Public Comment

What Paris Can Teach Berkeley

By Jean-Luc Szpakowski
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:35:00 AM

Or, What Do High-Rises Have to Do with It? 


This is in response to Gerry Tierney’s letter bemoaning Berkeley’s provincialism in not embracing modern architecture and not embracing “sleek sophisticated” 22-story towers such as Vancouver has. I share his love for Paris architecture. One of the points he omits, however, is that Paris is Paris in large part because of the strict regulation of the height of buildings within Paris itself. The buildings are indeed six or seven or eight stories high, but their height is limited by ordinance. The rare exception such as the Montparnasse Tower stands out and is widely disliked, its presence attributed to government corruption.  

Further, it is useful to note that what is modern and chic, “au courant,” often becomes reviled by future generations. One example is the plan for Paris proposed by Le Corbusier, one of the preeminent vanguard architects of the the 20th century, which proposed replacing much of central Paris by a series of towers that must have seemed oh so sleek and sophisticated to his supporters. One can only thank God that the people and government of Paris had the wisdom to reject this vision. 

What does give charm to Paris, in my opinion, is the common attention to the way the buildings integrate with their environment. At intersections, the corners are frequently oblique, to round off the square into an octogon or higher number of sides. Buildings have balconies that bring insiders into the commons of the outdoors. Successive stories are frequently set back to create a series of overlapping rooftop gardens/balconies—there is a particularly fine example on the rue de Vavin just a block from the Luxembourg gardens. Balconies have interesting iron work, there are artistic architectural accents everywhere, surplus though they may be for pure function. There is a street life, generated by zoning that allows small stores on street level. Everywhere even tiny pieces of land have been converted into parks—a true commons.  

Yes, there needs to be sufficient density to support mass transit and stores, but this does not need to be 10- or 20-story towers. Throughout Europe—Paris, Warsaw, Berlin—see Paul Krugman’s comments on visiting that area—the sweet spot seems to be between four and eight stories high. Somewhere around 75 feet high seems to be the peak height to keep things on a human scale. Maybe this is as high as people could comfortably climb. More importantly for pedestrians, this height does not create a pattern of overwhelming mass hulking over human beings, particularly if setbacks from the street and setbacks of upper stories are instituted.  

It seems in looking at our neighboring cities that there are builders who can still make money below that height limit. The new developments near 40th street and San Pablo are that height, as are many of the new downtown Oakland condos and the refurbished buildings near Jack London Square. If Oakland can do it, why can’t Berkeley?  

What does need to end is the reflex response of city government to any call for greening our city: Build more high- rises.  


Jean-Luc Szpakowski is a Berkeley resident.