1958 - 1964 : La Défense Takes Shape

View of the CNIT - 1960

Apart from its strategic location on the historical axis extending from the Champs-Elysées, there was little indication that the La Défense Roundabout would one day be home to the future business district. Dilapidated houses and small factories for the engineering and automotive industries were bordered by shantytowns and the occasional farm.

Yet , in September 1958, when a government decree defined EPAD’s scope of intervention and gave it the means to effectively carry out its mission , La Défense was already home to private initiatives. The most spectacular is undeniably the Centre National des Industries et Techniques (CNIT), inaugurated in the final days of the 4th Republic. The CNIT was created to host large trade shows in vogue at the time: Mecanelec, flower shows, domestic arts displays, etc. Its spectacular vaults would soon have a ripple effect.

While drawing up the first development plan, EPAD began to acquire land and to relocate individuals. The outline slowly took shape, the main principles corresponding to the Athens Charter and separating automobile and pedestrian traffic.

In 1964, the first layout plan for the business district was adopted. 850,000 m² (9,150,000 sq. ft) of office space in identical buildings was planned for either side of the vast esplanade. In addition, residential buildings inspired by the Palais Royal, shops and recreational activities were created. In 1964, ESSO employees discovered the first building to be built in La Défense.

1965 - 1969 : the First Towers Were Erected

First towers on the historic axis - 1969

As in the original EPAD plan, La Défense’s first towers were identical: 100 meters (330 ft) high with a 42 x 24-meter (138 x 78-ft) base. First-generation buildings thus offered very homogenous facilities: 27,000 m² (290,000 sq ft) of total surface area, around 800 m² (8,600 sq ft) per floor with shallow offices receiving natural light.

The start of construction on the future RER suburban rail line encouraged leasing.

Then, 1966 saw the delivery of the first skyscraper in the business district, the Nobel Tower. Designed by CNIT architect Jean de Mailly, who also co-drafted the EPAD layout plan, the tower truly marked the entrance to the site. The Nobel dynamite company had placed the order.

In 1967, the Aquitaine tower opened its doors.

At the same time, however, the 1964 layout plan began to show its limits. It did not allow for the architectural diversity that would serve to better distinguish the building and in turn tenant companies. Above all, the plan as it was could neither meet demands for large spaces nor provide open spaces conducive to teamwork.

1970 - 1973 : from Skyscrapers to Crisis

First RER in operation at La Défense - 1970

In the early 1970s, France underwent a profound economic transformation and experienced accelerated growth. The service sector grew more and more rapidly. Needs in certain industries increased, particularly the insurance sector.

Then La Défense finally received the feature it lacked: in February 1970, the RER suburban rail line was put into service, connecting La Défense and the Place de l’Étoile in under five minutes. The lives of the 12,000 employees on the site changed overnight. The developer truly understood the fundamental role that public transportation would play in La Défense’s success and continued to expand this resource.

EPAD drafted another layout plan, bringing the program up to 1.5 million m² (16 million sq ft) of office space, which would allow it to meet companies’ needs while improving the financial balance of the operation.

EPAD began studying Zone B, the park neighborhood in Nanterre, for which it would provide 6,000 homes and 130,000 m² (1.4 million sq ft) of office space.

In 1972, the new layout plan was adopted. Builders could break ground on a second generation of towers: Franklin (65,000 m² or 700,000 sq ft), ASSUR (68,000 m² or 732,000 sq ft), GAN (85,000 m² or 915,000 sq ft) and Fiat (90,000 m² or 970,000 sq ft).

The city began to take shape; progress could be seen on the esplanade. The first plane tree was planted. The first works of art appeared, a testament to EPAD’s desire (rare at the time) to make art part of city life.

While tumultuous 1968 was calm in La Défense – apart from the opening of a mainline SNCF rail station – the area saw its share of violent disputes in 1972. So much so that EPAD studied the possibility of sheering the tall towers that distressed Parisian residents. Quickly followed by economic crisis, which was perceptible in 1973 and confirmed by the first oil shock, the discomfort made it increasingly difficult to sell building rights in 1974.

1974 - 1977 : Crisis

Aerial view of La Défense - 1975

In 1973, 600,000 m² (6,450,000 sq ft) of office space in La Défense was empty. The first blows of the economic crisis and the saturation of the market for office space took a heavy toll (available space in the Paris Region reached 2 million m² or 21.5 million sq ft). La Défense was crippled.

From 1975 to 1977, no building rights were sold. And yet the overproduction did not necessarily mean that all office space needs had been satisfied. At the end of this period, purchase options and commitments to sell were made to different occupants (Citibank for Elysée La Défense) and developers (Interconstruction in the Paris Region, SEERI for the Miroirs towers).

1978 - 1982 : Recovery

Opening day of 4 Temps - 1981

Following an inter-ministerial committee meeting on October 16, 1978, Prime Minister Raymond Barre paved the way for EPAD to ensure a full recovery: 350,000 m² (3,770,000 sq ft) of additional office space was approved; construction on the A14 highway under the pedestrian area continued; funds were made available to improve the environment; and the Ministry of Infrastructure moved to La Défense.

A third generation of office buildings took shape. Their highly original design focused on energy savings and optimizing use, while also facilitating the transition to new, rapidly-evolving office technologies and placing workstations in natural sunlight.

In 1981, President Mitterrand made the Tête Défense design competition one of his great architectural projects, deciding to house a major public establishment, the Ministry of Territorial Development, in the resulting structure.

1981 also witnessed the opening of Quatre Temps, “Europe’s largest shopping center” at the time. Les Quatre Temps featured over 100,000 m² (1,080,000 sq ft) of shops, department stores and a hypermarket, thereby doubling the amount of retail space in La Défense.

1983 - 1992 : Great Projects

Construction of La Grande Arche - 1987

He was a Danish architect. Along with 424 of his contemporaries, he participated in the international competition for the Tête Défense project launched by EPAD in 1982. On May 25, 1983, Johan Otto Van Spreckelsen was quietly fishing on an island in Scandinavia. Little did he know that his elegantly simple Cube would become a universally recognized symbol of the La Défense business district. That very day, President Mitterrand decided that it would become the Grande Arche.

During this period – a golden age for commercial real estate for some – La Défense saw massive projects, with multiple buildings and entire blocks sometimes be sold to a single operator. New features appeared. Hotels were built (Sofitel, Novotel, Ibis); CNIT and Infomart were redesigned; the Imax Dome was created. These additions offered new possibilities for trade shows and exhibitions.

The diversity of the architecture, the real estate and the surface areas and configurations available was henceforth paired with a much wider spectrum of activities. Total employment nearly doubled during this time, from 51,700 in 1982 to over 104,000 in 1990.

In 1986 the program increased its offering to 2,080,000 m² (22.4 million sq ft) of office space, including 295,000 m² (3.17 million sq ft) in the park neighborhood.

But the most spectacular change for the neighborhood was its image. The cultural activities the developer had consistently sought to promote flourished with the Calder and César exhibits, music festivals and the wind festival, drawing new visitors to the site. The inauguration of the Grande Arche, at the July 14, 1989 G7 Summit, with several Heads of State in attendance, gave La Défense exposure in newspapers and on TV screens across the world.

A year later, Jean-Michel Jarre showcased La Défense in a grandiose show in front of by two million fans extending from the Grande Arche to the Arc de Triomphe.

The CNIT got a makeover as well. Its shell was emptied to make way for a conference center, IT-oriented facilities, offices and shops that fit in harmoniously with the site’s many services.

Public transportation improved with the arrival of Metro line 1 on April 1, 1992 – the business district was now just a metro ticket away from downtown Paris.

1993 - 1997 : the Second Crisis

Aerial view of La Défense - 1995

As of 1992, EPAD stopped selling development rights. Like other markets, La Défense felt the weight of the real estate crisis. Stagnant sales are not, however, synonymous with absence of new construction.

During this period, Société Générale made La Défense home to its head office and to departments that has previously been scattered throughout Paris. The buildings occupied by KPMG and Kvaerner were also delivered.

This second crisis did not call into question the merits or soundness of the operation. On the contrary, the image of the business district continued to improve, especially among its users.

EPAD took many new initiatives to develop services. Wiring the site and all buildings provided secure, high-speed connections. Companies were connected to one of the first information superhighways; meanwhile, the quality of these facilities attracted new activities and operators, which in turn helped create new technology-oriented professions and services. Services and transportation were revamped.

A specific sorting center in La Défense, new simplified signage, an Issy-La Défense tram line and the Cœur Transport project – renovation of the public transport hub – were all steps forward.

In 1997, the market in La Défense began to see signs of the recovery that would quickly gain speed in the following years.

1998 – 2004 : Maturity and Mutation

Completion of Coeur Défense - 2000

At the dawn of the third millennium, La Défense reached maturity and saw out necessary changes. Large-scale renovation work began on the oldest buildings, particularly Europlaza and the historic Nobel Tower.

In 1998, EPAD concluded its first sale in six years with the elegant PB6/EDF tower. New buildings appeared: Guynemer, Triangle de l’Arche, Palatin, etc.

The Cœur Défense project added 190,000 m² (2,045,000 sq ft) of office space. EPAD even dared to revolutionize one of its fundamental axes, transforming the ring road into an up-and-coming urban boulevard. This allowed for the construction of two new buildings with innovative architecture: CBX and Exaltis.

Renovation of the main concourse of the Grande Arche de La Défense station was completed.

Unibail bought CNIT to breathe new life into the center. Les Quatre Temps underwent major construction work as part of an initiative to revitalize and expand.

La Défense became home to a Christian community center in 2002.

Meanwhile, more activities were programmed in the area with the support of the General Council of Hauts-de-Seine, including with sporting events featuring Tony Parker, celebrations and other forms of entertainment.

Bernard Bled’s arrival as EPAD Managing Director at the end of 2004 marked the beginning of a new phase…

2005 - 2009 : Preparing for the Future

Axa Tower (now First) after renovation © Constance Decorde

Renewal of La Défense: a shared ambition

Never before has such a large-scale urban renewal operation been implemented in such a short amount of time: less than two years. In the spring of 2005, EPAD – at the French government’s request – began considering the future of a business district threatened with obsolescence. An ambitious plan was put forth at the end of 2005. On July 25 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior and Territorial Planning, adopted the main outline for a renewal plan.

1 – Renovation of outdated buildings Redeveloping the Opus 12 and Initiale (formerly Nobel) Towers initiated the movement; transformation of the Axa Tower is broadening it. Some 15 of La Défense’s oldest skyscrapers will be affected by this wave of demolition-reconstruction operations that will create up to 150,000 m² (1,615,000 sq ft) of additional surface area.

2 – Construction of 300,000 m² (3,330,000 ft²) of new office space La Défense is not yet finished. Public land cleared in developing Boule­vard Circulaire will lead to a program of 300,000 m² (3,330,000 sq ft) of new offices. These towers will bring new architectural ambition to the district without encroaching on public space and while respecting the historical axis.

3 –Signal Tower, a remarkable new monument Signal Tower will go down in the history of La Défense. Its specifications are built to meet two ambitious requirements: first, present the world with a major architectural feat, forcefully creative, daringly formal and equipped with state-of-the-art technology. Secondly, build the first truly mixed tower in France, where employees, residents, hotels and shops coexist in harmony.

4 – Construction of 100,000 m² (1,076,000 sq ft) of homes La Défense was founded upon the idea of urban diversity. For 50 years, this space has been created based on the area’s uniqueness and focused on quality of life. Increasing La Défense’s offering of office space will also result in more residential space under EPAD’s management. This additional construction amounts to 100,000 m² (1,076,000 sq ft) of new housing.

5 – Complete the transformation of Boulevard Cir­culaire into a pleasant, human-scale ring road Renovations on the Northern portion of Boulevard Circulaire in Courbevoie are nearly complete. The uncrossable artery that once separated La Défense’s concrete pedestrian area from the rest of the world has been replaced by a roadway that weaves together the urban fabric between the business district and its surrounding environment. The southern portion in Puteaux is preparing to undergo the same transformation.

6 – Facilitate access to the Business District A central factor in the success of La Défense, the abundance of public transportation serving the area will soon reach the saturation point. The new phase of development for the area thus requires improving the transportation networks that serve the business district. Extending RER suburban rail line E (Eole) from the Gare Saint-Lazare, then towards the Mantes-la-Jolie region, will be the major project in years to come. In time, it will help streamline traffic on line A, which today often runs at capacity, while improving connections with areas in the west. We are also studying the possibility of linking La Défense to the future Gare de l’Est –Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle Airport line.

7 – Modernize our governance EPGD (Etablissement Public de Gestion de La Défense) comprises local authorities present in the La Défense area (Puteaux, Courbevoie and the General Council of Hauts-de-Seine) to manage and operate the site.

8 – Launch a policy to promote cultural and shopping events Despite its tourist, shopping and cultural appeal, the business district still lacks facilities, events and activities that would enliven the city well beyond office hours. New meeting places, new events, and a highly developed cultural life will all be sources of enthusiasm and will promote cohesion. Together, they will transform the image of La Défense.

9 – Focus on sustainable development Ushering in a new phase in its history, La Défense is openly committed to sustainable development. Naturally, this requirement will apply to new buildings as well as management of construction sites, which will use innovative means to remove rubble. EPAD also intends to extend the same standard of care to the surroundings and to the environment of employees, residents and visitors, demonstrating that economic development and sustainable development are not mutually exclusive.

10 – Participate in the balanced development of the Paris region A major economic asset for the Paris and outlying areas, La Défense must promote balanced development of the entire region, especially for new operations classified as being in the national interest.

2009-2018 : New gouvernance

Evénement La Défense Jazz Festival - 2010 © CD92 - Olivier Ravoire

As part of the La Défense renewal plan, Nicolas Sarkozy wanted new governance for the business district. Indeed, EPAD had been the default administrator for 50 years, and had thus borne the financial burden.

Creating a new administrative entity made it possible to separate management and development activities on the site. EPDG was created by the law of February 27, 2007 to manage, promote and energize the business district.

50% of its funding is provided by the General Council of the Département of Hauts-de-Seine, with the rest coming from the municipalities of Puteaux and Courbevoie. On January 1, 2009, EPGD began fulfilling the duties entrusted to it by the law: management of the business district, and well as maintenance, upkeep and operation of public lands fell under its responsibility.

EPGD aimed to increase the number of services to enhance quality of life on the site in terms of safety, cleanliness and enjoyment. For cultural event organization and site promotion, EPGD pursued a proactive cultural policy with the goal of continuously strengthening the site’s lively and energetic character. It developed cultural programs, performances for the general public and shopping events.

In January 2010, the EPGD became Defacto, while the EPAD, still in charge of the development of the business district, merged in July 2010 with EPASA, developer of ZAC Seine-Arche in Nanterre, to become EPADESA.

2018-nowadays : Developper and Manager Meeting

Transforming La Défense into a lifestyle district - 2021 © Sabrina Budon

On the occasion of the Interministerial Committee of the Greater Paris Metropolitan Area on October 15, 2015, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced the need to reconstitute a unified management of the La Défense business district in order to strengthen its international attractiveness and guarantee its development balanced. On this basis, the Prime Minister decided to create a single local public institution, resulting from the merger of EPADESA and Defacto.

As of January 1st, 2018, PARIS LA DÉFENSE is born, bringing together planning and management skills, allowing to continue the evolution of the district and to compete with its international competitors. The establishment, whose priority is to transform the business district into a living area, continues to provide day-to-day management, while developing the animation of public spaces and the development of urban projects.

In 2021, Paris La Défense will open a new chapter in its history by giving itself a "raison d'être". Society's transition to a post-oil world is one of the major challenges of the next decade, and this issue impacts public spaces in the same way as all sectors of the economy. With this new strategic direction, the public institution aims to embody the vision of a low-carbon future for Paris La Défense, by committing to halve the area's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, anticipating the national target of a 40% reduction by the same date.