July 28, 2009

The Parisians' Paris-Royal Paris

The great cities of the world­ whether they are petrified landscapes of palaces, temples and tombs or living organisms with new developments stretch­ing like tentacles around their hearts, whether they have survived the collapse of empires and the disintegration of cul­tures, or have disappeared under the sands, enjoy only a brief moment of grace. Their days of power and creativity are num­bered, and even the memory of their golden age can be wiped out in a few generations, perhaps by economic change or the death of a builder-king. Athens is still identified with the city of Pericles. Persepolis remains Achaemenid Persepolis. New York has written the story of a now-threatened industrial civ­ilization in great vertical letters across the sky. Leningrad still belongs to Peter the Great, not Lenin. Florence means the Medici. Rome has two faces, one imperial and classical, the other papal and baroque, that face each other across a gap of 1,200 years.

Paris has managed to survive, growing ever more busy, ever more crowded, for 2,000 years. Yet it is no exception to the rule. France's architectural genius finds expression in Ro­manesque churches and Cister­cian monasteries as beautiful as Greek temples, from Bur­gundy to the Auvergne and from the Dordogne to the valley of the Rhone. Yet there are few eleventh-century remains in Paris. There is, of course, the Gothic architecture of Notre­Dame. It is one of the oldest of France's cathedrals; but it is neither the biggest, nor the purest, nor the most extravagant, and others boast more luxuriant stonework and more luminous stained glass. Its rivals in Chartres, Amiens, Rheims and Bourges-all small provincial towns-are more splendid.

During the French Renais­sance the focus of interest shifted from cathedrals to chateaux. Yet, again, it was not Paris but the Loire Valley and Fontainebleau that benefitted from the work of the great builders and the architects they hired. Art-loving visitors to the French capital can see what has survived from the reigns of Francois I and Henri II in a single afternoon.

This is not to say that there were few interesting buildings in the city of their day. The Paris that cost Henri IV a Mass no doubt had a fine flowering of palaces and churches rising above its evil-smelling drains. But what is left of them after centuries of revolutions and property speculation would hardly make Paris one of the world's great cities, architec­turally speaking.

The' same is true if one approaches the history of Pari­sian architecture from the other end. The 20th century's con­tribution-even without taking into account the cheap housing projects put up between the wars--consists of towers. Con­troversial constructions like the Montparnasse Tower and the high-rise buildings in the 15th arrondissement and the suburb of Courbevoie may have been made necessary by some momentary diktat, but they are nonetheless unlikely to win the visitor's admiration either by their originality or by their proportions. The architectural character of Paris owes little to those of its arrondissements that have been turned into poor men's Manhattans.

The special atmosphere of Paris depends to a much greater extent, at least for the tourist, on the 19th century, with its Napoleonic fanfares, its commercial and banking wealth, and its prosperous bourgeoisie. This was the city of Baron Haussmann and the Universal Exhibitions. If Pi­galle and Saint-Germain-des-­ Pres, whose attractions are not primarily architectural, are included under this heading, it is probably the most internationally celebrated and admired aspect of the city. This is the Paris of the Opera and of the Avenue de I'Opera, the city of military monuments that preserve the memory of France's brief honeymoon, like the wedding presents in a Victorian house­hold-the elephantine Arc de Triomphe; the Vendome Col­umn, too tall, too heavy and too dark for the perfectly pro­portioned square in which it stands; and Napoleon's tomb in Les Invalides, its porphyry the colour of blood. Like so many others, this honeymoon turned out for the worst. The Second Empire began less brilliantly than its predecessor, but it ended just as catastrophically.

Nevertheless it had the time to transform decisively the centre of Paris, which was redrawn with the ruler and string of Hausmannesque geom­etry. In fact Haussmann, who was Prefect of the Seine under Napoleon III, did the most thorough demolition' job con­ceivable, short of using bull­dozers or heavy artillery. To the present day, the round of grand hotels, theatres and department stores that makes up tourist Paris dates almost entirely from the time of Napoleon III, so Haussmann's work has acquired a certain amount of prestige. But this was achieved at the cost of destroying innumerable noble mansions, middle and working­class homes with facades as living as human faces, sculpted porticoes, delicate wrought­ iron balconies, dormer windows, and pleasant, winding little streets whose charms one can imagine by visiting their sur­vivors, the Rue de la Huchette and the Rue Mouffetard.

Then came the Third Repub­lic, which had the merit-all things considered, it was a merit-of giving Paris its best ­known monument, the Eiffel Tower. We take its existence so much for granted now that we are no longer surprised by the oddities of this strange master­piece of turn-of-the-century surrealism. It is a specimen of abstract architecture, the dream-construction of an en­gineering Facteur Cheval, and there is no conceivable use to which it can be put. It stands like a beacon of the new iron age, gigantic, elegant and slightly ridiculous, and with age it has become as touching as the elevated Metro that crosses the Seine at its foot. The Eiffel Tower is now probably more famous around the world than the Great Pyramid or the Sphinx. When Eisenstein, the Russian film director, passed through Paris in 1930, he claim­ed to have seen two yellowing postcards in a ramshackle isbah on the outskirts of Moscow. Both were French and both dated from the turn of the century. One was a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, the other of La Belle Otero, the most cele­brated Parisian demimondaine of the day. "That's the Czar and the Czarina," the owner of the shack told him respectfully.

The Eiffel Tower, which was constructed to mark the cente­nary of the Revolution of 1789, hardly deserved to be revered by an innocent muzhik as a symbol of autocracy. Its repub­lican credentials are impeccable. Yet it commemorates an event that contributed nothing, ar­chitecturally speaking, to Paris, and which in fact marked the end of the era of privileged grandeur that gave the city its true face. Revolutionaries can do many things. They can end some injustices and create others, lend drama to boring lives, pronounce fine phrases, invoke virtue, cut off heads and win battles-but by definition, they are not builders.

In 1789 they tore down the Bastille, Paris's equivalent of the Tower of London, though its past was less glorious and bloody. Its thick medieval walls would have attracted tourists today, though architecturally speaking their disappearance is no real loss. It is surprising, though, that the mob should have chosen to demolish a prison, when the gaols were to be filled to overflowing in the years to come. Once they had dealt with the Bastille, the victors paid no more attention to architecture except to break up statues in church porches. Their successors of the Com­mune of 1870 burnt down the Tuileries Palace and other noble buildings. They also dismantled the Vendome Col­umn, thus creating a fine opportunity, unfortunately lost, to set it up again in a more suitable place. In short, the revolutions that have shaken Paris have not left much of architectural interest behind them, even taking into account the wall-graffiti that were the contribution of the revolution­aries of May, 1968.

The epoch that, more than any other, gave Paris its at­mosphere, and placed it on the short list of the world's most beautiful cities, in company with the urban masterpieces of Renaissance Italy and the baroque capitals of Europe, lasted for almost- exactly two centuries, from the time when Henri IV established a strong monarchy to the days when Louis XIV surrendered a weak one. The history of France between the late 16th and the late 18th centuries, despite internal unrest in the first fifty years and colonial losses in the last half-century, covers the period when France became culturally and politically pre­dominant in Europe.

The period includes the Trea­ties of Washington, Louis XIV's conquests, the economic pros­perity of Louis XV's reign, and the naval victories of the War of American Independence. It was also the time of Descartes and Pascal, Racine and Moliere, Port-Royal and the Encyclopae­dists, when the salons, courts and palaces of Europe came under the sway of French styles of behaviour and thought. How should we define this period of French preeminence? It would hardly be correct to call it the classical age, for baroque made its appearance as early as the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII, and returned in a more restrained form under Louis XV. Nor did the age take all its character from the triumph of the Counter-Reformation, for it was also the age of the Libertines, of Cartesian scep­ticism, and of French participa­tion in the amazing scientific and philosophical breakthroughs of the 17th and 18th centuries. It is better to avoid all these misleading generalizations, and simply note that the great age of Parisian architecture coin­cided with the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV (with, as an epilogue, the reign of Louis XVI)-in other words, with the French monarchy at its zenith and in the early stages of its decline. One must think in terms of four reigns rather than four kings, for they were by no means the only builders of their day. Marie de Medicis, Richelieu, Mazarin, the Regent Philippe d'Orleans, the princes, the great financiers, royal mistresses, nobles and bourgeois -all deserve our gratitude, for they used their wealth-welther ill-gotten, borrowed, inher­ited or earned-to build the Marais and the Faubourg Saint­Germain, architectural museums where today visitors can find something to admire at every step. Paris was, therefore, not the work of a single ruler, like Peter the Great's St. Petersburg, nor of a single architect, like 'L'Enfant's Washington. Instead, it reflects a spirit or style that summed up the effort of the entire nation.

These observations are not intended to take the place of a guidebook, nor do they pretend to be an inventory of all the city's buildings. There is no great need for a fresh descrip­tion of the famous monuments and the great views, and there is such a wealth of lesser trea­sures that are worthy of admira­tion, even after two centuries of demolition, that it would be impossible to describe each one individually.

I shall limit myself to a few general remarks. Compared with the cities of Renaissance Italy and of central Europe, the great originality of Paris lies in the part played by urbanist-architects, who ar­ranged esplanades, avenues, forecourts and formal court­yards into axes of space organiz­ed around symmetrical facades. The new groups of buildings came to look like parks by the great landscape gardener Le Notre, while the Le Notre parks themselves, as at Versailles, looked more and more like town plans, divided into blocks by borders and rectilinear alleys.

Another innovation followed from this. The planners began to turn their attention from the overpopulated old quarters to the periphery of the city, where there was still virgin land on which to build and layout imposing prospects. The Place Royale (now Place des Vosges, the first Paris square to be planned as an architectural unity, was built in the heart of old Paris, on the site of a gar­den, as were the Palais Cardi­nal (now the Palais Royal) and the small but finely propor­tioned Place des Victoires. But many important buildings were put up outside the old town walls. The hospitals which add so much architectural interest to Paris-Bicetre, the Salpetriere, Saint-Louis (whose courtyard is superb), and above all the Invalides, the most beautiful monument in Paris and one of the most beautiful in the world along with the Place Vendome, the Place Louis XV (now the Place de la Concorde) and the Ecole Militaire, were all laid out on open ground, thereby avoiding the awkwardness of Haussmann's projects, which were hacked out of the living tissue of the city. Among the most distinctive features of royal Paris are the palatial squares, in which the facades of the individual buildings are moulded into a single whole (the Place Vendome could be a courtyard of the Louvre, and vice versa) by means of peristyle columns (for ex-ample, the colonnades of the Louvre and of the Place de la Concorde) and the open space around them, which enables visitors to approach them slowly from a distance. This is true of the Place de la Concorde, the Invalides, and the Champ-de-Mars. The organization of space into symmetrical vistas is the most characteristic trait of royal Paris, and, like all representative architecture, it reflects the society of its day, as it was or as it imagined itself to be.

But the most ambitious undertaking of all was constructed outside Paris, at Versailles, where there was room to frame the royal palace with appropriately majestic vistas. Versailles was a theatrical triumph. Historians point out that the kings of France moved there to escape the political pressures of the tumultuous city streets. True; but they went there to keep their distance architecturally speaking too.

Between the two great symmetrical fans formed by the avenues of the city and the alleys of the park, away from the debris and swarming crowds of Paris, they built the capital of the absolute monarchy over broad expanses where the most elaborate court-coat could swing at ease.

images courtesy of a Parisian friend


UCLA said...

NICE, very nice post. thanks

Summerschooling in L.A. said...

Yes, I learned something. I will recommend this blog to my school. Thanks

a fan said...

wow, well done

SM fan said...

fine, informative read.

Un Parisien said...

Bien poste.
Bien préparé.
Bien écrit.
Merci pour prendre le temps pour écrire ceci.

Rocher said...

Où restez-vous à Paris ?

Un autre Expatriat parisien dans Los Angeles said...

Merci pour votre poste charmante et instructive.

Alistair said...

nice read. thanks

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