By Barry Benepe
Unlike New York City, Paris has insisted on strong limitations for building heights throughout its historic center. Following the array of boulevards laid out by Baron Haussmann in the late 19th century, Paris established specific height limits for building facades abutting boulevards; these limits changed only slightly in the 20th century and still exist unchallenged today.
Generally, the height restrictions varied from 25 to 37 meters (roughly 80 to 120 feet) from street to cornice, getting higher at the periphery of the city. An additional four meters (or 13 feet) is allowed for a sloping Mansard roof containing an additional, less desirable living space, reached by stairs from the ground, where many of the city’s most talented painters worked in cold “mansards.” The profile changed over the years from an oblique angle to a fluid teardrop shape which has resulted today in truly curvilinear building tops. (New York’s first Zoning Resolution of 1916 had similar height limits, based on the width of the street, with a similar extension for Mansard roofs. This law was later amended to permit larger buildings.)
How then did Paris accommodate the relentless pressure to pierce this envelope? In the Postwar years, the world-renowned architect Le Corbusier proposed wiping out the famous historic Marais District on the Right Bank with the Ville Radieuse, a series of severe, very tall slabs set at stark right angles to the irregular existing historic streets. Fortunately, Paris was spared this visionary nightmare.
Instead, the French President, Georges Pompidou, released the cork on the champagne bottle outside the city limits. This is the same Pompidou for whom the now-famous Centre Pompidou modern art museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is named. The museum led to the destruction of the world-famous Les Halles, the centuries old indoor food market hall, much missed by the food and architecture world.
President Pompidou’s cork release took place west of the Bois de Boulogne on an axis with the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Élysées, and the Louvre. Pompidou’s champagne flowed over the new hilltop generously in 1972, producing the first of Paris’ over-reaching slim towers, over six times the building height permitted in the historic center.
Nevertheless, new construction of low apartment and office buildings proceeds apace in the city center, requiring the approval of the “architecte des bâtiments de France.” These new buildings are modern and handsome and lay to rest the facetious arguments of the New York City real estate industry that such restrictions discourage new development.