Architecture: A vision in white, by an American in Paris: Paris's latest 'grand projet' is an office block. Rowan Moore takes a look

Rowan Moore
Tuesday 13 April 1993 23:02

FOR 10 years Paris has been famous for its grands projets - the Louvre Pyramid, the Grande Arche at La Defense, the park at La Villette - memorable three-dimensional advertisements for the city's cultural strength and the president's patronage. Now, with the electoral rout of the Socialists, the future flow of new monuments is in doubt.

The fall from power was long predicted and in its last months the old regime rushed to build as much as possible of the grandest project of all, the new Bibliotheque National, to discourage the new administration from cancelling the work. Fifteen tower cranes mark the spot at which it has been sprouting from the ground at breakneck speed. The ruse might work, but the Bibliotheque is likely to be the last of its kind.

If state patronage recedes, the programme of grands projets has nevertheless created an impetus that will not be so readily stopped. The Parisian programme is emulated in regional cities across France and now, in the capital itself, by the private sector. The most spectacular recent building in Paris is not a museum or an opera house but an office building: the headquarters of France's phenomenally successful pay-TV company, Canal Plus. Like the state, commerce is using architecture to declare not only its wealth and power, but also its modernity and love of culture.

Canal Plus's domination of its field is such that it resembles a small state. It controls all aspects of its business, from film-making to the manufacture of satellite dishes and decoders, is expanding into Germany, Spain and Belgium, and it is said that no French film can be made without its support.

The company's founder, Andre Rousselet, like his friend Francois Mitterrand, wanted to make his mark with building. For the new headquarters he approached some of the world's most famous architects, including Richard Rogers and Norman Foster.

Eventually he chose the American Richard Meier, architect of the immense Getty Centre in Malibu. In the London building boom, American firms were hired for their remorseless efficiency but Meier is from a different category, that of artist-architect. He is more noted for museums and private houses than offices. He is also fast becoming Europe's favourite American, with cultural and commercial buildings under way in The Hague, Barcelona, Basle, Luxembourg, Montpellier, Munich and Ulm.

For Canal Plus, he designed a building that, in an unpromising setting, comes as an apparition. The site is on the Seine, but has little else to recommend it, as it is set in an area downstream from the Eiffel Tower near stumpy towers, ill-advised facetings and lumps of murky mirror glass. Canal Plus, by contrast, is delicate, considered and (like all Meier's buildings) very, very white.

Walls, ceilings, doors and balustrades, inside and out, are white. Nor is this the matt white of painted plaster, but the glistening, unageing, fridge-like white of enamelled aluminium panels. 'Paris is a city of constantly changing light,' says Meier, 'and the whiteness celebrates that light. It creates an acute awareness of it.' Any other reason? 'It makes me happy.'

The whiteness does indeed glow subtly as the sun sets, its light admitted through copious glass. An architectural Nirvana of orderly calm is heightened by Meier's other unvarying trait: the use of a single measurement, 90cm, to determine as many dimensions - of windows, panels, corridors, parapets - as possible.

Wilfully, Meier also erects a functionless three-storey wall for the purpose of piercing it with an immense square hole ('an urban window') which, in turn, contains a column that supports nothing.

Asked what he has achieved at Canal Plus, he says: 'a good work of architecture', and he delights in what Le Corbusier called the 'masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light'.

Back in America, particularly in Atlanta, the value of architecture-as-art seems to have reached new heights. There, Meier has built a museum, the High Museum, that has too few exhibits to fill it, yet the building is considered such an artistic asset to the city that, regardless of need, an addition has been seriously mooted.

This is an architecture where form triumphs in its own right - always emphasised, of course, by Meier's love of pure, spartan white. But, in spite of all this, Meier would hate to think that everything was about form. The Paris building, he says, 'deals with communication', since it is for a company in the communication business. In practice this means the 'interpenetration of spaces so that people see one another in unexpected ways'.

Less obviously, he sees the building as Parisian. By this he emphatically does not mean that it incorporates local features - mansard roofs, say, or picturesque ironwork - but is referring to its more abstract qualities. His building, he suggests, fills its site in the same way that Parisian city blocks fill theirs. 'It's at the scale that Paris, in my opinion, should be,' he says.

Canal Plus is also part of a more modern Parisian tradition. In the Twenties, the city, chiefly through the medium of Le Corbusier, gave white, ship-like architecture to the world. Recently, there has been no more enthusiastic a disciple than Richard Meier, even if he has discarded Le Corbusier's rich use of colours; with Canal Plus, he is repaying a debt. He is doing so, however, later than many had hoped for.

Not only has Meier designed unbuilt projects in Paris, but he was also an unwitting player in the greatest farce of Eighties Paris, the proposals for the new Opera. There, a design was named the winner of the anonymous competition because it was thought to be by an off-form Richard Meier; commission in hand, it was anticipated, he could be brought to improve it. Unhappily for everyone except the actual author, it turned out to be by the little-known Uruguayan- Canadian Carlos Ott.

Canal Plus returns, in part, another favour. Ever since Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, Paris has exported intellectual nourishment to America, in return for lashings of transatlantic popular culture, most recently and spectacularly in the form of Euro Disney. Now Canal Plus, the company, has effected a reversal. As a major backer of Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct, it is helping to create American mass culture, even as it imports an American artist-architect to build its headquarters.

(Photograph omitted)

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