At the far western end of the magnificent urban axis that runs from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe, crossing the Seine at the Pont de Neuilly, is the Grand Arch of La Défense—one of the “great projects” of the late French president François Mitterrand. Designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, a Danish architect of sternly modernist sensibility, La Grande Arche is a colossal open cube: almost forty stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and in 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble.
On a hot, sunny afternoon—which is when I first saw it some seven years ago—La Grande Arche is, quite literally, dazzling. An elevator, definitely not recommended for anyone inclined to vertigo, whisks the visitor up to a rooftop terrace, which offers an unparalleled view of Paris, past the Tuileries to the Louvre and on to the Ile de la Cité, Sante Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.
The arch’s three-story-high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For Mitterrand intended the Grand Arch as a human-rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook I consulted, La Grande Arche was nicknamed “Fraternity Arch”; also noted, as in every other guidebook I looked at, was the fact that within its space the entire cathedral of Notre-Dame, including towers and spire, would fit comfortably.
This prompted a question as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the greatest of the world’s cityscapes. Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights and secure the moral foundations of democracy: the culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube, or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great gothic cathedrals of France?