France's futuristic "Pentagon" to open in 2014

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 01, 2011 11:03 AM
France's futuristic "Pentagon" to open in 2014

By Nick Vinocur

PARIS (Reuters) - Stealth bomber? Alien fortress? An advance peek at France's new defense ministry, due to open in 2014, reveals a sprawling, asymmetrical complex that seems to have jumped off the screen of a science-fiction movie.

Touted as France's answer to the Pentagon -- the United States' military command and control center in Virginia -- the new building will bring together the air, land and marine branches of the French military onto one site in western Paris.

From the street, passers-by will see a sheer facade of treated glass rising from the pavement like a chalk cliff-face, with a giant glass portico as its principal entrance, according to a digital mock-up shown to reporters.

But the novelty value lies mostly in the rooftop -- a mountain range of slate grey geometrical planes that lock together at odd angles and, as the complex recedes back from the street, form a series of valleys, peaks and sharp gorges.

The 7,000 square meters (75,350 sq feet) of planes, which bring to mind the fuselage of a Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber, will capture solar energy while heating and cooling will mostly come from air flows diverted from the garden below.

In a presentation near the construction site this week, principal architect Nicolas Michelin described the center as part machine, part fortress and part nature park.

"It's a natural machine: we are playing with wind and sunlight," Michelin told journalists, adding that his firm had designed the main building to look "stately, but also somewhat mysterious, and exemplary in terms of its energy consumption".

Seen from above, the complex looks like a warren of hexagonal cells, with lush garden space covering nearly two-thirds of the ground surface and narrow footpaths linking the different services together.

The 300,000 square meter complex will be made of three parts including the main ministry and 90,000 square meters of office space designed for civilian use.

27 YEAR LEASE

Situated next to the ring road that surrounds Paris, the ministry will house a swimming pool open to neighborhood residents, as well as three daycare centers. In total, some 9,000 people will go to work every day at the new site.

The construction arm of French firm Bouygues won the contract to build the new ministry as part of a public-private partnership that will add more than 1 billion euros to its long-term balance sheet.

Under the deal, a novelty for this type of project in France, the government will become a tenant, or leaseholder, for the next 27 years with an annual rent of around 130 million euros. The total expense is about 3.5 billion euros ($5 billion).

"In 27 years, we will be the owners," said Gerard Longuet, France's defense minister, at the presentation.

Asked about the risks of such a deal -- including the prospect of Bouygues being bought by a Chinese firm -- he said: "We are living under the rule of law... No matter who is the main stakeholder, he will have to respect this contract."

A public body, France's deposit and consignment office, retained blocking rights for any potential sale, he added.

Aside from Bouygues, engineering group Thales, services firm Sodexo, maintenance company Exprim and energy provider Dalkia will participate in building and operating the ministry, as well as private investors. (Reporting by Nick Vinocur and Gerard Bon; Editing by Steve Addison)