It used to be a pleasure to cross the Seine from the Left Bank to the Right, and to pause for a moment by the Louvre to take in that glorious vista, admired by innumerable busloads of tourists and many others besides: the view one gets, framed by the graceful central arch of the diminutive Arch of Triumph of the Carrousel, of the fountain-filled Tuileries Gardens, of the Place de la Concorde, and up the sloping Champs-Elysées to its crowning monument. Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe. But the pleasure—for me at any rate—is now marred by the sight of a cancerous growth of grayish concrete smudging the distant horizon. I can never view this visual outrage without asking myself how such a thing could come to pass. Can it be that the French, who from the late Renaissance on and through most of the 18th century succeeded the Italians as the finest architects in Europe, have totally lost that sense of aesthetic elegance and measure that so long distinguished them?

Years ago, in a blistering article entitled “The Gangsters of the Appian Way,” Niccolo Tucci tore into the vandals who, he claimed, were disfiguring that ancient roadway with neon signs, gas stations, and other modern commodities. The Appian Way, he pointed out, did not belong to the Romans, nor to the Italians, nor even to the Europeans; it belongs to history, to mankind, to the world.

I feel the same way about that incomparable Carrousel-Tuileries-Champs-Elysées vista, which a new generation of French vandals—and they include, alas, President François Mitterrand—have disgracefully disfigured and, skyscrapers and high-rise buildings being easier to put up than to tear down, perhaps irreparably desecrated for the foreseeable future.

In a typically grandiloquent passage of his memoirs, Charles de Gaulle once called the Champs-Elysées “le plus grand axe du monde.” The Champs-Elysées may be praised for many things, but it is not “the greatest axis in the world” either in length or in width—as de Gaulle, who was something of a German scholar, should have known. In the 18th century the Berliners decided to prolong their broadest, treelined avenue, Unter den Linden, in a westerly direction, and the result was an enormously wide boulevard running on for miles through the so-called Tiergarten (originally a deer-filled wood) and the village of Charlottenburg almost as far as the Havel Lake. In terms of beauty this “great axis” cannot stand comparison with the Champs-Elysées. This is because the Brandenburg Gate, with its severe Doric columns, is a ponderous piece of neoclassic architecture compared to Paris’s two arches of triumph, while the Siegessaule, or Victory Column, which was put up to commemorate Bismarckian Prussia’s successive battlefield triumphs over Denmark, Austria, and France, is an ugly specimen of late-19th-century pomposity.

If the Parisians were luckier, it was as much by accident as by design. The enchantingly but deceptively named Champs-Elysées (Elysian Fields) was originally a wood extending from the western limits of the Tuileries Gardens (one of Catherine de Médicis’ gifts to the city) all the way to the crest of a hill, which extended southward toward the villages of Chaillot and Auteuil. Through this wood, for the benefit of riders and horse-drawn carriages, was cut a sandy swathe leading westward over the crest of the hill and down the other side and across a loop of the Seine and so on as far as Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In 1807 Napoleon decided to crown this wooded crest with a monumental Arch of Triumph, which was intended to be far grander than the recently completed Arch of Triumph in Rome.

In 1789—the convulsive year that the French will soon be commemorating—the Phrygian-bonneted revolutionaries had gone on a rampage and proceeded to tear down the Bastille (no loss, it had always been an eyesore) and also Louis XIV’s final, old-age “folly,” the Chateau de Marly, near Versailles. Fortunately, they spared several magnificent equestrian statues, sculpted by Coustou and Coysevox. Later someone had the brilliant idea of moving them into Paris, where their copies (the original marble pieces are now housed in the Louvre) adorn the western gates of the Tuileries Gardens and the start of the Champs-Elysées on the other side of the Place de la Concorde.

The revolutionaries of 1789 also decided to demolish the equestrian statue of Louis XV, which used to grace the center of what was then called the Place Royale. For almost half a century the renamed Place de la Concorde lacked a centerpiece, Robespierre and his successors having been unable to produce anything more inspiring than eight stony-bottomed goddesses, each symbolizing a different French city. But in 1833, when an Egyptian obelisk from Luxor (the gift of the viceroy, Mohammed Ali) reached Paris, it was decided to place it in the central spot that had once been graced by Louis XV on horseback. The result was a visual miracle, and like most miracles, it was accidental.

It only remained for another group of revolutionary fanatics—those of the 1871 Commune—to complete their work of destruction, by not only looting but gutting Philibert Delorme’s Renaissance Palace of the Tuileries, for the present miraculous vista to be opened up—all the way from the Louvre and the smaller Arch of the Carrousel past the graceful obelisk of Luxor to the monumental Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

But, alas, for a number of years past a new group of wreckers have been busy ruining this unique vista. About 20 years ago it was decided that Paris had become such a congested, car-crammed metropolis that it was imperative to construct a new business center beyond the city limits. Thus was born a kind of urban satellite, composed of skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, located on the heights beyond the Seine, two miles west of the Arc de Triomphe. One might have thought that the planners of this satellite city, intended to provide office space for multinational and other large corporations, would have taken pains not to place their skyscrapers in the visual axe de mire, and sufficiently removed to the left and right to allow the Arc de Triomphe to stand out, as before, in all of its solitary splendor. But not at all. With a callous disregard for visual aesthetics they erected their Cyclopean structures almost directly in the “line of fire.” The result is that the beautiful cornices of Gabriel’s townhouses (now the Ministry of Marine and the Hotel de Crillon) are no longer outlined against the pure blue or cloudy sky, as one drives up the Rue de Rivoli. Even worse, Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe, viewed from the Louvre or the Place de la Concorde, now seems hemmed in by somber blocks of concrete towering up over the distant horizon.

The final touch to this work of visual desecration has been added by Mitterrand himself. To “crown” the concrete mountain range beyond the Seine, he decided that a soaring “Gateway” was needed—doubtless to épater (dumbfound) the bourgeois and to arouse the enthusiasm of the toiling (but also tasteless) masses. It is not easy to describe the crass ugliness of this piece of “architecture,” if such it can be called. It consists of two vertical slabs of concrete, 105 meters apart, joined at the top by another huge horizontal slab, and pompously entitled the “Arc de Triomphe de l’Humanite.” The horizontal slab is so high that even though it is located two miles farther west, it forms an aerial bar and looks like a piece of scaffolding running across the broad arch of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe to anyone coming up the Champs-Elysées. Unfortunately, unlike scaffolding, this monument of demagogic fatuity cannot easily be removed—unless some terrorist chooses to blow it up, for which achievement he would certainly deserve a Legion d’Honneur medal—and it is likely to remain a permanent eyesore for years to come.

To give Mitterrand his due, it should be said that he has only been walking in the footsteps of his equally tasteless predecessors. In the early 1960’s, the then prime minister, Michel Debré, decided that Gaullist France could not become a truly great power unless Paris could boast at least one skyscraper. The result was the 45-story Tour Montparnasse, which wrecked havoc on the old bohemian Montparnasse quarter dear to Modigliani, Picasso, Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Sandy Calder, and which, because it was located in the wrong place, shattered the graceful skyline of Gabriel’s Ecole Militaire, when viewed from the Eiffel Tower and the Champs de Mars. Somewhat later President Valery Giscard d’Estaing also heeded the sirens’ song of the “modernists” and to honor his predecessor, Georges Pompidou, a tubular monstrosity—a Fernand Legér painting expressed in plastic form—was erected just east of the central Halles market area. Need I add that this eyesore has now overtaken the Louvre, Versailles, and the Cathedral of Chartres as the most visited monument in France?

It remains to be seen if the absurd “Arch of Triumph of Mankind,” west of Paris, will in its turn overtake the grotesque “Centre Georges Pompidou” as a gigantic tourist attraction. For those who have never heard of Pierre Lescot, Jean Goujon, Philibert Delorme, Le Vau, the two Hardouins, Gabriel, and the landscape architect Le Notre (all of whom must be squirming in their graves), it might just do that. But if the colossal, as Oswald Spengler once suggested, is a symptom of decline, then the Fifth Republic is en pleine décadence.