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Tête de la Défense

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

In 1970, Jean-Claude Aaron, an ambitious French developer, contacted I.M. Pei, who he knew through Jackie Kennedy and the Kennedy Library, and also through Pei’s work with William Zeckendorf, whom Aaron greatly admired. The developer was then building the 690-foot-high Tour Montparnasse, the most controversial structure in Paris (until Pei introduced the Louvre pyramid!) as it destroyed the cohesive low roofline of central Paris.

Aaron was offered a prominent site in La Défense, the city’s new commercial district. Perhaps wishing to redeem his reputation, he asked Pei, who was already recognized for his high design, to create an iconic 70-80 story tower, the tallest in Europe. Pei agreed but when he visited the site and looked west, up the 1.2 mile-long Avenue des Champs Élysées, he realized that the building would appear as an unsightly appendage on the Arc de Triomphe. He recommended that Aaron relocate the tower to the very head of the avenue, the grand axis of Paris. Pei then helped him to get the site with a preliminary design for a twin-tower building linked by catenary curves, like a giant U, so that the view through the l’Arc de Triomphe would remain unobstructed.


Official entry prepared by Araldo Cossutta / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Pei worked with his partner Araldo Cossutta to develop the concept, but objected to the placement of the office segments, like three U-shaped slabs pressed closely together, resulting in an unacceptable work environment. Given the tight schedule, Pei agreed to go with the imperfect scheme with the understanding that he would redesign it before final release. Instead of the tight multi-tower configuration, Pei simplified the design into two sinuously curved forms, connected at the base before sculpturally rising on either side of the all-important void. “The axis must be closed, yet remain open,” he explained. “The combination must be there, otherwise you have no space; it leaks out all over the place, just goes on and on. Hence this solution: open at top and closed below.” Pei called his design a “Diapason,” a grand swelling of harmony.

Between the two submissions, many others submitted ideas. In the end, the project came to naught as President Georges Pompidou determined that a building on such an important site must be designed by a French architect. Although a great disappointment, the project introduced Pei to the Parisian power structure and government bureaucracy, all of which better prepared him to undertake the Louvre.

Design Team: I.M. Pei (refined 2nd scheme); Araldo Cossutta (1st scheme)
I.M. Pei & Partners