A tower without a soul
The Montparnasse Tower is an incongruity in the landscape of Paris. What on earth were the elected representatives thinking when they approved such a project in the early 1970s? What fashion of the day carried them away with this construction project, completely at odds with the standards of Haussmann’s sensible urban planning?
This brown monolith, unloved since its construction, has many flaws. Compared to the neighbouring buildings, it is so high that local residents say that when they are at ground level they don’t even notice it is there, except when they find themselves in its long shadow! The same feeling of dispossession persists in the building’s interior: you’re in the middle of Paris but you can only see one side of it, and at such a high altitude you no longer feel you are in the city at all!
Despite the respect I haver for its designers and architects at the AOM firm (Agence pour l’Opération Maine-Montparnasse), among whom Eugène Baudouin and Jean Saubot, I have always thought it was a rather pale remake of the “Pirellone”, the Pirelli Tower in Milan, designed by Gio Ponti and my guru, Pier Luigi Nervi. Less elegantly slender, less innovative with its central concrete core, this tower has sometimes been qualified as an urban catastrophe! The most negative aspect of this second tallest building in Paris: its colour! A matter of taste, no doubt, but it has to be said that it does lack grace and character. And its anodized brown curtain walls are now very old-fashioned.
Rebirth instead of demolition
A sort of opaque counterpoint to the Eiffel Tower, which it is far from matching in terms of height (209 metres versus 313 metres for the Eiffel Tower), the Montparnasse Tower will not be demolished.
The competition for its renovation, launched at the beginning of 2016, comprised several objectives: bring it up to date, make it integrate and blend better with the surrounding neighbourhood, which it has come to symbolise. Asbestos, single glazing, a tiny entrance hall and floors with obsolete layouts: the challenges to be met are abundant.
Seven hundred French and international teams expressed their interest in this highly publicized, emblematic building. Seven teams were called to compete (*) (i.e. just 1% of applicants, so the other 99 % were not remunerated for the competition, I will speak about this in a future Post). And finally, two finalists vied for victory.
The new AOM: the winning team in their offices on the 44th floor, made up of Mathurin Hardel, Franklin Azzi, Frédéric Chartier, Pascale Dalix and Cyrille Le Bihan
A design made in France
In the end, the rather sensible French project submitted by the self-proclaimed “Nouvelle AOM » won the competition, just ahead of the Studio Gang American team, whose destructured 100% glass facades I liked, although perhaps there was a little too much glass… This finalist project was described by Jean-Louis Missika, Deputy Mayor in charge of urban planning and architecture with the municipality of Paris, as the project that was “most respectful of the existing urban heritage and the most ambitious”.
Mathurin Hardel, architect with the firm set up especially for the occasion, summarised the ambitions of the winning project: “currently opaque, a high energy consumer, asbestos-ridden and mono-functional, the Tower will become bright, low carbon, cost-efficient and capable of catering for new uses, particularly in the lower section, with shops, crèches and exhibition spaces. The upper section will house a four-storey hotel.
Large-scale “green” revamping
This metamorphosis will give pride of place to greenery and sustainable building approaches, now a common denominator in many Parisian architectural projects (including projects for the well-known “reinventing Paris” and “reinventing the Greater Paris area” schemes).
So, the thirteen first floors will be extended to include balconies and winter gardens. A spectacular hanging garden will be installed on the 14th floor, which will be hollowed out entirely. And, last but not least, an agricultural greenhouse will crown the building. 850 square metres of photovoltaic panels will provide half of the tower’s artificial lighting requirements. Natural ventilation (two thirds) combined with re-use of materials on-site in particular, should contribute to the building’s exemplarity in terms of environmental respect, positive energy and low carbon. The tower’s current level of energy consumption will be divided by ten!
Despite the addition of a double glass skin, the highly recognisable general silhouette will be deliberately retained, with its two immense lines and its recessed hipped gables. Equipped with a new 18-metre roof extension, the tower will be visually lighter, thanks to the transparency of its new envelope.
We know them well!
I am all the more delighted at “Nouvelle AOM”’s victory, because these architects frequently use VMZINC. Frédéric Chartier and Pascale Dalix won the 2016 Archizinc Trophy for the Moulins junior high school in Lille. And this will not be Cyrille Le Bihan and Mathurin Hardel’s first roof extension. They cleverly used VMZINC cladding on the roofs and facades of a roof extension on a small housing building in the rue Delbet, in the 14th district of Paris.
Watch this space in 2024 for completion of this project, after two years in an empty ghost tower! The neighbourhood will have to be patient, but it will be much improved with new uses, higher attractiveness and greater pride!