A lot of visitors come to Paris for its historic buildings, its monuments, its atmosphere and its history, but Paris is also a city that looks to the future and contributes to the richness of France, Europe and the world.
You may not know, but La Défense, on the northwest edge of the city, is the biggest business centre in Europe, founded in the 1950s but continually evolving.
We went down to take a look at the place – unlike any other part of Paris – which is completely pedestrianised and surprisingly green, with lots of modern art installations and jaw-dropping architecture…
Courbevoie is a Parisian suburb, and in 1950 it had a roundabout called La Défense, named after the statue La Défense de Paris placed on it (the statue still exists – we’ll be seeing it a little later). Around was a ragtag collection of little factories and old buildings. This is where the government decided to build a business area, starting with a building called the CNIT and several skyscrapers all with the same measurements – 42 metres by 24, and 100 metres high.
Since then a lot has changed. Construction never seems to stop, the height of the buildings has doubled (at least), 30 hectares of raised paving has been laid to hide the roads, car parks and rail links, the RER train has arrived (in 1970), then the Grande Arche was built (in 1989)…
Over the years, some office buildings have been renovated, green spaces have been added, and now there’s a whole new area behind the Grande Arche in Nanterre.
We decided to start our walk at the extremity of La Défense, at the métro station Esplanade de La Défense. As soon as you get out, it’s like you are now longer in Paris…
Proof the the area is continually reinventing itself, a new space has just opened (in Paril 2019) called NODD, where they hold afterwork parties and nightclub events, boasting that their terrace has views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower (as you’ll see, if you go, both are quite a way off).
Just nearby is Le Bassin by artist Takis, inaugurated in 1988. You can easily imagine the crowds of office workers eating here during the week (which is partly why we decided to go visit on a Saturday!)
We start walking towards the Grande Arche, which can easily be seen from afar and just happens to be aligned with the Champs Élysées. Several new buildings are under construction or renovation here.
Very soon we come to a building that looks like it dates from the very beginnings of the area, the Résidence Vision 80 (440 apartments!) which was actually opened in 1973 and constructed using reinforced concrete. Beneath it, you’ll find a sculpture called Dans les traces de nos pères by Jozef Jankovic which also seems to have stepped out of the seventies, despite dating from 1992.
Near here you’ll also see Le Moretti (1995) by Raymond Moretti – in fact you can’t miss it. This colourful installation àf 672 fibreglass tubes hides a 32m-high ventilation shaft. Clever, and rather fetching!
Opposite, on the other side of the esplanade, you’ll find Doubles lignes indéterminées (1988) by Bernard Venet, a black metal sculpture that is also surprisingly big. The sculpture becomes more and more visible as you approach as it’s lower than the main section, and when you turn round to go back to the main esplanade, a whole new view awaits you.
It’s here, despite being surrounded by high-rise buildings, that we realise just how many green spaces there are at La Défense. A sign (slightly exaggerating) says that there are six ‘parks’ with a seventh being created soon.
It does seem that a real effort has been made recently to add greenery to the concrete landscape, and you come across a lot of trees, vegetable patches, flowers, fountains…
Then suddenly we come across the statue that originally gave the area its name – the surroundings may have radically changed but La Défense de Paris is still here!
Luckily, there’s the monumental fountain by Yaacov Agam to cheer us up (btw, Agam is still alive! He’s 91!). Its seventies-inspired colour scheme is still as pretty today. We weren’t there to see the jets working (sixteen of them that spirt 15 metres into the air and are illuminated at night), but you might like to try and time your visit to be there between midday at 3pm on a weekday, or from 4-6pm weekends and public holidays. If you want the full son et lumière, it runs from 5-7pm weekdays, with one showing Fridays and Saturdays at 8.30pm.
The nearer you get to the Grande Arche, the bigger the works of art become – l’Araignée Rouge (1976) by Alexander Calder, les Deux Personnages Fantastiques (1976) by Miró and le Pouce (1981) by César are all more than 12 metres high…
We avoid the Quatre Temps shopping centre (one of the biggest in France), and notice in passing that the CNIT building goes down several floors below the main concoures (because it was built at ground level before everything else was raised!). And here we are at the Grande Arche, finally!
We decided not to take the lift to the top (15€) because of the weather, but if you’ve never been it’s well worth it for the fantastic views of Paris and the suburbs.
The roof was renovated a couple of years back (after eight years of being closed) and the walkway raised to improve the view.
From here, even if you don’t go up the Arche, there’s a great view of Paris on one side and the new neighbourhood of Nanterre on the other…
From the rear side there’s a different view of the Arche, a little garden under a walkway, more office buildings, a hidden work of art by Richard Serra (seek it out!) and a giant new concert venue, the Paris La Défense Arena who hosts sporting evens and concerts (P!nk, Rammstein…) with room for 40,000 viewers!
This area is a lot more animated during the week. At the weekend, when the offices are closed, it is very, very quiet.
To sum up, visiting La Défense is for you if you like:
— Modern architecture and skyscrapers
— Urban gardens
— Modern art and outdoor installations
— Seeing Paris from up high
— Shopping in a huge shopping centre
— Learning about the history of Paris in the late 20th century
— Exploring areas where tourists often don’t go, and
— Musical fountains!
And if your French is good enough, you may like to make use of the audioguides provided on the La Défense website as you walk around. Click here to choose yours.
La Défense is here
To check out our 150 photos of La Défense 😳, click here.