Surprise, surprise: an iconic example of contemporary architecture is falling apart, after only 25 years.
I have never had the misfortune of visiting the bleak, “Logan’s Run” Parisian district known as La Defense, but I have winced many times at seeing images of it onscreen or in print. A monument to the bloated and bewildered state of architecture today, the centerpiece of this massive zit on the face of Paris is a structure known as La Grande Arche. Opened on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution to complete an axis with the Arche de Triomphe, La Grande Arche is not really an arch, but rather a large office block: a cube with a huge hole cut in the middle of it.
George Weigel made this structure the jumping-off point for his seminal 2005 book, “The Cube and the Cathedral”, which explores some of the reasons why today, Europe and America tend to see the same issues very differently. In an excerpt published in Commentary, Weigel noted that “La Grande Arche was nicknamed ‘Fraternity Arch'; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.”
Of course, the irony is that while the roughly 700-year old Notre-Dame de Paris hosts thousands of worshipers and visitors daily, the quarter-century old Grande Arche is now considered so unsafe that the building is completely closed to the public. The rooftop views of Paris which Weigel described in his book have been cut off to visitors since 2010, thanks to elevator problems. Only part of the cube is currently occupied, mostly by French government offices, since no one wants to rent space in the cramped, dark interiors. And famously. the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once got stuck here, when the door handle of the ladies’ room broke off; her security detail had to break down the door to get her out.
La Grande Arche was expensive to build, and will be expensive to fix, with renovation estimates currently at $270 million. That figure will no doubt rise as contractors and engineers begin to tackle a host of problems, such as replacing the failing marble panels which act as its skin with more durable granite. While common sense would dictate tearing the thing down and starting over with something more traditional and practical, the building is also sadly emblematic of what has happened to France, and indeed much of Western culture, for two reasons.
First, the self-interested tendency of many contemporary architects to build whatever is theoretically possible and damn the consequences is a headache which we are passing along to future generations. Rather than needing renovation after a century of use, these structures begin to fail almost immediately after they are built. The so-called “innovation” which goes into their design guarantees that the architectural practice which comes up with the building in the first place, being paid millions of dollars to do so, gets a guarantee of additional income in 5, 10, or 25 years, when some aspect of their project needs an overhaul.
Second, while most articles and guidebooks mention the fact that the city’s Cathedral could fit inside La Grande Arche, they fail to see the irony of this statement. La Grande Arche was built to celebrate the supposedly humanitarian French Revolution, yet like that revolution the core of the monument is a massive, meaningless void. Anyone who has studied the French Revolution beyond the basic overview typically given in secondary school knows that the entire experience was quite literally a bloody, godless mess. Whereas the American Revolution brought the people to their knees, in prayer for God’s guidance, the French Revolution brought people to their feet, in a blood-soaked, violent rejection of Faith.
The fact that modern-day France celebrates itself in this quite literally heartless building, which is now crumbling before our eyes, has broader implications. There is a gaping hole at the center of Western culture at present, with the removal of Faith from the heart of who we are and what we do. We have yet to hit on any satisfactory, alternative means of filling that void.