I had seen pictures and knew of the Grande Arche de la Défense before my first visit to Paris in ’97. And looking at it, it was, OK, I think I get this building. Sure. Cool.
As we stepped out into the plaza and walked towards it, however, I realized, no, no I didn’t get the building.
Even looking at it now, there’s something about the simplicity of its geometry that totally belies its scale. Look again at those stairs leading up inside the arche – those dots are people sitting. This building is farking huge. It’s a 110m (361′) cube! I had absolutely zero sense of scale from the photos, even as we crossed le Pont de Neuilly (we had walked all the way from the Louvre!) it still appeared to me to be a pretty small affair. That it wasn’t/isn’t was amazing to me and I got a new sense of how form and proportion can really affect our perception and experience of a building.
My second visit to la Défense a few years later came near midnight. Stepping out of the Metro, despite my knowledge, it still took me a moment to register the scale. We went up to the plinth in the middle of the arche; behind the building is, among other things, a small grove of sculptural “signal” lights (they aren’t actually signal lights, but they had multicoloured lights atop spindly forms that were kinda like signal lights) and a graveyard. At night, with the city mostly silent around us, inside this giant structure, with the lights signaling in front of us, and the quiet graveyard beyond while a warm breeze blew… it was surreal, and I totally loved it.
(Of other amusing note, la Gande Arche was the stage for one of the largest concerts in the world by Jean Michel Jarre, with an attendance of 2 million people. (!) All the towers in the area were turned into giant projection screens, there were fireworks, and a very large stage. I wasn’t there for that one, but I’ve seen it, and it looked pretty darn epic.)