Architecture: That old Paris embrace amid the new brutalism: Mitterrand's Grande Arche, criticised as heartless, attracts lovers and tourists alike, writes Jonathan Glancey

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The Independent Culture
CRAIG EASTON'S photograph portrays love a la mode on the steps of President Mitterrand's Grande Arche at La Defense, the brutalist business core of modern Paris.

It also stirs memories of Robert Doisneau's famous photograph of a fashionable young couple kissing outside the Hotel de Ville, one of the the city's great 19th-century monuments.

Ever since that picture was taken in 1950 for Life magazine, it has sold countless thousands in postcard form, featured on T- shirts and jigsaws, and been reproduced in numerous books.

Might Easton's couple, framed by a great civic monument of our own age, become a cause celebre - just as a couple who claim to have been the lovers in Doisneau's photograph have done, 40 years on?

A curious case is going through the French courts: Jean-Louis and Denise Lavergne, who have long claimed to be the lovers in Doisneau's picture, are fighting Francoise Bornet, a film-maker who claims that the Hotel de Ville lovers were in fact an actor and actress set up for the occasion by the photographer. The battle is raging because whoever is featured in the photograph could be in for substantial royalty payments.

But no, Easton's anonymous lovers are not professionals; they were not set up for the camera. Instead, they prove that in Paris in springtime, love will find a way and a place, even if that place is one of the most daunting new buildings in Europe.

Described by many critics as cold, sterile and lacking a heart, the Grande Arche seems at first glance no place for lovers. It has, however, become one of the top tourist attractions in Paris, attracting droves of people from all over the world to this office city on the edge of town.

On Sundays, when La Defense is little more than an empty shell, tourists come to climb up to the Arche and to be taken, by glass lift, to viewing points along its formidable parapets, 330ft above the great pedestrian plaza over which the Arche casts striking shadows.

The Grande Arche was designed by a little-known Danish architect, Johan Otto von Sprekelsen, who won the commission through a state-sponsored competition. It is one of the city's 'grands projets'; others include the glass pyramid at the Louvre, designed by I M Pei, and the Institut Arabe du Monde by Jean Nouvel, a monument to enlightened presidential rule and symbol of the city's overweening confidence.

A gigantic, hollowed-out concrete cube (Cubism taken to an extreme), the Grande Arche stands at the end of the long avenue that leads the eye straight through Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe and along the Champs Elysees to a halt at the Louvre.

Unlike the Arc de Triomphe, it is no monument to military prowess. Perhaps disappointingly for the millions who visit it each year, it is nothing more than a titanic office block that houses the Ministry of Culture and the Human Rights Foundation. There is no public access to its interiors, but staring up at its tiers of uniform square windows, it is easy to assume that no one would want to go inside unless they had to.

This Brobdingnagian lovers' meeting place is by far the most unusual and inspired building at La Defense, although even its most fervent supporters, would be hard-pressed to call it romantic.

A vertiginous ride in the lift, rising up the hollow of the cube, through its lid and into the Paris cloudscape, is what really appeals to many tourists. Nevertheless, the architecture has some of the same ineffable appeal as other great geometric monuments, ranging from the ancient pyramids to modern gasholders.

The sheer power of the building is apparent from the first glimpse of it through the Arc de Triomphe at the start of the Champs Elysee; close up, it a daunting work of architectural sculpture.

Although it is made of concrete, a material few Britons have learnt to love, the finish of the panels is remarkable. The Grande Arche may be the stuff of a megalomaniac's dreams, yet it is handsomely crafted and no more outlandish than the Arc de Triomphe.

Perhaps its appeal for young lovers lies the anonymity itE offers as a meeting place and the commanding, romantic views of Paris itself in the haze beyond.

But when have ParisiansTHER write error ever fought shy of kissing in public? Certainly not Jean-Louis and Denise Lavergne, who claim that they posed pecially for Doisneau, 'kissing all over again for the camera' after he had snapped them in tender embrace while shopping in that other Parisian monument, the rambling BHV department store.

Perhaps lovers like the Grande Arche simply because it has so many steps to sit on. Whatever it is, Craig Easton's memorable picture shows that Paris - whether it be the Paris of narrow 16th-century streets and steak-frites brasseries, the Paris of grand avenues offering couture and culture, or the Paris of presidential ambition and pre-formed concrete, as represented by La Defense and the Grande Arche - is still the world's most romantic city.

(Photographs omitted)

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