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The Eiffel Tower and the awful tower

It was explained to me this week that Paris has two principal towers: The Eiffel Tower and the awful tower. The awful tower is, of course, the Tour Montparnasse. Completed in 1973, the Tour Montparnasse is tall, brown, monolithic, and seemingly out of place with the rest of Paris’ urban context. At the time of its completion it was the tallest building in Paris and it remains the tallest building outside of La Defense (business district).

But the Eiffel Tower is also tall. In fact, it’s taller. So how is it that the Eiffel Tower became such a symbol for Paris and the Tour Montparnasse became the “awful tower?” Both were intended to represent modernity (at their respective times) and both were controversial at the time of their construction.

Today people respond to these two towers very differently. Is it because the Eiffel Tower is set in a beautiful park and more separated from its urban context? Or is it because the Eiffel Tower has had almost another 100 years to settle in. It’s not exactly clear. But we do know that as humans we have a bias toward the status quo. And so I like to think of change in the following way:

– There’s change that people immediately like

– There’s change that people hate and will always hate

– And there’s change that people initially hate but will eventually like

The Eiffel Tower, you could argue, falls into category number three. It was big, modern, and alarmingly different when it was built at the end of the 19th century. But now people seem to like it. I know this based on the number of street vendors selling little replicas. For the record, I have yet to see little replicas of the Tour Montparnasse sitting on blankets on the street. I’m a buyer if I do come across one though.

But is it really right to place Montparnasse into category number two? Could it be that it just needs more time to settle in and then it will ultimately move into number three? Maybe. In 2017, an international design competition was held to find an architect for the redesign of the tower. Studio Gang submitted an entry. But Nouvelle AOM was ultimately selected.

I wasn’t part of the selections committee, but I think a good way to evaluate the success of this project will be whether or not it moves the tower into category three. That is, people start to like it. Then maybe Paris will become known as a city of two towers, as opposed to a city with one nice one and one awful one.

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