When most people invest in a pied-à-terre in Paris, they settle in the central part of the city—the chic 6th or 7th arrondissements, or the trendy Marais—where resale values will be higher, and one could more easily capitalize on the vacation rental market.
That’s most people. Then there’s me.
A combination of budget, proximity to friends, and a large dose of impulsiveness landed me in No Man’s Land, somewhere between Bastille and Nation in a rather drab corner of the Right Bank. While it’s a vital neighborhood full of real local flavor, it’s not terribly pretty in spots. It doesn’t look much like what most people think of as Paris. Modern buildings, like alien spaceships that have crash-landed, impose themselves on the old neighborhood. They make you uncomfortable. Not well-designed, nor inspired as one might hope from modern architecture, they are more Eastern Bloc than eastern Paris: cheap, ugly, utilitarian.
Being from New York, I’m used to modern buildings cohabitating with older ones. Some cities, like Berlin, do this particularly well, in an exciting way that honors both old and new. It’s not modern I object to; it’s brutish ugliness—even more unforgivable in a place as beautiful as Paris. Parisians have a love/hate relationship with “new,” and it seems to manifest itself in the uninspired designs of so many modern buildings. Attempts made in past decades are clumsy and lurching, like the Montparnasse Tower, an oversized phallus that violates the delicate, feminine city. It’s thoughtless, as if it had been built begrudgingly, because they needed to prove they had a modern metropolis. Mitterand* was more emboldened by the idea of new and, arguably, gave the city inspired, modern civic projects—les Grands Projets—dragging Paris into the 20th Century. Yet alas, the same man is also responsible for the glass block behemoth of an opera house that squats like a bulldog in the middle of the Bastille. [Cue the bewildered sighing.] Does “modern” equal “ugly” to a people notoriously in love with tradition?
On a website dedicated to images of Paris from past epoques, I was comparing street views from 1900 to the same views today. In many cases, except for the storefronts and cars, there was no change at all. None. In an inconstant world, it’s immensely comforting—like how your mom kept your room exactly as it was when you were in high school. It’s a touchstone in an insecure time. I think that explains my gut reaction to the buildings in my neighborhood. Continuity with the past and timeless beauty are precisely what we love about Paris, why it’s the most visited city on the globe. And probably why a modern building, particularly an ugly one, is so jarring. A prickly weed among Belle Epoque lilies.Click to read more on how I feel about my new neighborhood. *Note from the author: Before I receive a hailstorm of angry comments about the glories of modern architecture in Paris, I do have many favorites that inspire and transform—while still being at home in the environment: Musée du Quai Branly (2006); Oscar Niemeyer’s Communist Party Headquarters in the 19th (1971); many of Mitterand’s public projects, like Palais Omnisports de Bercy-Paris (1984), La Grande Arche (1989); the Arab World Institute (1987); the National Library Complex (What? I like it!). If the new Les Halles plaza (2016) is built to plan, it looks to be a stunning space, and will definitely redefine the area—for the better. Of course, none of this changes the fact that the buildings in my quarter are butt ugly.