The world is full of hated buildings and those who love to shame them. This week’s New York Times Style Magazine called on seven leading architects to defend the world’s most hated buildings, asking: “Can the field’s top minds change the way we think about a doomed housing project in Naples or the most abhorred skyscraper in Paris? Allow them to try.”
The story includes brief arguments from architects on the merits of seven buildings designed by other architects: Daniel Libeskind on the Tour Montparnasse in Paris; Zaha Hadid on the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York; Annabelle Selldorf on Albany, New York’s Empire State Plaza; Ada Tolla on Vele di Scampia in Naples, Italy; Norman Foster on Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport; Amanda Levete on the BT Tower in London; and Vincent Van Duysen on Paris’ Centre Pompidou.
Of course there is no way to quantify which buildings are the world’s most hated, and a Euro- and America-centric list of a few decades-old structures hardly covers it. But the conceit does raise interesting questions about the architecture that surrounds us and the frequent disconnect between architects’ intentions and the aesthetic, social, and political consequences of their work once it leaves the concept stage and becomes an independent organism in an ever-changing world.
“I want to defend it not because it’s a particularly beautiful tower, but because of the idea it represents,” says Libeskind of the Tour Montparnasse. “Parisians panicked when they saw it, and when they abandoned the tower they also abandoned the idea of a high-density sustainable city.”
The story points out that the 689-foot Tour Montparnasse (completed in 1973) dwarfed Paris’ historic skyline, ushering in height restrictions on future buildings. “Because they exiled all future high rises to some far neighborhood like La Défense, they were segregating growth,” Libeskind says. “Parisians reacted aesthetically, as they are wont to do, but they failed to consider the consequences of what it means to be a vital, living city versus a museum city.”
The article neglects to mention that Paris changed planning laws in 2011 to allow for higher building heights, with the recent completion of the city’s tallest residential tower since the 1970s. Or the controversial, ongoing Grand Paris project that attempts to modernize by expanding outward to create what amounts to a greater Paris area, rather than planting high-rises like the Tour Montparnasse in the city’s prized historic center.
As an American who has lived for many years in Paris, I can vouch that Parisians have a universal disdain for the Tour Montparnasse. Paris’ low profile allows me a sweeping view of a half-dozen monuments from my seventh-floor windows, including the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Coeur, and the Tour Montparnasse, a literal black mark on the view that is impossible to miss but somehow easy to edit out.
I can’t see the Centre Pompidou directly from my windows, though if one of them is flung open at just the right angle, I can catch a reflection of some of the building’s exterior blue climate-control ducts. It’s true, as the Times points out, that the “Pompidou’s bold ‘exoskeletal’ architecture was thought to clash violently with the old houses surrounding it upon its opening in 1977.”
Van Duysen notes that the building was “without any respect for the environment, a cultural factory where you could observe important modern art collections, a superexpressive, very colorful, complex building.” He adds that the building was a rejection of Paris’ neutral palette that nevertheless became a democratic cultural hub that attracts millions of visitors per year. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it when I was studying architecture,” Van Duysen says. “It reversed the typical model of a museum into something that was engaging and inviting to the public. Architecture at that time needed to do things differently, like a shock. The shock liberates a lot of emotions and perceptions.”
The shock has long worn off, and nobody really needs to defend its loud, scrappy honor anymore. Even if the Pompidou has never made aesthetic sense to my eyes, it’s a place I visit regularly and accept on its own terms. It’s not only popular with tourists but a major cultural gathering place for locals.
And does it really make any sense that two of the world’s seven “most hated buildings” are located in one of the world’s most architecturally beloved cities? Maybe it’s easier to pick on outlier architecture in a place with a uniform and generally pleasing visual identity like Paris. Or maybe it’s just a question of time.
The French, who gush about the skyscrapers of Chicago or New York City, most often use the Tour Montparnasse as the butt of that architecture joke about how it has the city’s best views—because it’s the only place from which you can’t see it. It’s an old quip that has been attributed to 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant, who said the only reason he dined daily at the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower was because it was the only place he couldn’t see the once-hated, now-beloved monument.