The First Skyscraper in Paris The Croulebarbe Tower
In the 1950s, certain sections of a Parisian neighborhood called Croulebarbe, which lies near place d’Italie, were declared insalubrious. A city planner named Adrien Brelet set out to improve the area.
One of Brelet’s ideas was to physically link two parallel streets—rue Abel Hovelbecque and rue Croulebarbe—that were separated by a railroad yard. He planned to build an esplanade that would arch over the yard from rue Hovelbecque and lead to a monumental staircase on the other side of the tracks. Then pedestrians could walk across the esplanade from rue Hovelbecque and descend the staircase onto rue Croulebarbe below.
Over time, the plan was altered, and at some point it was determined that a 23-story apartment building would be erected on the patch of land where the monumental staircase would have been built. Quickly dubbed “the first skyscraper in Paris,” the building would be the third tallest structure in the city after the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral.
Though the idea for the staircase was abandoned, the idea for an esplanade arching over the railroad tracks was carried forward. When architect Edouard Albert was selected to design and build the skyscraper, he incorporated a public terrace two stories tall that cut through the seventh and eighth floors, believing that the esplanade would be constructed to lead to it.
Albert worked with engineer Jean L. Sarf, to perfect the technique of using hollow steel tubes for construction, and used it to build the new tower on rue Croulebarbe. Filled with concrete to provide resistance to fire and to dampen sound, the tubes formed a lightweight frame that could support a building from the outside, leaving its interior free of load-bearing walls. This allowed each floor to be partitioned according to the desires of the owner because the constraint of designing a floor plan to accommodate load-bearing walls had been removed.
Today, nineteen tubular columns standing 1.5 meters apart are visible on the longitudinal façades of the building, and twelve are visible on the lateral faces. At each story, the columns support reinforced-concrete floors that jut beyond the façade ever so slightly. When the windows of the building are closed, the lines created by the horizontal concrete slabs intersecting with those created by the vertical columns give the building the appearance of an elongated checkerboard. When the windows are open (they open outward), the building takes on the appearance of a giant Advent calendar.
Although the two-story terrace was built, the esplanade crossing the railroad yard never was. The municipal railroad authority objected to its construction and as if to signal permanent disapproval of the idea, built a solid sky-blue iron fence along rue Hovelbecque that obstructed the view of the railway yard.
Today, there is a magnificent view of Paris from the terrace of the skyscraper, but because the esplanade over the railroad yard was never built, the public does not have access. Even the residents of the tower have limited right of entry.