La Defense: Man's Window onto the World

The Paris we see today, the Paris that was built in the reign of the Louis’ and Henrys’, is beautiful.

Beautiful, but not real.

There’s purpose behind the positioning of each structure within the city, reasoning behind the architecture and symbolism behind the design. The kings’ of Paris, backed by religious right, sought to keep their kingdom safe, their power secure—intentions all reflected in the building of the city.  

The king's of France are history's past and today France makes the line clear between church and state. This is a country that embraces man's thought over divine right as a means of moving forward without losing its prominence in the world stage. In a government that rejects all things religious, man is the power. And it's La Defense that reflects just that. 

La Defense. View from the top of the stairs of the La Grande Arche.
La Defense is located a few metro stops outside of the center of Paris; It’s Paris's downtown, an area specifically created beginning in the 1950s as a commercial zone, separate from the traditional, greater area of the city.

La Grande Arche is the first thing that appears in view as you ascend from the metro station’s escalator—a looming gray- white presence with a center cut out allowing for a perfect square backdrop of the sky behind. It's shaped like a cube and situated along the same row (although at a massive distance between the three) as its predecessor arches (the Arc de Triomphe and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel): progression's nod to the city's past.

The arch is intended as a window onto the world, a window onto modernity, change and progression: values that the French hold to high esteem, yet values that tear thin the line between maintaining a grasp on the history of the past while progressing to the times of the new.  

The skyscrapers surrounding the arch form a square- like form to the downtown area. The set up leaves the space in between empty, an expansive area for pedestrians to cross through. Which they do, clumps of individuals navigating their way around; From the top of the stairs of the arch, it seems as if they’re all wearing black.

La Grande Arche
There’s a massive sculpture of a thumb located to the right of the arch. No plaque or signage designates the title or artist of the work, nor an explanation behind the meaning of the piece. But there’s no need to explain the significance of the work, the universal signal for “its all ok.” It’s a thumbs up for the move to modernity, for the acceptance of progression in advancing the city. Historically, kings used divine right to legitimize their role. The thumb is the work of man—the thumb of man. It’s the clearest symbol of man’s potential for greatness via man’s touch in the world. The old was sanctified by the gods. The new is reserved for man. And in a country that values a religion of secularism in reaching the advancements of modernity, it’s the link to man as the measure of all things.

The fact that Leonardo da Vinci University, a university named in honor of the artist who claimed man to be the measure of all, is located directly across from the thumb is case and point for my argument.

La Defense's "The Thumb"
Two immense sculptures are placed around the university. One, titled ICARE, features a man, his nude body idealized, yet his gaze peering down as if to convey a sense of humbleness. He towers over the people who walk below, the idealization of his body reflective of ancient, Greco- Roman ideals of the wise and warrior man. The piece, through its name and the man’s gaze, humanizes the man featured while reflecting the values of wisdom to be gained through man’s role in the world.  

Large, interior shopping malls are on the other side of the square. The chain clothing store, New Look, has its own building.

It’s astonishing how obvious the purpose of La Defense is. It’s a new look, a new vision of a city embracing modernity. It rids of the charm of Paris. Gone, in lieu of a world that rids of individuality. There are no boulangeries here, rather fast food joints within the interior shopping centers. There are no cobbled stones here, rather a flat, paved pathway, uniform in nature.

It’s a modern day Versailles, a modern day Louvre palace. A modern day construction meant to influence and sway the people around.

I don’t like the feel here. I don’t like the skyscrapers towering over me, the open space, the loss of the hidden alleys glazed by the pastel gloss of my romantic Paris. 

But I like the familiarity of it to home. I like sitting here to write, seated at a McDonalds (which, in Paris, McDs are as fancy as fancy gets) staring out of the large window to an area barren of the traditional Paris culture, yet edgy with that of an American city.

Oddly, I feel cheated, in some ways. Cheated that man still has the power to build life to reflect man’s own vision, man’s own purpose. I feel cheated that place a Starbucks and McDs here and suddenly I feel comfortable. Comforted by the familiarity that can be found in any city across the world.

I feel cheated that man still uses symbolism to sway the public. And I feel odd that I can study Versailles, judge away that Louis XIV instilled order and harmony into his complex as a means of reflection into the manner of his rule, and that the same can be done today, today in the modern era.

How much can one transform into modernity without loosing the tradition, the history, the culture it all stems from? Yet, how much does one hold on to? Where lies the balance between progression and tradition?

And how much of our surroundings are mere constructions, solely meant to reflect man’s greater purpose?

La Defense; View from top of the stairs of the arch.
The store, New Look, has it's own building.
"La Dome" in La Defense.
Completely different restaurant, but "La Dome" in Vavin. (Near where I live/ have French Grammar.) 

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