Just as French rulers of the past wanted to leave their mark on Paris with various monuments, churches, squares, and gardens, so too did Francois Mitterand, who was president from 1981-1995, during the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Many things he was not, but Mitterand was a big dreamer, and he wanted his building projects (dubbed les grand projets) and his legacy to have a big presence in Paris. Though some were controversial, most you can’t miss:
The Pyramid at the Louvre: Nothing has ever been hated so much by the Parisians (except maybe the Eiffel Tower) as the glass sectioned pyramid designed by I. M. Pei marking the entrance to the Louvre. Some see the shiny structure as marking the perfect balance between old and new, classic and modern; others just see it as tacky. Whatever your opinion, the pyramid is here to stay and even has become part of pop culture- unless Pei is also a protector of the holy grail and designed the pyramid as the perfect foil to the body of Mary Magdelene (for the 8 of you who have not read or seen the Da Vinci code, please diregard). And 3 smaller
La Grande Arche de la Defense (or just La Defense): This giant angular arch only appears so from the front- in reality it is a giant cube which sits on near perfect alignment looking westward from the Louvre, following the perspective via the Arc de Triomphe. Named La Defense for the French who fought back the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the hulking giant 100 meters, twice as tall as the Arc de Triomphe, and in fact the whole Notre Dame cathedral could fit inside. La Defense holds down the business district of Paris, thankfully a few kilometers west of the main city, so although few tourists make it there, it is a nice chilled out place to hang out with Parisians on the steps, take in the colorful modern art sculptures and fountains that decorate the area (giant thumb, anyone?) and elevate to the top for a unique view of the city.
Opera de la Bastille: Located on the sight of the infamous political prison that was destroyed in the French Revolution, this new modern opera building is much more accommodating and comfortable than the older Opera Garnier (which was made for 18th century rear ends). Most actual operas are performed at the new Opera Bastille, where the Opera Garnier holds mostly ballets (which are also sometimes called operas). The neighborhood has cleaned up nicely in recent years and is a fantastic place for dinner or a glass of wine before the show (could you feel any more cultured?) opened July 14 1989
Bibliotheque National Francois Mitterand: The last of Mitterand’s projects before he lest office, the National Library showcases the parallel existence of ancient and modern, with a thouroughly modern design housing medieval manuscripts as well as every book ever printed in France since 1537 (with over 11 million volumes the collection is larger than that of the Library of Congress- in fact, the largest in the world). The library is set on top a huge tree-filled rectangle, has four giant columns representing books and containing books, and an interior with full size conifers garden as the backdrop for the many reading rooms. This may be the one grand projet you won’t see, and unless you have a penchant for comparing library archictecture, that’s probably alright- most guidebooks don’t even mention it.