diamond geezer

 Tuesday, April 26, 2005

April in Paris: La Grande Arche de la Défense
In my continuing search for a Parisian building with a decent view and no queue I headed off to the new business district of La Défense. It's a bit like London's Docklands - a hotchpotch of late 20th century skyscrapers safely tucked away on the edge of town out of sight of the urbane city dwellers. La Défense boasts broad public precincts littered with modern sculpture, a huge shopping centre and, most famously, La Grande Arche. Paris is a planned city and one of its strongest architectural features is l'Axe historique, a perfect straight line of monuments and avenues stretching from the Louvre through the Place de la Concorde along the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Along the same axis (2km to the west) has been built this monumental modern arch, a hollowed-out marble cube which doubles as office accommodation for 2000 civil servants. It's 110m high, it looks like a giant white picnic table and, best of all, when I arrived on Saturday afternoon there was no queue at the ticket office.

The lifts to the top of La Grande Arche ascend straight through the gaping void at the heart of the building (see photo). Each narrow lift shaft is attached to the inside wall of the arch only by thin metal struts and each glass-sided cylindrical elevator holds no more than about ten passengers. I'm normally pretty good with heights but I found the whole uplifting experience unexpectedly disconcerting. At the summit, in the roof section, I was disappointed by a series of concrete rooms and galleries somewhat reminiscent of poor secondary school architecture. Even the art display looked like it had been put together by a couple of sixth formers on their afternoon off. More impressive was the sun-drenched view from the observation terrace. The full length of the Axe historique stretched out to the east, though the most famous monuments appeared a very long way away. The Tour Eiffel was also clearly visible beyond the Bois de Boulogne, its silhouette rather too perfectly aligned in front of the distant (and ugly) Tour Montparnasse. Much of the rest of the view might also have been excellent had there not been a ring of tall skyscrapers all around the arch. Sacre Coeur, for example, appeared only as a small white pimple erupting from the roof of a nearby office block. After a few long minutes I headed back to the lifts to return to ground level, and my rapid descent passed with barely a flutter.

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