Chronicle of Paris

November 19, 2010

A Future of High-rises and aerial subways are the news of the day for Parisian.


Paris is one of the densest city in the world and is still basically largely free of high rises in its city boundaries. Most of the density is achieved by what North american could call “low rise” and “human scale” architecture.

Paris is a city which has introduced an urban code as soon as 1607, and put then a limit at 16m height on building facade in 1667. The height limit didn’t have varied that much since [2].

nevertheless, in the 60’s and early 70’s, among other unfortunate urban experiences, some high rises have been introduced with little success, In 1977, the Urban code will close this period by coming back on the traditional height definition.

Nowadays, as basically since 1783, the height limit of a building is mostly defined by the width of the street it relates to, typically a building facade can’t be higher than the width of the street + the equivalent of one or 2 storeys.

Over the year, some addition has been provided like the permitted building envelop, mostly defining the shape of the roof, overall building height limit per neighborhood, as well as, yes, some viewcones in order to protect major Parisian perspectives.

map of absolute height limit for building in Paris, on average 30m, building height must be below this limit and another one mostly function of the street width. As well some additional restriction apply in "view cone" zone, represented in dashed violet.

The roof line picture below illustrates eventually the result of the Parisian urban code and its evolution over the centuries.

A typical view of Paris skyline credit photo (1)

Under its current mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, Paris has been the city of numerous romantically “bucolic” initiative like the public bike sharing system, Velib, the reintroduction of the streecar, and the closing of an urban freeway on the Seine river bank during summer time, to transform it into a beach (Paris Plage).

…But Paris suffers of a chronicle disease: it is inexorably loosing population, and eventually its current building form, while achieving high density, does it also at the expense of, green space, privacy…all sort of think people tend to value more nowadays than before, and the question for the urbanist has been to address this apriori antagonist issues: how to provide an high density, but still high quality urban environment for Parisians?

When the Streetcar lead to the High rises…

In Paris, like in other place before, the solution is viewed to be lying by building higher to free more space.

In a Parisian historic decision, the city council has adopted on Thursday 17th, some amendments to his urban code, allowing building up to… 180m, and more generally 50m [4]. Albeit in some well specified areas like former industrial yard (typically area similar to the marine gateway one).

It is not without irony, that we can witness the Parisian streetcar leading to highrise neighborhood putting a dent in the widespread north american belief that there is a correlation between building form and transit form, namely streetcars as promoting low to mid rise development [7]

Vision for a new neighborhood for Paris, on a former industrial yard, irrigated by its streetcar

More interesting, from a Vancouver viewpoint, is to see the argument floated during the debate surrounding the “reintroduction” of high rises into Paris.

On the pro side [3]

  • Better answer to the housing and work office demand
  • Create a urban marker, ianswering to the challenge raised by the urban landscape
  • And on the cons side, apparently little talk about the social virtues of “human scale” building, but mostly some rational argument [4]:

  • High rise consume more power than low rise (due to elevator, water pressurization…), and mostly construction
  • and the High density…to the subway…

    Not only Paris is welcoming high-rises on its territory, but under the umbrella of the French government, the region is looking at a massive extension plan for its regional subway network, and teams of architects and urbanist have been tasked to provide a proposal. They could have crisscrossed the region with streetcar, but they have choose to extend the subway (mass transit) network.

    A rapid transit map, as drawn by a group of architect and urbanist carrying a reflexion on the future of Paris

    The Plan above is the fruit of a collaborative work between several architecture and urbanist cabinet.

    and when a journalist asks to the the involved architects, the key question [5]:

    • does the subways line should be underground or aerial?
    Aerial, aerial as much as possible!

    Aerial, the subway should be…because as express the arhitect Duthilleul, with Jean Nouvel team:

    “When the aerial subway cross the Seine river, we have a flash of emotion”

    …and this flash of Emotion is what they want to provide to the rider.

    In the assessment on the appropriate grade and form of transportation system, the culture couldn’t be so dramatically different of the one we can see in Vancouver [6].

    The Parisian architects take in consideration the transit rider experience… when the North american will see transit mostly by its exterior impact, and eventually under this view, a streetcar will eventually be the more appealing form of it.

    Why such a cultural difference?

    …because may be in Paris, the architects and urbanists use public transit.

    [1] Julia Bueno

    [2] Urban code of Paris (in french)

    [3] Paris : des immeubles de grande hauteur dans le 13e (french), Le Moniteur, November 17th, 2010

    [4] Feu vert à Paris pour des tours et des immeubles de grande hauteurAFP, November 17th, 2010

    [5] Le Grand Paris sauvé par les architectes? Sibylle Vincendon, Liberation, November 18th, 2010

    [6] Opinion mostly based on the reading of the Frances Bula blog

    [7] At least, it is the opinion of some individual and group in Vancouver, usually opposed to the rapid transit plan in the Vancouver area, like the BARSTA (Business and resident for sustainable transportation alternatives) as expressed in several correspondences sent to the Metro Vancouver mayors and councils

    [8] see building envelop diagram ( download the pdf of the figures) from the Paris Urban code to download as a pdf


    One Response to “Chronicle of Paris”

    1. […] conception by Paul Andreu) is one of the most recent addition to the Paris grid, in the new “rive gauche” district. You will notice, that proven urban concept has been applied, be in the building […]

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