The socialist mayor of Paris, in cooperation with French architects, is about to do what both Hitler and Le Corbusier wanted to accomplish but couldn’t: destroy the city. With a population approximately the size of London’s, but only half the land area, Paris is both overcrowded and suffering from a housing shortage. The solution, according to the mayor, is to build large numbers of tower blocks, destroying once and for all the city’s famous skyline.
It isn’t difficult to detect the crude self-interest and thirst for cultural vandalism behind French architects’ salivation. “This is just the beginning,” said one of them, Michel Angevin. “Paris is going to change, and will look very different soon enough.” Never mind that people don’t want it; the architects know better what is good for them. With a lordly contempt for his fellow citizens—and ignoring the fact that Paris is still one of the richest and most productive cities in the world, its architectural conservatism notwithstanding—another architect, Jean Nouvel, urged the city council to go even further in its plan for aesthetic destruction. “We need to stop thinking of Paris as a museum city,” he said.
As it happens, Nouvel, who won the Pritzker Architecture Prize this year, is the architect who managed the supremely difficult feat of producing a museum even more hideous than the Centre Pompidou. Located near the Eiffel Tower, his Musée du quai Branly, which now houses the national collection of African and Oceanic art, is an eyesore so terrible that for a man of normal aesthetic sensitivity to look at it is sheer torture. It is the perfect example of the egotism of certain modern architects, who believe that the most important quality of a building is the stamp of the architect’s originality.
To travel around France, moreover, is to observe the collapse of the country’s architectural taste and talent. With very few exceptions, it is impossible to find anything built in the last 50 years that rises above banal—except for buildings that are eye-catchingly brutal and aesthetically destructive of everything for miles around.
Nouvel has said that architecture is “the petrification of a cultural moment.” If so, the moment is a long one, and it spans Europe. In the 1920s, Le Corbusier wanted to pull down Paris and build something like Novosibirsk; in the 1950s, the city council of Bath wanted to pull down the Georgian city and replace it with purely functional blocks of the kind that have destroyed other townscapes in Britain; in the same decade, Joop den Uyl, then an Amsterdam city councillor and eventually prime minister of the Netherlands, wanted to pull down seventeenth-century Amsterdam and replace it with housing projects that he considered more socially just and efficient.
The only explanation for such wishes is a ravening egotism. In order even to entertain an idea like den Uyl’s, one must believe both that what one inherits from the past is worth nothing, and that one is capable by one’s unaided, brilliant self of doing better. The result is the Musée du quai Branly. Look upon it and despair.