Nouvel tower to challenge power of 'old Paris'

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The Independent Online

The axis of greater Paris will swing several kilometres to the west over the next five years with the creation of a "Manhattan-sur-Seine" of mega tower blocks on the city's boundary.

A design by the French architect Jean Nouvel, the recent winner of the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture, has been selected for construction alongside the existing skyscrapers at La Défense. The colourful, high-tech Signal tower, which at 300 metres (984ft) is almost as high as the Eiffel Tower, will contain offices, luxury apartments and shops.

It will be the centrepiece of an attempt to remake the La Défense office ghetto into a 24-hour city, rivalling the "old Paris". Two other 300m towers – a third bigger than any of the buildings on the site – will also be built by 2013.

The project was launch-ed by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2006 when he was the most senior local politician in the wealthy suburban département of Hauts-de-Seine, just west of Paris proper. His successor as the council leader, Patrick Devedjian, said yesterday that the Signal building would be "the most important architectural development [in France] since the Eiffel Tower".

President Sarkozy has been pushing for a "Greater Paris", which would dissolve the boundary between the 20 arrondissements of the city proper and the jumble of suburban towns which surround it.

Jean Nouvel said his building could become "the first expression of a new centre for the development of a Greater Paris ... without replacing the historic centre."

Either way, the pace and grandeur of the expansion of La Défense poses a serious problem for the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë. Under the city's by-laws, no new buildings can be more than 37m tall. M. Delanoë has warned that Paris will lose prestige offices – and their business taxes – to the inner suburbs unless the limit is lifted.

To the horror of some of his own left-wing and Green supporters, the Mayor of Paris therefore plans mini-Manhattans of his own in unfashionable areas in the east and north of the city.

At first sight, the design for the new tower was the most conventional – like a series of cubes piled on one another. Rival proposals by the British architect, Lord Foster (the London "Gherkin") and the American Daniel Libeskind (Ground Zero) seemed more adventurous. Designs for two other 300m towers at La Défense have startling, asymmetric contours and spires. But M. Nouvel's building will be relieved by giant coloured screens and cavernous apertures. It will, in theory, be self-sufficient in electricity.

The success is especially sweet for M. Nouvel. He tried to build a tower at La Défense in 1989 – "the tower without end". The project failed, which sent his first architectural practice into bankruptcy.

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