La Banque Postale has just opened its new headquarters in a cluster of buildings in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Having taken many years and a great deal of public money to complete, the building project has been the cause of much controversy and debate. But to me the architecture is splendid.
At its heart is the early 18th century hotel de Choiseul-Praslin, which has been lavishly renovated after standing empty for many years. Over the last few months I have watched the painstaking work that has gone into bringing this building back to life, every detail carefully restored and cleaned and painted and polished. Other later buildings have also been renovated while, on the adjacent plot, a nondescript modern block has been transformed into a strikingly contemporary, green building that reminds me a little of the Beinecke Rare Books Library at Yale. The contrast, between old and new, traditional and modern, is something Paris does very well. Although not without their detractors, the headquarters buildings have generally met with admiration.
Sadly the landscape has managed to escape similar levels of investment and attention. While the Beinecke library at Yale is off-set by an equally beautiful, austere Noguchi garden, these landmark buildings in Paris have a couple of courtyards that made me wince when I saw them earlier today. Located between two of the older buildings, one courtyard has a fine old horse chestnut, preserved during the building works, and a random selection of half-dead shrubs stuffed into silly, narrow borders.
The second courtyard, located right on rue de Sèvres between the old and the new buildings, is worse. Someone decided that checkerboard granite paving topped with large Versailles tubs was the best option here. Unadventurous (but undoubtedly French and potentially suitably dignified), the tubs were installed in a rather random configuration and painted to match the pale green window frames of the hotel; each one was equipped with expensive electrical up-lighters. Then a job lot of large shrubs was bunged in. Habit played no part in their choice: large-leaved, small-leaved, tall, squat, rounded, columnar, in they all went. And there they sit, haphazard, straggly and, with their soil already full of weeds, rather sad.
The project allegedly cost 130m euros. Surely just a tiny little bit more of that could have been spent on the horticulture?