A great city shapes itself around its public buildings, as the spaces around those buildings become the city’s central gathering places. Cities all over the world try to elevate themselves with the latest iconic building designed by a star architect. Sydney and Bilbao are the most noted examples. Some of these attempts are successful whereas others are not. We have put the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao on our “Hall of Shame” because the building’s individual drama cannot make up for the extremely dysfunctional public spaces that surround it.

It takes more than architecture alone to bring people together.

The desire for great monuments is very healthy and exciting, and Paris is indeed the “Capital of the World” when it comes to them. They are all over the city — at least 30 in total — including the Eiffel Tower, Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, Notre-Dame, Palais du Luxembourg, and some of the bridges that cross the Seine. These monuments are in exceptional settings and combine to create what we think is the foremost concentration of great public buildings and public spaces in the world.

Notre Dame, Paris's most iconic monument, has a mutually supportive relationship with its surrounding uses that exemplifies the ability of public buildings to act as civic anchors.

The monuments mentioned are only the most obvious examples of the great architecture that gives Paris much of its well-deserved reputation. They are major draws for visitors and citizens alike, timeless icons that are surrounded by complementary uses such as parks, markets, hotels, restaurants, museums and other attractions. This is triangulation writ large, and it brings enormous public and financial benefits to the city. The interplay between these monuments and their immediate surroundings forms a lesson that most recent iconic designs have yet to absorb: It takes more than architecture alone to bring people together.

Yet on the poor end of the spectrum, Paris is also well-represented. The Bibliothèque Nationale, Opéra Bastille, and Tour Montparnasse represent some of the worst public building and public space combinations we’ve come across.

The Bibliotheque Nationale and its raised, windswept plaza add little life to the surrounding area.

Paris also has more than its share of great monuments mired in abysmal, traffic-dominated settings, including the Arc de Triomphe, Panthéon, Opéra Garnier, and Place de la Madeleine. With improved pedestrian access and surrounding amenities, these monuments could become much more vital assets to their surrounding neighborhoods. It is staggering to think how superb Paris’s collection of monuments could be if the opportunities inherent in these underperforming spaces were tapped.

The Arc de Triomphe is currently a remote island stranded in a sea of asphalt, but it could be transformed into a world-class civic space.

Critical Issues: Buildings was last modified: March 6th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces
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