats, sculptures, waterfalls, and a draw bridge.


Opéra_BastilleEventually I make way over to the Opéra de Bastille (1989). Downie says it “has aged the worst and despite constant upkeep looks, though barely into adulthood, like a shabby overweight old cocotte who something wears a hairnet”. Apparently its dark granite exterior is badly anchored onto the building and sometimes falls onto passersby. This opera was built in a hurry in time for a July 13th, 1989 bicentennial deadline and therefore the “blind competition” for the project’s architect was actually chosen by the president himself. The Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott admitted about his work in 1989 that: “People don’t like my opera house because they say it’s ugly, it’s fat, it doesn’t have any gold or red velvet inside, and it looks like a factory…and all of those things are compliments to me!”.


When comparing it to Paris’s famous opera house,The-Palais-Garnier-picture-10the Palais Garnier, the Opéra de Bastille is pretty…bad…




  1. Hi Annie,

    First of all, thanks for the very illuminating photos that make your post such a joy to follow. I certainly had only pictures like l’Arc de Triomphe or Le Sacré-Cœur catalogued in my brain’s vast collection of Parisian architecture from 7th-grade French class. It leaves me clueless thinking what on earth was going through Mittérand’s mind when trying to get the city all up-to-date and modern. Paris is such an architectural jewel because of its historical roots. If anything, an update to the city should have been as low-key as possible; instead, the picture of the library is incredibly telling of just how gawky and garish these structures manage to be. I hope, though, that these eyesores don’t take away too much from the beauty of your time in Paris, and that, as you mentioned with the Bercy Fortress, they simply “accentuate the beauty of the old buildings.”

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