La Défense

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Map of la Défense

The Dalle corridor at la Défense, Paris

Construction behind the Arche at la Défense

Carrousel and geometry at la Défense

Office blocks at la Défense

Geometry at la Défense

It could be a paradigm for a virtual mall. Most Parisians exclaim how terrible la Défense is in comparison to the historical texture of central Paris, but I did not find it so bad. My diary entry begins "shapes!" Parisian street buildings do not have shapes; they have facades. Only the freestanding monuments such as Notre Dame and the Opéra have shapes. You come to La Défense and find yourself in a corridor of space where huge free-standing shapes and colors border a linear space that feels very different from the uniformly walled Parisian streets.

At la Défense the individual buildings stand out within the discipline of the immense corridor. To the west side of the Grande Arche, the corridor gives way and the buildings just lie randomly about. Toward the east, though, the corridor is open down the Champs Elys es toward the horizon, yet focussed on the far distant arches at L'Étoile and the Tuilleries, so it is both the same and different from Paris streets with focal monuments, such as the avenue from the Opéra to the Place Vendome.

What is most un-Parisian at la Défense is the way the buildings compete rather than cooperate; my guide book says that their odder shapes resulted from workers' demands to have windows near their work desks. It is strange to think of these vertical buildings reaching for the sun horizontally. The naked geometry of the buildings lacks detail and human scale, but on the flat plane (la Dalle) there stand some curves at about human scale, overlooked by the big geometries. Some of these curves -- on the carrousel, on the sculpture -- have the appearance of having been dropped onto the geometrical plane without quite touching it. There were no birds on the plaza.

The great corridor means that the large mall buildings themselves become secondary spaces. There is energy and an expanse in which to exercise it; people walked about with a freedom very different from their canalized motions on the rue de Rivoli. There is less weight of history here. There is more distance from the money-grabbers and the attractions, but there is also less density of encounter; la Défense is a lonely place even when crowded, and it is crushing when deserted.

The whole ensemble has a non-Corbusian late-modernist quality; there is no postmodernist historicism or deconstructive transgression. None of the buildings are particularly light-hearted; they take themselves quite seriously -- some are downright sinister -- yet the overall effect is playful, because the uniformity of color on each building gives the impression that you are standing amid a set of gigantic curiously shaped toy blocks.