Mayor's high hopes for low-rise Paris create a storm

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Paris, a resolutely low-rise city, may be about to go up in the world after the city's Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, staked his chances of re-election next March partly on proposals to build skyscrapers within the city boundaries for the first time in 30 years.

Lovers of the charm and architectural unity of the French capital need not be too alarmed. There is no intention to construct a Manhattan-sue-Seine on the Champs-Elysées, or even next to the Eiffel Tower. M. Delanoe wants Paris voters to reconsider his long-held ambitions to erect distinctive, tall buildings on derelict industrial or railway sites close to the city boundary.

The town hall has published sketches by 11 leading architects for futuristic home and office buildings – on three sites in the northern and eastern fringes of the capital. The proposals – illustrative rather than firm plans – include towers which look like higgledy-piggledy piles of children's blocks and one which would generate its own electricity from solar energy. Several have swimming pools on their roofs; others look almost like vertical forests.

Paris is already ringed by tower blocks. There are plans to build still vaster buildings in the suburbs in the next few years, including a mega-tower in the La Défense office complex to the west of the city which would be almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower.

M. Delanoe's ideas might, therefore, seem relatively tame. In fact, they have provoked, as he knew they would, a storm of controversy, which has flattened normal political boundaries.

His main rival in the March elections, the centre-right candidate, Françoise de Panafieu, is broadly in favour of tall buildings, especially for modern offices which would increase tax income.

M. Delanoe's Green allies on the city council have dismissed the proposals as ecologically unsound, "hugely pretentious and hugely ugly". They accuse him of trampling on the democratic wishes of Parisians.

When the city consulted its residents in 2003, almost two out of three opposed new tall buildings. The capital's planning laws, renewed last year, insist that no new structure can be higher than 37 metres (121ft).

M. Delanoe says that the law should remain but that there should be exceptions for sites which are derelict and difficult to develop on the fringes of the city.

Within the central area of Paris, the only large tower block is the undistinguished Tour Montparnasse, built in 1973. There are several other collections of tall buildings on the margins of the city, including a much-criticised row of skyscrapers on the river Seine, west of the Eiffel Tower, mostly built in the late 1970s.

President Nicolas Sarkozy told a meeting of French mayors this week that there should be no "ideological" barrier to new tower blocks – so long as they were beautiful, not ugly. "I think the mayor of Paris agrees with me," Mr Sarkozy said. "No," M. Delanoe shot back, "You agree with me."

The Mayor's Green allies accuse him of being "obsessed" with tall buildings because he wants a monument to his term in office. M. Delanoe says he is driven only by the desire to see Paris compete with other great cities which have erected globally acclaimed structures in recent years.

The mayor also has political and financial considerations. High-quality, open-plan, computer-friendly office space is limited in Paris. Large companies have been moving away, reducing the capital's tax base.

He also hopes the buildings will help to reconnect Paris with some of its more deprived suburbs.