Monday, July 11, 2016

Paris 2016 - La Défense Business District and Trip Wrapup Thoughts

On our last day in Paris, we, were planning to return to the 3rd Arrondissement to visit three lesser known museums –the Carnavalet Museum of the history of Paris, the Museum of Magic and the Museum of Automatons.  But having already toured so many musems throughout our visit, I was "museum-ed out" and could not face another round of them.  I wanted to do something different, preferably outdoors.

I had been curious about the La Défense Business District ever since spying the uniquely shaped skyscrapers off in the horizon from our bedroom window.  We caught an even better glimpse of them from the top deck of the Fondation Louis Vuitton.  Reading more about the district in a guide book, I found out that this area also included a landscaped pedestrian promenade with fountains, parkettes and over 70 sculptures and modern art pieces, forming an "open-air museum".  This sounded like a perfect place to explore for our last day in Paris.

Situated in the suburbs of Paris, north-west of the 16th and 17th arrondissements, La Défense is the largest specifically-built business district in Europe.  Spanning 1400 acres, it is home to 72 buildings made of glass and steel, including 18 (and counting) skyscrapers.  Centralizing the tall, modern towers in the suburbs was a way to protect the historic nature of central Paris. The Center of New Industries and Technologies (CNIT) was the first building to be erected in the newly formed area in 1958.  CNIT has been refurbished twice and now acts as a convention centre with shops, offices and a hotel.  La Défense sits at the western end of the "Historical Axis" or "Triumphal Way", which consists of a line of iconic monuments and thoroughfares, starting from the Louvre, Place de Concorde, Champs d'Elysees, L'Arc de Triomphe, and Avenue de Grande Armée.

In the 1980s, it was decided that a modern 20th Century monument was required in La Défense to mirror the Arc de Triomphe and to mark the end of the Historical Axis.  Danish architect Johann von Spreckelsen won a design contest and created "La Grande Arche de la Défense", a 110 metre high concrete cube covered in glass and Carrara marble from Italy.  Government offices are housed in the two sides of the cube, people sit on the wide steps in the summer, and a wonderful view of the surrounding area can be seen from the top of the stairs.  Concerts and other cultural events are held at the base of the arch.  In contrast to the Arc de Triomphe which was built to celebrate military victories, the Grand Arche is a monument dedicated to "humanity and humanitarian ideals".

I was initially lured to visit the La Défense district because of the unique-looking buildings that I saw from a distance.  They did not disappoint once we were able to get a closer look at them.  It was spectacular to see so many beautiful yet unique skyscrapers and low-rises, all designed with the different shapes, curves, and angles, created with a variety of materials, colours and decorative patterns.  The ones with glass façades shimmered in varying shades and tones of blues, greens, golds, greys and whites.  My two favourite buildings were the "Tour D2", a 561 foot tall office building that looked like an egg from afar, and the 541 foot tall "Tour EDF", whose large metal circular canopy makes it look like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek.

Office buildings line both sides of a wide pedestrian concourse running through the stretch of the La Défense, spanning the Esplanade du Général de Gaulle and Esplanade de la Défense.  The 1.2km promenade includes paved flagstone sidewalks, expansive green lawns, and tree-lined parkettes, offering benches, lounge chairs, and picnic tables, as well as cafés and bistros with outdoor patios. What a lovely environment for the office workers to come out into for a leisurely lunch.  All along the promenade can be found sculptures, monuments and art installations that range from historic to contemporary.  This includes two major water features which are works of art in their own right, including one which just blew me away with its size and beauty.

The Fontaine Monumentale (Monumental Fountain) by Yaacov Agam spans 26x72 metres and flows down a 7 metre waterfall at the far end.  The fountain is comprised of 86 shades of mosaic glass enamel imported from Venice, producing a spectacular rainbow effect that stretches far into the distance.  Although they were not active when we passed by, the fountain has jets that can shoot water into the air and musical "water ballet" shows are performed like the ones they have in Las Vegas.

Bassin is a fountain-pool designed by Greek sculptor Vassilakis Takis, situated at the eastern end of the Esplanade de la Défense, from where you can get a clear view down the Triumphal Way to spot the Arc de Triomphe in the horizon.  The 50-metres wide fountain is decorated with 49 metal rods of various heights, topped by vibrantly coloured geometric shapes and flashing lights.  To create an echo effect, architect von Spreckelsen requested that Takis add another 17 free-standing rods at the rear of the Grand Arch, to mark the western end of La Défense, thus encompassing the entrance and exit of the area.  The Bassin is a popular lunch spot with picnic tables along the edge of the sunken pool.  From afar, it looks like the tables and their occupants are floating on the water.

La Défense is named after the iconic statue La Défense de Paris by Louis-Ernest Barrias, which was erected in 1883 to commemorate the soldiers who had defended Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  The central character of a woman dressed in a National Guard uniform holding a flag represents the city of Paris.  A young soldier at her feet represent the defenders of the city, while a sad young girl represents the suffering of the civilian population.  It is currently located in Place de la Défense, at the base of Agam's fountain. A giant abstract sculpture made of polyester resin and painted in bright primary colours is called Personnages Fantastiques by Spanish Surrealist artist Joan Miró and sits in front of the enormous shopping centre Quatre Temps.  For me, the most fascinating and fun sculpture is "La Pouce", the giant 40 foot tall bronze thumb by sculpture César Baldaccini, who used his own thumb as the model, realistically representing the lines and wrinkles of his skin.

Two large bronze sculptures by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj puts a modern spin on Classical sculptural styles with his well formed torsos that are deliberately disfigured or mutilated, as a reflection of human nature and its imperfections.  His winged sculpture Ikaria is missing a head and has a small face carved where the penis should be.  A hand grasping his right foot seems to prevent him from flying away.  The other sculpture Icarus has the top of his head chopped and both arms chopped off, like a male version of the Venus de Milo. Although the maps and documentation name the armless sculpture as Icarus, it would seem to be a more appropriate name for the winged figure, based on Greek mythology?

Lim Dong Lak's Point Growth features a stainless steel globe with a plant stemming from it.  The shiny globe reflects the beautiful buildings that surround it, similar to the large globe in Parc de la Vilette. Slovak sculptor Joseph Jankovic's "Dans les Traces de Nos Peres" (In the Footsteps of our Fathers) symbolically depicts two children trying to climb out of giant feet (of their fathers' legacies or expectations?).  Several works are modeled like giant smokestacks or chimneys.  Rachel Guy's ceramic "Les Trois Arbres" is a 28.5 metres tall mosaic decorated with tree roots, while Raymond Moretti's 32 metre "Fibre de Verre" chimney is made of 672 fiberglass tubes painted in 19 colours.

A pretty, tree-lined parkette interspersed with benches provided a peaceful green space and respite from the hubbub of the rest of the area.  At the end of the park was the whimsical sculpture "Grenouille" by Claude Torricini of a large frog with its mouth open.  When you look in the mouth, you find another miniature frog sitting inside, with it's mouth open equally wide.  In another square, concrete planter boxes are decorated with carvings on each corner of characters with outstretched arms that join each in a circle.  These are the works of Shelomo Selinger which he calls "La Danse".  Cafés, bistros and eateries were situated in this square and we chose one called La Safranée to have some lunch.

We sat outside on the patio, surrounded by Selinger's beautiful planters.  While Rich ordered a burger and fries (how boring when in Paris!), I went for the lunch special of veal stew with mashed potato.  For dessert, Rich chose the strawberry cake since strawberries were in season and we had been eyeing the strawberry desserts at all the patisseries.  I went for the old standby of chocolate mousse, made from rich, smooth dark chocolate.  Both the food and the ambience was great, but it was a bit chilly sitting outside.

Having walked the entire stretch of the main esplanades of La Défense, we headed back towards our metro station, passing a few more large-scaled art pieces along the way.  There was something that looked like a big tree house, and a round, bright yellow table and curved benches that were surrounded by a frame dangling strips of plastic.  We were not able to identify the artists of these pieces.  Finally, we came across Anthony Caro's "After Olympia", a monumental work of rusted steel spanning 23 metres across the path of the esplanade. Inspired by the pediment of Zeus in Olympia, it consists of pieces of steel are bent and folded to form simple overlapping shapes sitting on a steel platform.

La Défense is split into four quarters– Arche Nord includes the CNIT building, and the district Faubourgh de l'Arche, where the Leonardo da Vinci center of higher education and other office towers, shops and residential buildings are located.  The giant thumb is located in this quarter as are Mitoraj's pair of torso sculptures.  Arch Sud is highlighted by "Les Quatres Temps" shopping centre which contains four floors of shops and 22 eateries, with Joan Miro's colourful RYB sculpture looming in front of it.  The Grand Arch sits between these two quarter.  Esplanade Nord and Sud seem to contain a high density of office towers mixed in with residential buildings with Takis' Bassin sitting between the eastern end of these two quarters.  The La Défense de Paris sculpture and Agam's Fontaine Monumentale sits at the intersection of all four quarters.

Using an online map from a La Défense promotional website, we were able to get a general idea of where the sculptures and art works were to be found.  We did not find out until after we returned home that there was a little museum in an information centre in the square where we could have picked up a more detailed map with photos.  It is also found online in PDF format.  Many of the pieces were along the central promenades so we concentrated our time walking down one side and back up the other.

Unfortunately, without a more detailed map, we missed many of the works that were tucked away between the buildings within the quarters, or even inside the buildings.  I found images of some of these pieces on the internet, and now that I am armed with more information, I would like to return to this area on our next trip to Paris to do a more thorough exploration.

This turned out to be the perfect way to end our "Off the Beaten Path" tour of Paris.  We succeeded in finding all new things to do and see that we had not done before on previous visits, and we still have a long list of ideas ready for our next visit.  Paris really is one of those cities that you can visit infinitely.

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