Thursday, 1 November 2012

The First Skyscraper in Paris

The subject of tall buildings in Paris is still a controversial one, but it is easy to overlook the fact that the first skyscraper was erected in the city over 50 years ago. This particular structure, variously known as the Tour Albert or Tour Croulebarbe, is even a protected historical monument today.

By international standards, the Tour Albert (for the sake of this article we'll use this name as it connects it to Edouard Albert - its principal architect - rather than the area in which it can be found), is a tiddler. At 67 metres and 23 floors it is not even a third of the height of the Tour Montparnasse, but in its time it was just as revolutionary.

Although its size, breaking age-old city regulations, was obviously controversial when it was completed in 1960, the revolution was mostly in the way the building was put together (by the engineer Jean-Louis Sarf). The tower is almost a completely pre-fabricated structure, using a system of concrete filled steel tubes interspersed with horizontal blocks of concrete. Having almost no internal supporting walls, the apartments can be freely reorganised according to the desires of their inhabitants.

This design, combined with its facade of glass and stainless steel panels and the fact that all windows can be opened outwards gives it an almost unique aspect. Perhaps most interesting of all though is the terrace that cuts through the building about one third of the way up.  

Seen from below, it is the cubist-styled decorations by artist Jacques Lagrange on the ceiling of the terrace that stand out. This space though is not just a simple design feature of the building, but was originally planned to be one of its key elements. To appreciate this, we need to see the building from the other side, on the Rue Abel-Hovelacque.

The view from this angle is obscured by a tall iron fence, but by standing on tip-toes and pointing the camera over the top, it is possible to see that the building sits above an RATP Metro depot. 

The original sketches by the team of architects (Édouard Albert, Robert Boileau and Jacques Henri-Labourdette) shows how they had imagined the construction. Despite being the first 'skyscraper' in the city, it is in fact an extremely discreet building and largely unnoticeable in the city landscape. This is because it is built into a slope, with the terrace marking the point where the land drops sharply downwards.

The architects had planned to cover over the Metro depot and create an esplanade in front of the building. The terrace would have been a viewing platform, open to the general public (indeed, visible in the sketches are the Eiffel tower and what looks like the dome of the Invalides building, although both are now obscured in my photo by other buildings).

An interesting article published in the Liberation newspaper in 1995, shortly after the building had been granted listed status, gives us an even greater insight into this atypical structure. 

The article describes promotional material for the new construction that appeared in the le Figaro newspaper on 23 January 1959. The slogan for prospective buyers was 'aimeriez-vous habiter au premier étage de la tour Eiffel?' (would you like to live on the first floor of the Eiffel tower), but the reference was not the one that the building's principal architect would have chosen. Edouard Albert was a fan of gothic architecture, and deliberately chose to model the height of his tower on those of Notre Dame (his tower measures 67 metres, against 69 metres for Notre Dame).

It seems that the building's modern design appealed to young professionals, including a large number of university professors, who were attracted to the building due to its proximity to their schools and comparatively cheap prices. Situated in what was historically a working class part of the city, it quickly became known as the 'Tour des Snobs'.

If the building was listed in the inventaire supplémentaire des monuments historiques in 1994 it was largely down to the campaigning of the architect's daughter, Anne Coutine, who has also lived in the building for a number of years. "My father would have hated the fact that his building had been listed" she explains,  "but I had to do it to stop it falling into ruin."

After being listed, it was renovated in 2005 by Gorka Piqueras, and now looks ready to stand for many more years to come.


Philippa said...

The listing of Modernist buildings is controversial -- thanks for this insight into the recent past.

What is the other, similar-looking building in the background of your photograph, which hides the view of Les Invalides? And what is the history of the weird name "Croulebarbe"? There must be a story there!

Adam said...

Philippa: As far as I can make out, that building must be this one. Unless I'm very much mistaken, that looks like an open-air swimming pool on the roof!

The Bièvre river used to run in front of where the tour Albert stands (and still does, but under the ground..), and Croulebarbe was apparently the name of a landowner here. The 'Croulebarbe' moulin was situated nearby, back when all this was fields!

Anonymous said...

While the concept of inhabitants modeling the apartments according to their needs is interesting (although it can be an unnecessary headache atop the effort of apartment hunting; most people prefer apartments ready to welcome their moving in. And I bet it was just an unintential byproduct of the "revolutionary" construction method), can you believe how depressingly ugly the building from the outside is?!

Adam said...

Ah, the eternal question of aesthetics. I agree that many of the places featured on this blog are not classically 'beautiful', but I think I've only used the word 'ugly' once.

Concerning this building, I think it fits its space intelligently (and this is a space - as you can see - occupied by industrial units and an RATP depot), and is one that has always been popular with its inhabitants. Is that not sufficient?

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