Located right at the far western end of the City, way beyond the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe is a district where old and new architecture blend elegantly and with sophistication. For visitors to the city of light, this is a very different side of Paris, La Defense, the shiny business sector. It can make for a great base for a Paris weekend visit when hotel rates may be much lower than during the week…
When the Great War ended, Paris city authorities wanted to construct a new commercial centre; they aimed to create a place that would contribute to the rebuilding of the economy. The great depression came along shortly afterwards in the 1930’s, money was suddenly not available for the project and plans were put on hold.
The aspiration lived on however. Ideas and planning for such an area recommenced in the 1950’s and city planners decided to develop the Defense area. This quarter was so named to commemorate the ending of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A very imposing street sculpture, erected in 1883 as a memorial to the loyalty of the resistance fighters during that war called La Defense de Paris, can be seen right at the centre of this commercial district.
La Defense is the largest purpose built business hub in Europe; home to the headquarters of 15 of the top 50 companies in the world. It lies just off the left bank of the River Seine which flows northwest on its way to the open sea. Travel down the Avenue de la Grande Armee, starting at the Arc de Triomphe, towards the edge of Paris to find it.
Over 1500 major company headquarters are located in La Defense and there are 180,000 daily workers. The Esso Tower was the first large building to be constructed. Next, in 1958, came the very prominent Centre of New Industries and Technologies (CNIT). Many corporations have put down their roots in the district including Arcelor, Aventis, Societe General and Neuf Cegetel. The tallest skyscraper at 231 metres, Tour First, belongs to the powerful AXA insurance company. It has 50 floors and is the highest building in greater Paris.
The first buildings were limited to a height of 100 meters. The planners wanted to preserve the visual spectacle of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe and central Paris beyond. Much higher structures, approved during later years, were confined right to the western edge of La Defense to protect the view eastwards. The present cluster of skyscrapers are shiny, futuristic and imposing.
During his time in office, the French President Francois Mitterrand wanted to make a contribution to the visual impact and layout of Paris. He wanted to see a modern day version of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe constructed to compliment the original. Danish architect, Otto von Spreckelsen, was commissioned to create an imposing design idea for a modern day version of the Arch that would observe all of Paris from its prominent mountings. Some felt the idea was too futuristic but it went ahead. It is massive and dominates La Defense district where it was erected. It is more of a cube than an arch but somehow retains the profile and pride of its older counterpart. The Grande Arche as it is called, is home to many corporation headquarters located in spacious office accommodation in its plank like sides. Climb up the wide steps in front of the Grande Arche and take in the view. It is rather like looking through the telescopic sight of a rifle. The Eiffel Tower seems almost an intrusion penetrating the symmetry of this pristine panorama.
The Grande Arche, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Carousel and the Pyramid at the Louvre museum lie in a dead straight line almost as far as anyone can see. The design of La Defense permits an uninterrupted view of this straight, 10 kilometres long architectural spectacle.
Traditional Parisian culture as well as its elegance is preserved at La Defense. At the foot of the Grande Arche there is an open air museum. The sculptures and presentations exhibited are contemporary art forms blending harmoniously with the glistening skyscrapers. Trees compliment the features and fit in perfectly with children’s’ play parks where there is also an ancient, traditionally decorated and working carousel.
La Defense is not exclusively a business and commercial centre; it has a residential population of roughly 25,000 residents inhabiting modern living space; it is also home to around 45,000 students engaged in commercial activity.
La Defense makes for an interesting place to wander, covering more than 1.5 square kilometres. 310,000 square meters of flagstones and pathways are provided along with over 2700 hotel rooms and it can be a great place for a weekend stay as the hotel rates are often lower as offices close as the weekend and business visitors are not so prominent. Being so close to the Champs Elsysees – it makes for a convenient base.
How to get there: RER line A; Metro line 1
Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot turned travel writer with a passion for France…