Why Europe Has So Few Skyscrapers

Guy de Mau­pas­sant ate lunch at the restau­rant in the base of the Eif­fel Tow­er near­ly every day, that being the only place in Paris where he would­n’t have to look at the Eif­fel Tow­er. 130 years lat­er, the obser­va­tion deck of the Tour Mont­par­nasse is known to offer the most beau­ti­ful vista on the French cap­i­tal — thanks pre­cise­ly to the invis­i­bil­i­ty of the Tour Mont­par­nasse. Spare a thought, if you will, for that high­ly con­spic­u­ous build­ing, quite pos­si­bly the loneli­est in Europe. Since its com­ple­tion in 1973, it has stood as the sole sky­scraper in Paris prop­er, its famous unsight­li­ness hav­ing inspired a ban on the con­struc­tion of build­ings over sev­en sto­ries high in the city cen­ter.

Paris isn’t alone in its lack of sky­scrap­ers, a con­di­tion trav­el­ers from Asia and Amer­i­ca notice in cities all over the Con­ti­nent. In the video above, con­struc­tion-themed Youtube chan­nel The B1M explores the rea­sons for this rel­a­tive pauci­ty of tall tow­ers in the cap­i­tals of Europe. “When sky­scrap­ers first rose to promi­nence in the 19th cen­tu­ry, first in Chica­go and lat­er in New York, many Euro­pean cities were already firm­ly estab­lished with grand his­toric build­ings and pub­lic spaces that left lit­tle room for large new struc­tures,” says its nar­ra­tor. At that time, a grow­ing sense of cul­tur­al com­pe­ti­tion between Amer­i­ca and Europe also meant that “each con­ti­nent became wary of adopt­ing the oth­er’s con­cepts.”

Then came the Sec­ond World War, in the wake of whose dev­as­ta­tion of Europe “an over­whelm­ing desire to restore what had been destroyed took hold.” Few Con­ti­nen­tal cities held off the kind of demand for floor space that drove sky­scraper con­struc­tion in Amer­i­ca. In the east, the Sovi­ets built most­ly “mid-rise, repet­i­tive struc­tures that sought to rehouse much of the pop­u­la­tion”; in the west, the restric­tive phe­nom­e­non of “Brus­seliza­tion” took hold in response to a wave of bulky post­war-mod­ernist struc­tures “that had lit­tle regard for archi­tec­tur­al or cul­tur­al val­ue.” This led to “a gen­er­al dis­like for mod­ern build­ings across Europe, with many see­ing them as bland or soul­less.”

No one who’s spent time in Amer­i­can city cen­ters built up pre­dom­i­nant­ly in the 1960s and 70s can dis­miss those Euro­pean detrac­tors’ fears. But it would be a lie to claim that Euro­pean cities have avoid­ed sky­scrap­ers entire­ly: even Paris has sim­ply pushed them a few miles away, into unro­man­tic busi­ness dis­tricts like La Défense. Ever-taller build­ings have sym­bol­ized moder­ni­ty for well over a cen­tu­ry now, and no civ­i­liza­tion can afford to keep moder­ni­ty at too great a dis­tance. Tak­ing note of how atti­tudes toward sky­scrap­ers have been “soft­en­ing across the Con­ti­nent” in the 21st cen­tu­ry, this B1M video spec­u­lates on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a “sky­scraper boom” in Europe. But even if that should hap­pen, the Tour Mont­par­nasse will sure­ly con­tin­ue stand­ing alone.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A is for Archi­tec­ture: 1960 Doc­u­men­tary on Why We Build, from the Ancient Greeks to Mod­ern Times

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

The Cre­ation & Restora­tion of Notre-Dame Cathe­dral, Ani­mat­ed

Watch the Build­ing of the Empire State Build­ing in Col­or: The Cre­ation of the Icon­ic 1930s Sky­scraper From Start to Fin­ish

An Intro­duc­tion to the Chrysler Build­ing, New York’s Art Deco Mas­ter­piece, by John Malkovich (1994)

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Martin Beekes says:

    Build­ing sky­scrap­ers has been a way of pro­ject­ing a city as mod­ern, ‘go-ahead’: Chica­go, New York, Wuhan, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Dubai, and many oth­ers have done that. Euro­pean cities were already estab­lished so did not need to engage in build­ing for adver­tis­ing rea­sons. Some cities have not been well-suit­ed to sky­scraper con­struc­tion. Lon­don over­lies the soft clay of the Thames basin, unlike New York, for instance, which over­lies sol­id bedrock. Ams­ter­dam and Venice have obvi­ous lim­its on con­struc­tion.

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