Defense is looking for a new future

The esplanade of the La Défense business district, west of Paris, in 2020.

May 2020, France is deconfining, La Défense, in Hauts-de-Seine, remains desperately empty. The esplanade is silent, the RER trains deserted, the restaurants lie in wait for customers. After two months of forced teleworking, the employees have finally taken a liking to videoconference meetings. Or at least, to no longer cross Ile-de-France every morning in crowded transport to reach their office. The Parisian business district, first in Europe, fourth in the world, this vision of the 1960s, headquarters of many multinationals, would it have lived then? Does it still make sense, at the time of the “quarter-hour city”, this new urban organization where everything must be fifteen minutes from home, to move 180,000 people every day towards this district of towers without terraces or balconies?

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Quickly, some large owners of the premises are concerned. If employees no longer have a good reason to come to the office, the neighborhood and, by extension, their portfolio of assets, is dead. This is how two leaders of Groupama Immobilier, Eric Donnet and Roland Cubin, in a somewhat unusual approach, asked five French architects to think about the future of La Défense, and in particular its public spaces. In June 2021, on the top floor of the Grande Arche, walkways and hanging gardens appear on the screen, a ring that connects the four gates of the district, housing buildings along the esplanade. These projects will probably never see the light of day. Regardless, the debate is on.

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The response from Paris La Défense arrived in mid-March in Cannes (Alpes-Maritimes). The developer took advantage of the reunion of the real estate world and its investors, deprived for two years of this major international fair that is Mipim, to launch a call for projects on five new land holdings. The land had been artificialized since the 1970s, but neglected. The objective is clear: to help halve the district’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and bring the esplanade to life beyond 6 p.m. Building new towers of glass and steel will certainly not improve the carbon footprint of La Défense, but this competition, “Footprints”, which it is said will pay particular attention to the environment and the “mix of programs”, marks the beginning of a new page in the history of the district. Because, in parallel, other projects, in particular around the “royal axis”, the historical perspective which stretches from the Grande Arche to the Louvre, are carried out.

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