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The Old Guard and The New Decency

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The Elizabethan structure that was to become Highclere Castle was given a Georgian makeover in the early 19th century and then, over 1838–1878, another one to become what we know it as today. The point of both exercises was to update the building to bring it into line with contemporary notions of functionality and beauty. Everyone seems to approve of its current incarnation that, for most people, is how it has always been.

The makeover forced upon Edward Durrell Stone’s Columbus Circle hasn’t been received so kindly. It’s difficult to pin down the problem it set out to solve. It must have been an excess of character and integrity because that’s something that can’t be said about what replaced it.

A similar question can be asked with respect to the proposed makeover for Paris’ 1973 La Tour Montparnasse. It’s always been big and despised for being big and also for being brown though some say black.

It disrupts Paris’ historic skyline they say, and indeed it does. It’s the only building that challenges The Eiffel Tower’s assumed right to dominate Paris forever. With the benefit of hindsight, we might have thought better of Montparnasse Tower now if it had had clear mirror glass in a tracery of bronze mullions. Oh well.

Various views of the tower are to be had in and around Montparnasse.

At this point, we might spare a thought for the people and city of Prague and their (and our!) relationship of denial with Žižkov Tower. Cameras always seem to point some other direction. 


What people don’t seem to like is the idea of a building standing up to The Eiffel Tower in any way and this is one of the reasons the building owners Ensemble Immobilier Tour Maine-Montparnasse (EITMM) decided [after 44 years!?] to invite proposals to give the tower a “powerful, dynamic and bold new identity” – a bit like a witness protection scheme but hiding in plain sight.

Yet it’s strange to have a competition to remedy everything but a building’s size which is the one physical attribute that can’t be changed by a makeover and which, it must be remembered, is what most people haven’t liked about this building for most of the past half century. If a problem still remains afterwards, then what was done was not a solution or, if it was, then it was a solution to a different problem. As with Columbus Circle, the problem of La Tour Montparnasse may well be an unapologetic surfeit of character and, if this is the case, then we can expect the proposals to create an anodyne building.  

If the size of the building is what people object to and if that can’t be changed then perhaps it can at least be disguised by using colourless or mirror glazing. This will have the effect of dematerializing the building during certain lighting conditions and may make people momentarily forget that what they are looking at is a building and not some discontinuum in the fabric of space and time. Seven of the eight shortlisted entries opted for this approach and used colourless or mirror glazing to reflect and/or “reflect” the colour of the sky.

MAD:The shortlisted design transforms the huge black monolithic building — positioned in the city center — into an artistic lighting installation that presents an upside down reflection of the city.*they say, updating the misguided overconfidence of architects in 1958 with the misguided overconfidence of architects in 2016.

Studio Gang: Their approach involved rounding off the tower’s “empty” ends to create more floor area and solving the seemingly vexing problem of insufficently laminar airflow at ground level. The visual effect is to make a tall slender brown building into a shimmering stubby one. Many of the proposals include some kind of incentive to fund the makeover but Studio Gang’s considerable addition to the floor area represents stealth development gain that contradicts the stated reason for the competition. Some 700 proposals were received, seven were shortlisted and the final choice came down to the Studio Gang proposal and the proposal that eventually won.

To its owners, there are two very attractive things about La Tour Montparnasse – It’s there and it’s theirs. It’s unlikely anything like it will be built any time in the near future. 

With that insight, the competition brief can now be restated as how to beef up development gain while at the same time renovating and updating the building to meet new requirements for accessibility, comfort, convenience and energy efficiency (and so justify higher rents), and also purporting to do what is best for the city. It’s an interesting problem.

Dominique Perrault Architecture: This proposal solves the problem of a large building by attaching an even larger one to one end and making us forget what the original problem ever was. Clever. All press releases make a point of mentioning that the owners are putting up the €300 mil. for this renovation so this proposal addresses the “unspoken” problem of clawback. The next two images show how it also solves the problem of Paris not having enough buildings glowing warm orange in the early evening.

Architecture Studio: This one is perplexing. The ends of the tower are squared-off with additional office space but the end closer to the Eiffel Tower is a combination of additional office space and gardens basketweaving in varying degrees across the facades, presumably to represent “dematerialization”. In the same way as the Perrault proposal stressed a link with other buildings that have lights on in the early evening, this proposal attempts to forge a link between plants on the ground and plants in the “Nouvelle Ciel”. This oddness on so many levels makes me wonder about the 700 or so projects that weren’t shortlisted.

PLP Architects: What is it with plants? Like Architecture Studio above, PLP have also noticed La Tour Montparnasse doesn’t look sufficiently like the sky or the ground. The gardening is again confined to where it adds questionable value to office space on the Eiffel Tower end. The facade isn’t horrible but the faux randomness trope is again used to represent dematerialization.

The problem of how to make the facade of a tall building appear both of the earth and of the sky was solved in Paris in 1977 by Émile Aillaud and with much more panache.   

OMA: Shunning the shimmering, mirroring and transparency afforted by clear glass as insufficiently recherché, chronic mavericks and serial innovators OMA keep it big and brown and introduce the same old new dimensions of ugliness visual and intellectual.

The design and accompanying text are but equivalent parts of their corporate branding strategy. We not only get a history lesson but contentious statements presented as fact. The next text is from World Architecture.

Embracing more contemporary working conditions, facilities and spaces to extend the offer of its public attractions, OMA’s TM2 appears within the city context as a “Janus-faced icon” overlooking the historic Eiffel Tower – is intentionally set as a golden concrete dilemma, while injecting the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning.

“Skyscrapers are a special case in the history of architectural longevity, and in the history of preservation. It is not because they are so hard to construct that many of them are still alive but because they are so hard to take down. They are around not because they deserve eternal life, but because they refuse to die,” said OMA. [… umm, The Pyramids?]

“That makes the renovation of Paris’ Tour Montparnasse so deeply interesting. The first – as far as we know – renovation of a tower that goes further than mere refenestration [:o<], offering not only a chance to reinvent this particular tower but to think of an entirely new model to face a common but perplexing issue: the redundancy of towers,” added the studio. 

With all due respect to whoever wrote this sophisticated doublespeak, a few points.

  1. The author. The author is not credited. The text reads and sounds Koolhaasian with its contrivedly contrarian thought processes but “said OMA” and “added the studio” deny this. So who is writing Koolhaasian thoughts in a Koolhaasian manner? Is this the new future of architectural language?
  2. The language. I’d like to know more about “the current technological and esthetic repertoire for the creation of architectural meaning”. Is it? Does it? How does it? And (crucially) what is it? The Eiffel Tower is undeniably historic so why mention so? Even if someone knows the “current” – a limited-life concept in itself – “repertoire [ugh!] for the creation of architectural meaning”, why assume the creation of architectural meaning is the be-all and end-all, what is “architectural meaning” anyway, and why should we assume it’s good, just because it exists or is said to (by some unnamed author)?
  3. The branding. The problem posed by this competition is “deeply interesting”, not superficially interesting or (merely) interesting as you or I might find it. The author wants to tell us they see and think on a different, deeper level to other humans and that their concerns and preoccupations continue to be of interest to us all. This is a false assumption.
  4. The formulation of the problem: Instead of demolishing them, I don’t see what’s wrong with fifty-year old buildings being refurbished to extend their lifespan and extract maximum utility. Re-use makes perfect sense even if not adaptive – it was one of the competition’s stated and reasonable goals. It is unclear what’s so deeply interesting about this artificial problem of the redundancy of towers. It’s a common fault of poets (e.g. Philip Larkin) and singer-songwriters to conflate personal peeves with some universal condition. Architectural churn for the sake of it is the scurge of our times. Let’s try to keep buildings away from it. Another thing. A dilemma is an internal contradiction suffered by a single party. It’s not a dilemma if all Paris continues to agree that La Tour Montparnasse is redundant to Paris’ skyline requirements yet its owners continue to see it as a moneymaking machine. The owners however, do have the dilemma of how an ageing and little loved building is going to continue to make them money. It’s finding that magic balance between development gain and perception management that’s the problem – hence the competition.

The OMA proposal offers us an architectural branding spectacle with a veneer of depth and intellectualism summed up by the term “deeply interesting”. But is this proposal deeply useful, deeply relevant or even deeply possible for €300mil? The competition judges didn’t think so. [The proposal and its look owe more than a bit to Mies btw.]

All floor plates are extended 30% on the side facing the Eiffel Tower. Wavy edges increase view “frontage” without increasing maximum window distance all that much. I’m surprised this made the shortlist. I imagine both entrant and organizers alike used this entry for their respective marketing purposes. If Paris never warmed to La Tour Montparnasse, it was unlikely to warm to a 50-storey billboard for OMA.

It might be time to start thinking what Post-Koolhaasian architectural media subversions might be – or, more to the point, what architecture was like before Koolhaas just in case we ever care enough to want to roll the clock back and start again.

Anyway, the shortlist of seven was narrowed down to two and deciding between them took another three months. Press releases and reporting make us imagine a table of judges pondering aesthetic imponderables but I suspect those three months involved independent quantity surveyors putting together detailed cost-benefit comparisons to balance the prospect of increased rental revenue (with its cost and time negatives) against the more modest yet immediate rental uplift from solving the development gain vs. perception management problem in the simplest way possible. The old guard erred on the side of the development-gain-as-spectacle that made them famous. The three months it took to arrive at the final winner must have proven AOM’s approach correct, no doubt because €300 mil. doesn’t go very far these days.

Nouvelle AOM Wins Competition to Redesign Paris’ Tour Montparnasse*

If The OMA proposal is heavyhanded in appearance, theory or what counts as it, and that corporate posturing we now call branding. Nouvelle AOM has a light touch on all three counts.

Their proposal increses the height of the building by 17m so it can have a penthouse hothouse to grow produce that will be eaten in the restaurant. There can’t be much call to reduce the freight miles of a few tomatoes so there’s obviously something else happening on a different level – in fact on the first fourteen where plants on extended lower floors create a green base on a green pedestal to complement the new green capital.

How a tower meets the sky is important but how a tower touches the ground is important too. Shifting the focus significantly alters the perception of the building at close range and on the ground where it’s supposed to count. Even without the growies, the pedestal and base are an inexpensive and effective formal move no other shortlister thought of. I’m curious to know how the new proportions were determined but I like the way we haven’t been told. It’s not important anyway. A public view from a 14th [or 13th, or 15th] floor garden just might appeal to Parisians more than some tourist trap view from the top.

Shaftwise, there’s not much happening apart from some glazing in checkered relief that is probably just difference for the sake of difference. The protruding side panels are gone because the re-entrant corners have been filled in and the upper slabs extended to gain a small amount of extra area and update the shape of the building – a neat and easy win.

All the other shortlisters did the same thing, with the exception of OMA whose obsession with their own perception management and articulating non-existent dilemmas and deep contradictions prevented them from seeing and doing the obvious. Sans its side panels though, La Tour Montparnasse is barely recognizable and the client requirement for a new identity is satisfied. I’m a bit sad to see those panels go because we might better appreciate the makeover if we could remember just a little bit more how it was before.

Branding: Nouvelle AOM moved their “research office” into the 44th floor of La Tour Montparnasse for a year. There was no need to do this in order to find out the elevators, windows and A/C needed replacing but it does show an appreciation of the building’s historic USP.

There are simply no other places and will for the foreseeable future be no other places from which one can have a comparable view over Paris from one’s office. So what if everybody hates looking up at you? You can look down on them. It’s that old question – is it better to live in the most beautiful house in the street or opposite it? It’s the same for tourists. From the observation deck of La Tour Montparnasse tourists are in the unique position of being able to view Paris without La Tour Montparnasse in the frame. They can see Paris as Paris was and this is something no makeover can or will change. 

This photograph says Nouvelle AOM are committed and perceptive, but without saying it. The “AOM” is an acronym of the names of three practices newly combined. They could easily have called themselves Nouvelle OMA but didn’t. AMO and MAO weren’t options and MOA and OAM don’t roll of the tongue. This leaves only the resonant AOM.

Theory: I’m sure all shortlisted proposals did all the right things energy-wise etc. but no shortlister claimed their project to be inexpensive or good value for money. This was no doubt critical in selecting the winner it does not count as theory. Nouvelle AOM’s proposal comes with no theory whatsoever and this is refreshing. It is as if they have designed this building to satisfy the competition requirements and for the benefit of the people who own the building, those who use the building, those that might want to use the building and those that might have to look at it, and that’s how they expect it to be judged. And they’re right – because it will.

Just as with the seemingly innocent photograph, there’s more going on that what we’re told and I like it like that because Nouvelle AOM are designing this building for people who aren’t exposed to architectural media, its heroes, and its preoccupations. The green pedestal, base and capital are no accident. They’re the application of skill and intelligence and if I’ve never read anything about them resembling a column then it’s probably because Nouvelle AOM didn’t think it necessary to say so. It’s more important that the device solves one or more problems, and it does.

I like to think this proposal and the way it has been proposed to people and not architects is a harbinger of a new lightness in architecture, theory and branding. Old deep vs. the new shallow has already played itself out with BIG. Nouvelle AOM appear to value real competence over apparent depth, and to use intelligence to solve problems rather than create new ones for us to be impressed by how well they were solved. Nouvelle AOM may well turn out to be shrewd players and “the new decency” may well turn out to be no less calculating than the status quo it challenges but for now I’m liking their WYSIWYG building for what it is and would like to thank them for that. Someone (was it Aristotle?) said “one swallow does not a summer make” but still, one can hope.

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misfits’ architecture is available for competition judging, conferences, seminars, corporate events, weddings, parties …

• • • Congratulations to this site for providing more, and more useful information than the names of the shortlisted firms and the press release photographs of their proposals. Recommended. The practice website is short on description but, as I just wrote, I like it like that.