William JR Curtis sees Herzog & de Meuron’s ‘Triangle Tower’ as leading to the destruction of collective memory and urbanity
Architecture today risks degenerating into a game of formalist tricks and virtual images played out on the computer screen. Everything is done to seduce politicians and investors with flashy marketing proposals which promote global investment, the privatisation of urban space and the ‘society of spectacle’. Where towers are concerned there is a weird atmosphere of contest (the Bilbao effect mixed up with the Dubai phenomenon) which requires that buildings compete noisily with each other and with their urban context, a visual manifestation of laissez-faire marketing economics which I have elsewhere called ‘Viagra urbanism’ (see AR June 2012). The flickering image on the web takes on a reality of its own and is sometimes sufficient to attract investment without a real building being built. Designers and their clients explore individualist forms in virtual space yet claim that they are creating ‘iconic’ buildings enhancing the skyline of the city. In reality, these operations are not in the public interest at all for they embody the transient investment portfolios of a rampant plutocracy without any sense of local loyalty. As usual, ‘architecture’ and its promotional mechanisms are used to camouflage the manoeuvres of political and financial power.
In the past few years the ‘star system’ has entered an unholy marriage with the forces of international capital. The witch doctors of land speculation and their lackeys the international star architects (several of them happy to vaunt their ‘Pritzker Prize’ brand), suggest that their ‘iconic’ towers somehow add to the identity of the city. This is a specious argument, above all for cities like London and Paris which are centuries old and which are already amply enriched by monuments in the public sphere. Major metropolitan centres are being turned into vertical banks of financial property speculation remote from the real needs of citizens in place. Everything is up for grabs and the public realm is gradually whittled away. In the globalised city, local identity is killed off in protected consumerist and tax havens for the nomadic super rich. World cities turn into caricatures of themselves as marketable brands. The skyline is transformed into a babble of techno kitsch gadgets lacking in urbanity: walkie talkies, gherkins, shards, even triangular glass towers.
The ‘Tour Triangle’ (‘Triangle Tower’) proposed by Herzog and de Meuron for a site at the Porte de Versailles on the south-west edge of Paris was conceived in 2008 shortly before the financial crisis. It fits into this general pattern of declamatory form with little meaning behind it. The client was the Unibail-Rodamco real estate and commercial property group who had already put their weight behind two gestural projects for La Défense, the Tour Phare (literally the ‘Light House Tower’) and the Tour Signale. A promotional video of Herzog and de Meuron’s colossal triangular intervention attempted to legitimise it by ‘flashing’ on well-known Parisian monuments such as Pei’s glass pyramid of the Louvre. The difference in size and function was conveniently overlooked: the project for the Tour Triangle is 180 metres high and very nearly as long at the base. The presentation and marketing images tried to minimise the volume and its visual impact by resorting to computer tricks. These made the slab seem more transparent than it really is, minimised the loss of light by cast shadows, and glamorised the tower with flattering and fictitious views. Curiously this dubious real estate operation had the full support of the so-called ‘Left Wing’ mayor of Paris, Bernard Delanoë. You recall that another ‘Left Wing’ mayor, Ken Livingstone, wanted to make London imitate Shanghai or Dubai.
With the financial crisis it seemed that the Tour Triangle had died a natural death in the ruthless world of Darwinian economic selection. But no, in 2011 the project came up again for reconsideration. In November 2014 it was submitted for building permission to the Conseil de Paris and turned down − interestingly by the political Right. The new Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, claimed that there was an irregularity in the voting, and a posse of French stars from the fashion-industrial-complex (including Nouvel and de Portzamparc) got together a petition in December to sustain this ‘great project’ and to condemn the reduction of central Paris to a ‘ville musée’. Far from being ‘great’, the Tour Triangle is an object of astonishing banality which recalls the sort of vulgar seaside hotels built at La Grande Motte on the Mediterranean coastline in the 1970s. Clumsy in its overall form, lacking in human scale, it makes a strident intervention on the Parisian skyline and is without civic manners. The Tour Triangle is anti-urban in the extreme: a giant blade which cuts the site in two and looms like an extra-terrestrial apparition over its immediate surroundings. The architects and developers persist in showing tricked-out computer images of the building lit up inside at dusk. A mountain of fake diamonds in virtual space can turn into a pillar of salt when built.
Then there was the preposterous suggestion that this wasteful monster was somehow ‘sustainable’ (a magic word supposed to halt all argument). The real aim was − and is − to break the zoning laws which restrict heights in central Paris so as to allow a free-for-all of towers for greedy developers and architects. The French ‘political class’ needs to be reminded that the word ‘république’ comes from the Latin ‘res publica’, literally the ‘public thing’ − the property of citizens. The Tour Triangle asserts the power of private money but gives little in the way of scaled public space back to the city. There are several ways of organising the transition in size from a tower to the surroundings, but this project asserts the independence of the free-standing object and is pointlessly tall. By what right does this building containing banal offices, congress halls and a luxury hotel, compete with the public symbols in the Paris skyline which represent the history of the nation: the domes of the Invalides, the Panthéon and the Sacré Coeur, the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower? There seems to be a confusion of genres: an inflation of commerce on the one hand, a devaluation of civic monumentality on the other. Far from enhancing the city, privatisation may actually destroy collective memory and meaning.
As for Herzog and de Meuron, there was a time when you could count upon them to formulate subtle architectural responses to questions of place, time and society. But in the past 15 years they have become more and more involved with sensationalist images as ideological advertising for their clients, such as the Chinese Government (the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing), the Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Roche (a phallic tower 160 metres high challenging Basel cathedral, thankfully cancelled), the project for an over-scaled hotel in Helsinki (known locally as the ‘ice cube’), then of course the Tour Triangle. Unibail-Rodamco, Herzog and de Meuron, Madame Hidalgo and her posse of Parisian architectural hucksters are still hoping to force through this dreadful work which would pollute the skyline of Paris with its vulgarity.Meanwhile elsewhere in the city, other luxury office buildings remain unoccupied, so where is the need for this one? Perhaps the Mairie de Paris should reclaim its Socialist credentials and concentrate on solving real social problems by supplying desperately needed low-cost housing for students or by developing schemes for the Grand Paris beyond the periphery? The Tour Triangle is a bauble of the ‘gauche caviar’, in reality a mechanism of privatised land speculation which will push up property values and rents in the neighbouring area. In an era of social crisis and encroaching poverty it is an irrelevant and costly extravaganza which would devalue one of the world’s great cities if built. This time it should be stopped once and for all.