Paris Architecture Explained

By Lisa Pasold (Special thanks to

“All that can be found anywhere can be found in Paris.”—Victor Hugo, 1881

Paris, France, is an unusually coherent architectural creature. Paris' modern buildings have developed gradually out of earlier styles; palaces and mansions have survived by transforming into apartments and shops, and most streets harbor a range of buildings from various centuries. Our Paris guide traces a millennium of building in Paris, and what’s amazing is that so much remains visible and integrally important to the way the Paris works, from the earliest Medieval period through the most contemporary constructions.

Paris evolved out of a walled city, and some historians argue that this alone has given the city a certain logic that London or Boston lacks. Paris has really never lost its walls: 900 years after the 12th-century wall of Philippe August, we now live in a city walled by its ring-road, the Péripherique highway. This succession of walls, gradually torn down and rebuilt through the centuries, has created a spiraling city, which grew gradually out from the Ile de la Cité. It’s not surprising that some of the oldest buildings are near the center of the spiral. However, we’ve included buildings in every corner of the city in our guide, so that wherever you are staying, you will probably find that you are near a particular architectural landmark. This is also an armchair traveler’s guide to the architecture of Paris: you don’t have to stand on the street in front of the building. We’ve tried to take you there, so you can recreate the building in your mind’s eye.

We’ve taken as broad an overview of the Paris' architectural delights as possible. All the buildings included are either open during the day, or else their interesting façades are easily viewed from the street. For the most part, we’ve stayed away from churches; religious buildings have their own architectural evolution and an entire guide could be given over to churches and cathedrals. In France particularly, this development has been dominated by the Gothic; Notre Dame is so inspiring, it’s not surprising that she remains the pinnacle of Christian architecture in Paris. You’ll also notice many monuments are mentioned only in passing or omitted altogether. We know you’ve already seen the Eiffel Tower. You know that the Musée d’Orsay was once a train station. So we’re bringing you the next level of Paris architecture. We’ve included buildings that are fantastic examples of a particular period in Paris' history. These addresses often aren’t official buildings, they’re simply the places you pass every day in Paris. These are the building blocks of the city. We’ll tell you when a place was created, and what to look for, but we’ll also let you in on why. Here are 25 buildings that really speak to us. Let us know what you think.


The Mediaeval Period (1100-1526)


In 52 BC, the Romans defeated a tribe called the Parisii and established a city they named Lutetia, which probably means “swampy.” Today, that city is Paris—and it’s still swampy in the springtime! Traces of Roman architecture remain visible in Paris: if you look at a map, Rue Saint-Jacques cuts right through the middle of the city and was the main Roman road in and out. But when the Roman Empire crumbled, its architectural genius disappeared as well, and the Dark Ages were actually a step backwards architecturally. During the early Middle Ages, the people of Paris sometimes stole and relocated entire sections of Roman walls to use for their own buildings, because the Roman walls were so much sturdier. During this entire period, the “architect” per se didn’t yet exist, and important buildings were designed and constructed by teams of masons.

Most surviving medieval architecture in France is religious; this is partly a question of durability: the earliest secular buildings were roughly built, often using flammable wood and straw, whereas religious buildings were made to last with stone, built for the glory of God. In France, as in much of Europe, churches evolved through a series of styles beginning with the Romanesque. This early tradition featured a wide central aisle or nave, usually flanked with narrow aisles on each side. Be sure to visit the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church, one of the few remaining churches that has retained its Romanesque shape. It dates back to the 10th-century, the truly Dark Ages.

By the 1100s, three unique engineering improvements appeared in France and created a new, Gothic style. These three innovations were: pointed arches, which can carry more weight than Romanesque round arches; cross vaults, or X-shaped ribbing growing up from columns inside the arch, for better support; and flying buttresses, which channel the weight of the roof and walls to the ground, allowing walls to be thinner and opening them up for windows. The Basilique Saint-Denis (1140-1144) in nearby Saint Denis was the first of the great Gothic Cathedrals; here in Paris, Notre Dame, begun by the Bishop de Sully in 1163, was the first to appear. Sully claimed that Notre Dame appeared to him in a vision, but it’s more likely he was trying to compete with Saint-Denis, to ensure that Paris remained the most important Christian city in the area.

Soon after Notre Dame was completed, Paris suffered such a disastrous series of events that any other city would have given up. Along with nearly constant warfare, the year 1315 brought so much rain that the Church declared a new Flood. In the following years, there were a series of crop failures so disastrous that the period is now believed to have been a miniature Ice Age. And during the plague-filled winter of 1348, 800 Parisians died per day. A third of Paris' population was wiped out. The desperate times show in the buildings: you’ll notice shutters, very small windows, and well-bolted heavy doors protecting inner courtyards. While parts of Italy were entering the Renaissance in the 1400’s, Paris was still recovering from the Hundred Years War. No wonder people barricaded themselves behind crenellated walls and prayed for deliverance.

The House of Nicolas Flammel

51 Rue Montmorency, 3rd. Unknown, 1407

Nicolas Flammel was a wealthy bourgeois of the late Middle Ages. He and his wife Pernelle lived in this house and left the building to the City of Paris, as a dormitory for the poor. Impoverished Parisians were allowed to sleep in upstairs rooms on the condition that they recite prayers twice daily to save the Flammels’ souls. There is a big carved sign, probably added long after the building was constructed, which reads “Ici l’on boit et l’on mange” (here we eat and we drink) referring to the fact that the poor were fed and offered a beer before being escorted upstairs to sleep. But underneath the sign, hand-carved and so worn as to be almost invisible, there are painstakingly-created, gorgeously-drawn angels and elaborate texts. It’s this unusual and lovely decoration that makes this building special. Although it’s called the oldest building in Paris, it isn’t. But Flammel’s house is the only residential building from this period with a documented history, and its façade is unusually elaborate. For older, plainer buildings, you can stroll a few blocks north to the corner of Rue Volta and Rue Maire. These tangled streets house a tiny Vietnamese and Chinese community who live and work in buildings that probably date back to the late 1300s. Keep an eye out for ancient half-timbered buildings: medieval houses had a stone foundation but were framed up in wood. The spaces between the beams were packed with mud, straw, and stone, which was plastered over to form smooth walls. Considering their rough construction, it’s amazing that these buildings have survived the centuries, crooked as they are.

Hôtel de Cluny, Musée du Moyen-Age

6 Place Paul Painlevé (corner Sommerand), 5th. unknown, 1483

This flamboyant late Gothic masterpiece was originally an embassy for the Abbot of Cluny, the most powerful monastery leader in what’s now France. The mansion was built on top of the ruins of an elaborate Roman public bath. Today, if you stand in the garden at the back of the museum, you can see how the ruins were used as a very solid and useful foundation for this elaborate private residence. The building is protected by a crenellated wall, which was a symbol of the Burgundian Abbot’s independence from the King. The floor plan of the building, with its outer wall and inner courtyard, is a template for the later development of private hôtels in Paris, which all used a very similar plan. This particular location is also important: it’s not on Isle de la Cite, the medieval heart of the city. The Abbot consciously wished to be apart from the center of the city—after all, during the Middle Ages, Burgundy was often allied with the enemies of France. The Abbot could afford to be independent; Burgundy was a wealthy duchy, made rich by its vineyards and by its control of the major pilgrimage route south. Both these sources of power are alluded to on the façade of the building, where magnificent carved grapevines twine around the entranceway and scallop shells form the hinges of the gate. Scallop shells refer to the pilgrims’ route towards Santiago de Compostella, by the sea. Pilgrims who completed the route sewed scallop shells to their cloaks, turning the symbol into a fashion accessory. Here, every peak is frilled with finials and every empty space is given pattern. The building is almost a parody of Medieval style, but it thrives on excess. It was this over-the-top quality that attracted 19th-century medieval collector Alexandre Du Sommerard, who established the medieval museum here in 1844.


The Renaissance (1515-1643)


In 1515, Francis I took over the French throne, to the immediate benefit of Parisian art and architecture. Francis was a great art lover and reader (unlike several previous monarchs, who were functionally illiterate), and he surrounded himself with the best creative minds of the time. He invited Leonardo da Vinci to Paris and hired Italian architects to renovate the Louvre. With Francis, the Renaissance arrived in Paris with a bang. He was the French equivalent and contemporary of England’s Henry VIII, without the multiple wives; the French capital surged with life and new buildings. Renaissance ideas insisted on a sense of human proportion in all the arts, including architecture. As a result, buildings of this time can be read as metaphors for the human shape: their solid base is the foot of the building, the elegant middle is the building’s body, and the peak of the roof, with gabled windows, is the hat. These carefully-proportioned ideas really initiated the concept of Classical architecture in Paris.

Unfortunately, when Francis died in 1547, the city was torn apart by Catholic and Protestant factions. A Protestant king, Henri IV, finally brought peace to Paris once he had converted to Catholicism (it’s Henri who apparently said “Paris is worth a Mass.”) He rode into Paris in 1594, finding a city ruined by violence. Determined to restore its brilliance, he completed the Pont Neuf, extended the Louvre (partly to please his new Catholic bride, Marie de Medicis) and reorganized the entranceways of the city. His most beautiful public legacy is the Place Royale (see below), but private real estate also took off at this time. New neighborhoods were developed by Louis le Barbier, who appears to be the original French real estate developer. Le Barbier established elegant neighborhoods in the Latin Quarter, the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and the Quartier du Palais-Royal (Rue Saint-Honoré) by constructing magnificent private urban chateaux known as “hôtels,” which he then sold to nobles.

Hôtel Carnavalet (Musée Historique de la Ville de Paris)

23 Rue de Sevigné, 4th. poss. Pierre Lescot, 1548

The only 16th-century hôtel of Paris that remains intact today, this hôtel boasts an extraordinary history of occupants, the most famous being the Marquise de Sevigné, a lady-in-waiting remembered today for her astonishingly frank letters. The Carnavalet was originally built for a Parisian politician, but soon was taken over by the Widow De Kernevenoy, whose mispronounced name gives us the hôtel’s title. Documents are unclear, but it’s believed that the architect who built much of the Louvre, Lescot, is also responsible for the Carnavalet. If you stand in the main entrance off Rue de Sevigné, just inside the courtyard, you’ll see the symmetrical proportions of his original façade, with wonderful Renaissance figures representing the Four Seasons by sculptor J. Goujon. At the time of construction, the roof was steeply pitched, like a medieval roof, but it has changed somewhat since then. Imagine you have just stepped out from a carriage into this calm, elegant courtyard. The walls behind you keep the hubbub of Renaissance Paris at bay. Considering the frequent unrest plaguing the city during this period, the heavy walls and grand gates were more than merely decorative: the wealthy could retreat to relative safety while the city raged outside. Their windows, much larger than those of the Medieval period, logically face inwards, overlooking the beautifully-designed courtyard.

Place des Vosges

Enter at Rue de Birague, 4th. Claude Chastillon and/or Louis Métezeai, architect, with Claude Vellefaux, builder, 1605-1612

Place des Vosges, originally named Place Royale, is the prototype for the urban European square. Think of London’s famous Bloomsbury Square and the many designs by Inigo Jones, or closer to home, think of New York’s Union Square: each of them was inspired by this original square promenade in Paris. Some say Henri IV conceived the Place Royale as an amusement for his Italian wife, Marie de Medici. The 36 elegant rowhouses that make up this square were a radical shift in urban planning: instead of living in separate hôtels, residents lived side by side, walked under the same galleries that housed boutiques, and sometimes even shared gardens. Both Henri and his queen maintained houses on the square (notice their higher roofs at the north and south entrances), which made the arcades the ultimate place to see and be seen. Two years after Henri’s tragic assassination, the garden was officially inaugurated when his son Louis XIII was married in the square. As a result, these elegant brick facades ornamented with stone detailing and high slate roofs are known as the Style Louis XIII. (An interesting side note: while Henri was building this, the Taj Mahal was being built in India.) Throughout the centuries, Place des Vosges has remained an elegant address even as the surrounding streets fell into decline: letter-writer Mme de Sevigné was born at number 1, now sadly boarded up; several centuries later, Victor Hugo lived at number6, and his house is now a small museum. Walking through the elegant low arcades that surround the square, you can still sense the Renaissance belief in rational symmetry. The garden feels like a well-appointed room, with the architecture of Place des Vosges a most enduring and calm decor.


French Baroque and Classicism (17th Century)


Everyone has heard the word “baroque” but in Paris it’s easy to see what the style actually refers to. Although Baroque first appeared in Italy in 1590, it reached its apogee in France 50 years later, under the omnipotent reign of Louis XIV (who reigned 1643-1715). The style’s emphasis on grand floor plans, superhuman massive figures, and the illusion of infinite distance were qualities that suited the Sun King, who used architecture to reflect his political clout. His great palace of Versailles is essentially Baroque, and it was designed as the king’s seat of power partly because Louis disliked Paris. He had suffered through a turbulent childhood regency and he distrusted the city. He left urban planning to his superintendent of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who understood the symbolic importance of Paris.

Colbert was incorruptibly honest, which made him loathed by everyone, but he was a visionary for Paris planning. He knew that Louis XIV needed Paris to represent his power, much as Rome represented the might of the Roman Empire. So Colbert commissioned buildings inspired by Rome; Classicism makes its first conscious appearance in Paris during this time. Order, sumptuous functionality, and the principles of Palladio defined Classical buildings. This style gained ground especially in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and we’ll visit several examples later. But for this period, the most clearly Classical of Colbert’s legacies is the Hôtel des Invalides, begun in 1671. The famous dome of the Invalides was directly inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome, and the overall design of the Invalides complex is Classical. But standing at the front entrance of Invalides, you can also see how Baroque combined well with the Classical style. The Baroque influence gave us the symmetrical wings, strong window treatments, and monumentality of the building. In some of the hôtels (now embassy buildings) that line the esplanade of Invalides, you’ll notice a new French invention of this period: the Mansard roof, the distinctive double-sloped roof line created by François Mansart (1598-1666). Small oval windows often poke out from these roofs and are known as “oeil de boeuf” windows.

Hôtel Lambert

1 Quai d’Anjou, 4th. Louis Le Vau, 1641

This impeccable Baroque address is best viewed from the Pont de Sully. From here, you have a spectacular view of the building’s oval wing and long galleries, which rise above a very private walled garden. The hôtel was built during the initial development of Isle Saint-Louis, which had previously been used as grazing land for church cattle. The city was desperate for space: the population was approximately 415,000 in 1637, with only 20,000 residences to house everyone! A bridge to the island was completed in 1635 and the newly-wealthy class of judges, tax men, and other bureaucrats rushed to build mansions here. The owner of this hôtel, Jean-Baptiste Lambert, was a member of this nouveau-riche “noblesse de la robe,” and he hired one of the greatest architects of the time to work on this mansion. Architect Louis Le Vau expertly manipulated the space to seem much bigger than it actually is. His Baroque hôtel emphasizes grandeur, while paying meticulous attention to the effect of light on the facade of the building. The complex floor plan, energetic detailwork, and curves such as the oval wing are noteworthy of the period. Le Vau is an architect who effortlessly combined Baroque and Classical influences, and gave us several public Paris buildings like the Académie de France on the Quai de Conti. Le Vau’s brilliance was not ignored: soon after completing this hôtel, the architect was snatched up by Louis XIV and set to work on Versailles.

Hôtel de Sully

62 Rue Saint-Antoine, 4th. Androuet du Cerceau, 1642

This hôtel is often used as a shortcut by those in the know. The building is an early Parisian Baroque inspired by Flemish architecture. You can see how this has smaller windows and seems heavier than the Hôtel Lambert. But the design is ingenious because it links the main entrance on the crucial thoroughfare of Saint-Antoine with the aristocratic strolling-ground of Place des Vosges, called Place Royale at the time. This careful floor plan by Jean I Androuet du Cerceau seems effortless and logical when you stroll through the building—the courtyards are open to the public. The formal layout and symmetrical windows of the hôtel show the Baroque interest in a dignified, well-ordered environment. But the Baroque style is also designed to impress visitors: a hôtel was meant to announce your importance and power. Here, huge allegorical figures representing the four elements and the seasons are similar to the Renaissance style seen in the Hôtel Carnavalet, but the facade’s stonework has become much more active. Energy and movement were crucial considerations in the Baroque; stone was cut to encourage variations of light on its surface, and elaborate window surrounds became the norm. This hôtel was originally built for Mesme Gallet, but was taken over in 1634 by government minister Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, who gave the building its name. After admiring the entrance courtyard, walk between the tormented-looking sphinxes and pause to look up at the magnificent stone stairwell. Continue into the formal garden courtyard, where the noise of Saint-Antoine falls away. The building facing you is the former “orangerie,” built as a miniature mirror of the hôtel. At the far northeast corner is a discrete door leading to Place des Vosges: the perfect shortcut.


Rococo (1715-1774)


For a while, it seemed that Louis XIV would live forever. When the Sun King finally died, the Baroque style was as exhausted as the overtaxed peasants. Louis’ great-grandson, Louis XV, a mere child, took the throne in 1715, just as Paris was beginning a new period of intellectual fermentation known as the Enlightenment. While Voltaire and Rousseau wrote of man’s necessary freedom, architecture changed to complement the new ideals. The refined, nature-inspired curves of Rococo became popular.

The word “Rococo” is believed to be a combination of the French words for grotto rock (“rocaille”) and shell (“coquille”); the sinuous line of grottoes and shells were imitated as ornamentation in this style. Some of the great hôtels of this period include the Hôtel de Matignon, where the Premier of France now lives, and the Hôtel d’Evreux, residence of the President. In 1748, at the height of the style, Jacques-Ange Gabriel designed Place Louis XV, which we now know as Place de la Concorde; clearly, Classicism still held power over architects’ imaginations. Hôtel de la Vrilliere, now part of U.S. Embassy, was built during the same period. Along with decorative details and a desire for lightness, the Rococo brought improvements in practical aspects of architecture: chimneys became more efficient, sanitation was improved, and rooms were arranged with more consideration for privacy. Residential life was creeping closer to what we would recognize today.

Hôtel de Chenizot

51 Rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile, 4th. Pierre de Vigny, 1726

This fabulous mansion is impossible to miss when you walk down the central street of Isle Saint-Louis. The recently-cleaned and heavily-ornamented façade contains all the important features of Rococo. Notice the excessive detail and curvaceous playfulness, so different from the geometric shapes of Baroque. What’s particularly fascinating about this style is that it has a fresh, light feeling despite its overwrought decoration. Here, the wonderful balcony is supported by absurd sea creatures and shells which show the “C” and “S” lines so important to Rococo. Rococo buildings often include flower, seashell, and bamboo stem motifs, while interior decoration reflected a fashion for the Far East with elaborate Chinese-inspired rooms and “singerie” patterns (walls painted with monkeys dressed in exotic costumes.) If the courtyard of this hôtel is open, walk through to admire the overall lines of the building, although behind the glorious facade, some of the apartments are sadly dilapidated. Through the doorway to the right, marked “E”, you’ll find the original curving staircase, complete with its dragon-ornamented banister. If the weather is warm, you can sit for a moment on the cool marble bench here at the foot of the stairs and think of the lovely allegories painted by Watteau. The Rococo rooms above you once would have echoed down these stairs with conversations about harmony, humanism, and the nature of beauty.

Patisserie Stohrer

51 Rue Montorgueil, 2nd. Unknown, 1720s

Paris is filled with this sort of typical residential building that has a shop on the ground floor. The combination began in the Middle Ages and continues today, in part because every generation of architect breathes fresh life into the style. The apartment with shop combination has given Paris its wonderful small neighborhoods. This particular address is interesting because the pastry shop, similar to so many across the city, has a very specific Rococo history. In 1725, the unfortunate bride of Louis XV arrived in Paris. Marie Leczynska was spectacularly unsuited for the position; her lack of French was the least of her problems. To distract the miserable girl, her father sent her off to Paris with a dowry that included a personal pastry chef. Mr Stohrer introduced Viennese-style pastries to the royal court, but his sweet confections couldn’t improve the royal marriage. After five years in the tension-filled palace, Stohrer decamped and opened his own shop, here on the Rue Montorgueil. His court connections guaranteed an immediate public for his cakes. Here, he invented the “puit d’amour,” a flaky pastry shell stuffed with pastry cream or jelly. The shop stayed in his family for several generations; the decor you see inside the bakery today was painted by Paul Baudry in 1864, who is remembered primarily for his lobby decoration in the Opera Garnier. Today, you can buy a fabulous “bombe framboise” and stand outside this facade, eating cake and admiring the discrete elegance of the building’s facade. Looking at the main door of the building, you’ll discover a quiet irony. This address has no architect’s name attached to it, yet when the building was constructed, the architect responsible obviously set up his office here, carving the tools of his trade into the lintel over the door. His carved billboard remains: a Classical Ionic pillar, a compass, an axe, and other trademarks of his trade, an anonymous but permanent signature.


Neo-Classicism (late 18th- early 19th-century)


Just as fashion flips from skinny to baggy, architecture also often flip-flops from one extreme to the other, so after the frivolous and light-filled Rococo, buildings were pared back to classical symmetry. As the doomed reign of Louis XVI began, Paris entered a period of Neo-classicism. This severe style was inspired by intense study of Roman and Greek architectural theories. As a result, Neo-classicism is very intellectual, unlike the emotional moodiness that characterized the Rococo period. This style also reflects a desire for plain, unadorned materials, combined with extremely logical floor plans and design.

Even when Louis XVI lost his head, his style of Neo-classicim continued unchanged. This is partly because the Revolution was chaotic, with little opportunity for architects to invent a new style. But Neo-classicism also corresponded to Revolutionary aspirations—democracy was born in Athens and Rome, so the classic architecture of those times was still very relevant. What’s fascinating about Neo-classicism is its incredible versatility: after surviving Louis XVI and the Revolution, the style managed to continue through Napoleon’s Empire. When Bonaparte came to power, first under the Directoire and eventually as Emperor, he used classical references to validate his dream of Paris as the center of a new Roman Empire. Neo-classicism dominated the city, leaving us today with a surprising collection of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian pillars on every sort of Parisian building.

“That summer of 1789 when the Bastille was destroyed and its stones transformed into souvenirs—as [people] would sell the concrete fragments of the Berlin Wall, exactly two centuries later.” —writer Eric Hazan, L’Invention de Paris, 2002.

The Pantheon

Rue Soufflot & Rue Clotaire, 5th. Soufflot, 1755-1789

As its Roman name suggests, the Pantheon is the essential Neo-classic monument in Paris. Louis XV first swore that he would build a new church here if he survived a long illness. But the project was only begun under Louis XVI. Soufflot died in 1781, supposedly from worrying that his entire construction would collapse. The church was finally finished on the cusp of the Revolution. Although many churches throughout the country were torn down, often by people’s bare hands, the Pantheon survived the mob’s wrath by becoming a tomb for French heroes. Post-Revolution, when many churches returned to their former religious purpose, the Pantheon too regained its religious calling for a time. But it was soon re-secularized and returned to its role as a prestigious tomb. Today its vaults contain all sorts of politicians, writers, and thinkers, including Voltaire and Victor Hugo. The well-balanced layout and sombre interior exemplifies the rather dull, too-serious Neo-classic style. If you feel like making a comparison, stroll across the river to the lovely gardens of the Palais Royal. These elegant arcades by Victor Louis are also Neo-classic, completed at exactly the same time as the Pantheon. You immediately sense the difference in tone between the Pantheon’s massive Corinthian pillars and the Palais Royal’s initial Doric promenade, and its two-storey Corinthian pillars which are embedded into the garden facade. While the Pantheon inspires awe and an almost mystical sense of contemplation, the Palais Royal simply evokes a serious commitment to leisure time. The Palais Royal’s more human proportions are much more emotionally touching, proving that Neo-classicism depends largely on the manipulation of scale.

Passage du Cheval Blanc

2 Rue de la Roquette, 11th. Various builders throughout Paris history

The Revolution is forever linked to one specific building: the prison known ominously as La Bastille.When the building was stormed on July 14, 1789, the prison only held four cheque forgers, an elderly aristocrat and a couple of lunatics. But no matter: the building has gone down in history as an infamous dungeon. Only a few stones are left—keep your eyes open in the Bastille Métro. But what remains nearby is the the architecture that gave rise to the Revolution in the first place: the crowded streets of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where you’re now standing. These narrow passages housed poor craftsmen, who were among the first to revolt in 1789. Parisian workers’ lives had been strictly regulated by their guilds since the Middle Ages, but the Faubourg Saint-Antoine escaped the expensive guild system by placing itself under the protection of the local Abbess. From the beginning of the 17th century, the area was known for its rebellious attitude towards the King. When the Revolution came, the Faubourg exploded. Walking through the mixture of buildings in this passage, you have to imagine the throngs of people who lived here, crowded into tiny apartments above noisy workshops. Child labor was normal and horses powered the large machinery crammed into these passages. Today these buildings have been beautifully cleaned up, but the narrow buildings to the left are a good reminder that the vast majority of Parisians still lived in overcrowded, poorly-sanitized, truly Medieval conditions, even as the wealthy constructed magnificent Neo-classic monuments.


Consulate, Empire, and Restoration (1803-1840)


The Revolution devastated Paris and the city’s architecture suffered alongside its people. Royal chambers were torn apart by mobs, churches were looted and demolished, and ordinary apartments burned. With the end of the Terror in 1794, thousands were released from prison. As the brutality faded, a new flippancy swept the city. Wealthy young fops called “Incroyables” appeared, partnered by scandalously-dressed “Merveilleuses.” A 5-man Directoire was set up while Emperor-to-be Napoleon directed campaigns in Italy, Austria, and Egypt. By 1802, the Directoire had collapsed and the Consulate had been usurped by Napoleon, who named himself Consul for Life. Two years later, he was Emperor, Josephine his temporary Empress, and their extended family was ensconced in the Tuileries Palace. Barely a decade after decapitating Louis XVI, Parisians had acquired a new royal family, which set about establishing a new aristocratic tone for the city.

The Napoleonic style is a mishmash of Neo-classic impulses. Decoration was stimulated by excavations in Pompeii and archeological discoveries in Greece. Classical references pleased Napoleon, since they suited his ambitions for an expanding Empire. Napoleon wisely set up massive building projects to keep Parisians employed, and his largest urban projects shaped today’s city. Napoleon started construction on Père Lachaise cemetery, had parts of the Tuileries and the Louvre rebuilt, began the Madeleine, and ordered the Ourq Canal dug. Napoleon also ordained that streets should be numbered odd on one side, even on the other, a remarkably practical concept that hadn’t occurred to anyone before.

But Napoleon’s Empire turned out to be brief: by 1815, he was exiled permanently, and his capital city had grown to a very crowded 715,000 people. The Coalition which defeated Napoleon placed King Louis XVIII on the throne, a gouty old man who had few illusions of omnipotence. His most important architectural contribution wasn’t stylistic but practical: under his reign, 21,000 new Parisian apartment buildings were constructed. He died calmly in office in 1824, unleashing a period of great unrest. Riots left hundreds dead, barricades were set up in the streets, and new sections of the city caught fire. People who remembered the Revolution wondered if it was all going to happen again. But the Industrial Revolution was gradually changing the economic structure of Paris, and in 1830, the Duc d’Orleans, a former banker, became King. Louis-Philippe attempted to establish an Orleans style in architecture, but his reign was too short to have a major impact. He is responsible for finishing the Madeleine Church, along with the grandiose Galerie des Batailles in Versailles.

Canal de l’Ourq

North from Place Stalingrad along the quays, 10th, 19th. Simon Girard, overseer, 1802-1822.

Napoleon had studied at the Ecole Militaire and while he was famously not from Paris, he understood the city. To keep Parisians fed so they wouldn’t riot, he kept them employed. As the Depression proved in America, the best route to full employment is huge public works, followed by a major war. Napoleon did both. In Paris, he found that nothing keeps people happy like a large construction project; the building of the canal was perfect for his purpose. Initially intended as a source of drinking water, this canal actually set in motion an entire architectural shift in northeastern Paris as the Industrial Revolution gained speed. Because of this convenient shipping lane connecting the Canal Saint-Denis (out in the suburbs) with the Canal Saint-Martin (inside the old walls of 18th-century Paris), Paris was able to set up important dockyards for sugar refineries, construction equipment, and every kind of light industry in the 10th, 11th, and 19th arrondissements. These industrial buildings would soon have a huge impact on Paris architecture. But originally, the plan was simply to bring water to thirsty Parisians. The head of construction, Simon Girard, was a veteran of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, and the canal went forward much like a campaign. Pillars were sunk to support the canal bed over marshy ground, while utopian Classical architecture was used at the tax checkpoints and for other detailing along the canal. The Ourcq was almost lost in the 1970s, when planners suggested paving it over and installing a high-speed highway through the east of Paris. Fortunately, residents protested and today the canal remains a magnificent place to stroll, surrounded by superb 19th- and 20th-century buildings.

Hôtel Bony & the Petit Hôtel Bourrienne

32 Rue de Trévise, 9th. Jules-Jean-Baptiste Bony, 1826

After the Revolution, this neighborhood became known as the New Athens (note the Classical Greek reference). The magnificent houses built by wealthy businessmen and government officers became famous for intellectual salons. Unfortunately, the few mansions that survive today are set back from the street and invisible to passers-by because the original gatehouses and gardens have been replaced by larger buildings. The Hôtel Bony has the advantage of having a glass hallway in front of it, allowing us a glimpse of the mansion beyond. This Neo-classical beauty has a Restoration interior. Its exterior grand curved stairs and flouncey loggia is practically a Rococo revival, but its sober Classical proportions and Corinthian pillars keep the building from becoming a pastry. If you have the time, you might try to visit the privately-owned Petit Hôtel Bourrienne at 58 Rue d’Hauteville, unfortunately hidden from the street but perfectly preserved inside. This was a 1783 Directoire gem built for “merveilleuse” Fortunée Hamelin, friend of Empress Josephine and hostess of one the most glittering salons of the time. Known for her witty conversation, and transparent dresses, Fortunée had the walls of her home painted with erotic allegories, fabulous flowers and tropical birds to remind her of Saint-Domingue, where she was born. The Napoleonic decor has been kept up by the current owners and can be visited by appointment.

Galerie Vivienne (originally Galerie Marchoux)

6 Rue Vivienne, 2nd. Francois-Jacques Delannoy, 1823

This is the best-preserved of the famed 19th-century shopping arcades in Paris. The Neo-classic bas-reliefs and luxurious star patterns in the Italian mosaic floor are particularly impressive to modern eyes. But watch your step: the different varieties of stone have worn unevenly over the past 160 years. The floor’s creator, G. Facchina, cleverly tiled his name and Paris address into several thresholds around the Galerie in a decorative act of self-promotion. I often wonder if it worked. Above his floor, the walls are decorated in a celebration of commerce, with carved cornucopia, anchors, wheat, and beehives; unlike many Paris arcades, which have fallen into shabbiness, here the paint is fresh and the glass roof is clean. Structurally, the arcades’ iron frames support panels of glass that allow light into the interior space, much like a greenhouse. Several of the roof panels even open to allow fresh air to circulate. Iron beams are really the first artificial construction material introduced into European building, which makes architecture of the 1820s and onwards consistently revolutionary. These passageways were especially radical at night, when they were illuminated by the very latest technology: gas lamps. Artists and writers of the time were amazed and delighted by these “worlds in miniature,” where Parisians could escape the dangerous and muddy streets, show off their fine clothes, and window-shop for the first time. When the Galerie Vivienne first opened, its tenants included a bookshop, a printshop and an elegant restaurant called the Grignon; today, not that much has changed. There are luxury boutiques and a bookshop nestled under the clock flanked by winged Grecians. Sadly, these passages didn’t hold sway for very long; they were soon displaced by the much larger and more alluring department stores. But even today, the largest French department store has kept an arcade reference in its name: Galeries Lafayette.

The Haussmann renovations under the Second Empire & the early Third Republic (1840- early-20th-century)

The Second Empire was a peculiar dream invented by a short man with a big moustache, named Louis Napoleon. A nephew of the original Napoleon, Louis attempted to seize the French throne in 1836 and 1840, failing on both occasions. But despite his moustache wax, he was not completely feckless: he escaped from prison and bided his time in London. While he was there, he admired the urban fabric of the city and spent time walking in Hyde Park. In 1848, French politics were once again in disarray, Paris was in revolt, and Louis seized his chance. He returned to France and got himself elected to Parliament. He manipulated his way into the presidency, but his vision was much more ambitious. In 1851, he seized power in a coup d’etat and a year later became Emperor Napoleon III. His dream had become reality. But his capital city was a wreck; it looked nothing like his fond memories of London. Paris traffic was snarled, its housing unsanitary, and worst of all, there were no real public parks.

Napoleon needed someone to take on the renovation of Paris. By sheer luck, he found the perfect man for the job in Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann. Tall, honest and good-looking, the Baron must have been a curious match for Louis Napoleon as they studied plans of the city and discussed what needed to be done. By 1853, the city’s population had skyrocketed to over 1 million. Only one house in five had any running water; of these, most only had plumbing on the ground floor. Haussmann understood the desperate need to reorganize the city: he had grown up during the terrible cholera epidemic of Paris, which killed 20,000 inhabitants. Impressed with the Baron’s efficiency, Napoleon III gradually placed all major Paris administration in his capable hands.

Haussmann succeeded in turning Paris into a functioning Imperial city despite an incredibly short period of control: by 1870, the Baron was in disgrace. His Imperial boss threw him to the dogs in a desperate effort to save his own political skin, but later that same year, Louis Napoleon was taken prisoner by the Prussians. And the Hôtel de Ville, symbol of Haussmann’s power, was set on fire by an enraged mob. Yet, Haussmann is the most enduring and successful city planner Paris has ever known. His apartment buildings remain the Parisian standard, his sewage system still works, and his reorganization of city boulevards has allowed Paris traffic to creep into the 21st century. The city’s beauty, with its splendid London-inspired Bois de Boulogne and Vincennes, remains the sole truly great accomplishment of Napoleon III.



10 Rue Babylone, 6th. E. Codry, 1877

The Baron set out different categories for apartments, with varying regulations according to street size and neighborhood. His vision was so successful that long after his fall from power, apartments continued to be built according to his standard: 5 stories in locally-quarried “pierre de taille” with a crowning floor of maid’s rooms under a Mansard roof. This particular example is a sober interpretation at the high-class end of Haussmann’s buildings. Architect Codry chose to give this building sober individualistic details, inspired by Classicism. This beautifully stoic, discrete style became gradually more elaborate, even florid, as the century drew to a close. These streets, along Rue Saint-Sulpice and down Rue du Four, show the many variations of Haussmannism, from the unadorned to the over-the-top. Yet it’s always clear that the Haussmann building is based on the “hôtel particulier” floor plan: a courtyard gives light and reduces street noise in the bedrooms, and a street door leading to an entry hall gives the inhabitants a sense of protection from the street. Apartments are designed in consideration of people’s real needs and desires: the layouts are usually L-shaped to allow better light, and the front reception rooms were originally equipped with gas lighting, the very latest convenience. It was Haussmann who encouraged entire blocks to co-ordinate their balcony heights and windows. The 2nd and 5th floors tend to have balconies, as these were the two most desirable floors to live on: the 2nd because it was above street noise, but still not too far upstairs, and the 5th for its magnificent light (made more accessible once elevators became popular). Haussmann apartments featured parquet floors, moldings, and fireplaces with marble mantles, details which have usually been preserved and appreciated by later residents. Because of its proven success, the Haussmann standard dominated residential building in Paris until World War I, soaking up new influences and growing to 8 stories.

Usine Electrique de la Compagnie Parisienne d’Air Comprimé

132 Quai de Jammapes, 10th. Paul Friesé, 1896

The 10th is perfect for admiring the 19th-century’s architectural shift into iron and glass construction. Huge iron beams were first used in train station architecture. The exposed iron had a machine-made, purpose-filled look which expressed the concept of progress put forward by the Industrial Revolution. Builders took advantage of the beams’ flexibility and strength to create radical innovations in construction. Architect Baltard used the metal structure of the train shed as inspiration for his famous market buildings in Les Halles. Bridge engineers like Gustave Eiffel continued the experiment with girders and created the Eiffel Tower. In the 10th arrondissement, you can admire the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord, then cross to the Canal Saint Martin, where you can witness the evolution of metal architecture from train sheds to dramatic and beautiful industrial buildings. The Canal was the dockyard of Paris, where materials arrived by barge as well as train, allowing industry to flourish. The most innovative industrial buildings lined the quays here, and this air compression factory is a fabulous surviving example. Best admired from the far side of the canal, the building is a real show-off, with homey rough stonework, classical interplay of colored brick, imposing stone columns, and every shape of window. But most important is its wonderful metal exoskeleton of blue-grey beams—looking at the exposed structure, you can feel the Modern period about to bloom.


Art Nouveau (1893-1917)


Art Nouveau was a brief but exquisite fin-de-siecle architectural trend lasting approximately from 1893 to the beginning of World War I. The name for the style comes from an art gallery opened in 1900, when German-born Parisian S. Bing opened a shop near Galeries Lafayette called “L’Art Nouveau Bing.” The press quickly seized on the label. From the mid- 1800s, industrial building materials had revolutionized construction, but architects were slow to change their style. Heavy overwrought versions of Haussmann buildings remained the norm. A few innovative young architects across Europe took a fresh look at the new steel, iron, and concrete available. They realized that these new materials could emphasize the way a building was put together instead of using a heavy facade to conceal the inner architectural structure. The new materials allowed architects to free the interior space of a building, opening the way to Modernism.

The essential name of the period was Hector Guimard, today remembered for his famous Métro entrances. The Paris transport authority hired him in 1896. Guimard’s curving “cigarette smoke” line had already made waves in the elegant 16th arrondissement, but his Art Nouveau was motivated by a social conscience, much like the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. He leapt at the chance to design something beautiful for the masses. Of course, when Guimard unveiled his brilliant Métro work in 1900, everyone hated it. The shiny green color he had chosen to emulate nature was considered unpatriotic, too close to Prussian green, and the writhing insect-like metalwork was much too weird for the public. Time has defeated his critics however, and Guimard’s Art Nouveau Métro entrances have become one of the city’s trademarks.

Hôtel Guimard

122 Avenue Mozart, 16th. Hector Guimard, 1912

This is the house that Guimard built for himself and his American wife, the painter Adeline Oppenheim. Installing his own office on the ground floor, he included north-facing studio windows on the top floor to give his wife good light to paint by. Crammed onto a peculiar narrow footprint, the tall house shows all of the architect’s influences. In the early 1890s, Guimard traveled to Britain. There, he was particularly affected by the great Scottish architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. On the way home, Guimard stopped in Brussels and spent time with architectural genius Victor Horta, who was at that time developing his signature Art Nouveau style. Horta manipulated cast iron so that it imitated tree branches, spreading out to support immense ceilings. Inspired, Guimard returned to Paris and introduced Art Nouveau to France. In this house, you can see the Horta influence in the melting Flemish windows. The tiles edging the roof and the wonderful natural rootedness of the house might remind you of the Edinburgh work of Rennie Mackintosh. Even when keeping a close eye on the bottom line, Guimard always worked with excellent craftsmen, using the best materials available, and the result here is a unified masterpiece. Guimard designed everything from the door locks to the furnishings. Tragically, when his widow attempted to leave the house to the city as a Guimard museum, she received no support and the interior furnishings were dispersed. The house is now divided into apartments.

La Samaritaine Department Store

Corner of Rue de la Monnaie and Quai de Megisserie, 1st. Main building Frantz Jourdain, 1906, rebuilt with Henri Sauvage, 1928-1930

The main building of the Samaritaine straddles two styles: Frantz Jourdain’s magnificent iron beam construction in the Art Nouveau style, along with a superb Art Deco building by Henri Sauvage. The peculiar name for the Samaritaine comes from a 17th-century water-supply pump that used to stand on the Pont Neuf. It was a huge hydraulic pump, apparently decorated with a statue of the good Samaritan. In 1869, when he opened his shop here, Cognacq adopted the pump’s name. From the corner of Rue du Pont Neuf, you’ll see the decorative blue Jourdain building sandwiched by other construction; around the front, towards the river, what you see is the massive but effective front of the Art Deco building. Jourdain was first hired in 1883 to build a new store for owner Ernest Cognacq. The site took a long time to clear, and this fantastically decorative blue building was ready in 1906. It was an immediate sensation. Shopping was the new entertainment, and Jourdain had created a marvel. But the building was a victim of its own success: Cognacq had to expand. World War I intervened, and Art Nouveau was no longer in fashion. The expansion finally took place in 1928, by which time Jourdain was working with a young up-and-coming architect, Henri Sauvage, who was committed to the new Art Deco style. (If you want to see Sauvage at his best, visit 13, Rue des Amiraux, 18th, for a white tile Art Deco phenomenon.) Sauvage’s Samaritaine addition is all hard angles in a radical concrete casing, complete with geometric incisions across the top storey, icing for an Art Deco cake. The iron grill that holds the Samaritaine’s sign remains one of the best features of the newer building. Bigger, brasher, the Art Deco building tends to overshadow the original masterpiece, but having them side by side like this gives us an amazing chance to compare the sudden shifts in architecture within these brief two decades. To really appreciate Jourdain’s construction, be sure to go inside. Rising up from the perfumes is an elegant staircase leading up to the top floor, where painted peacocks strut across the support beams of a magnificent Art Nouveau skylight.


Art Deco and the Modern Movement (1918-39)


At the end of World War I, a new aesthetic began to bubble up in Paris. It was optimistic—the world had just survived “the war to end all wars” and people were exuberant. Paris hummed with wealthy visitors and artistic innovations. High-speed ocean liners crisscrossed the Atlantic; Surrealism shocked the art world; radios poured out jazz music. The Modern Age had arrived. Trying to express this freedom and movement, architects responded to the jazzy rhythm with angular shapes reminiscent of the new cruise ships. Their style was termed Industrial Moderne, Jazz Moderne or Streamline Moderne; it was only in the 60s that the term Art Deco was coined, but this is the name that has stuck to the movement. Art Deco first appeared in Paris and reached its greatest heights in New York during the 20s and 30s. World War II put an end to Art Deco’s optimism; the less-flamboyant lines of pure Modernism took over. But at the beginning, in the 1920s in Paris, the two styles overlapped, particularly in private houses designed in newly-developing residential areas of Paris such as Boulogne and Montsouris.

There was a housing boom all over the city, especially at its edges. The city wall of Adolphe Thiers, built in 1851 and made obsolete soon afterwards when the city limits were changed by Haussmann, was finally completely demolished after World War I. The new empty space was quickly filled with housing projects, many of them government-sponsored and built of brick. The new housing was influenced by the sharp angles and setbacks of Art Deco, with decorative brickwork and intelligent layouts. These brick buildings became known as “the red belt,” because they were brick-colored and inhabited by socialist workers, in a belt at the edge of the city.

Franklin Apartments

25 bis Rue Benjamin Franklin, 16th. Auguste Perret & brothers, 1904

Concrete found its visionary in Auguste Perret. With his brothers Gustave and Claude, Perret inherited a construction company from his father. Auguste immediately set himself up as an architect, before he had even completed the necessary formal training. His buildings are meticulously planned, innovative, and absolutely Modern. Perret found inspiration in the Cubist movement (later he even built a Montparnasse house for Cubist Georges Braque.) He was unfettered by traditional approaches to building and studied the new materials carefully. But he also valued craftsmanship: Auguste learned stone-cutting from his father and studied the writings of Viollet-le-Duc (the 19th-century restorer of Notre Dame). The Franklin apartments are very early for the Modern period, but it’s one of the turning points in architectural history. It stands between Art Nouveau and Art Deco in appearance. Perret rejected the fluid lines of Art Nouveau and threw himself into the radical new art of Cubism, but he had not yet decided to expose unadorned concrete. Instead, he chose to cover his building in gorgeous floral geometric tiles in earthenware by Alexandre Bigot, which have aged magnificently. The structure of the building depends on concrete posts, never before attempted in residential architecture. Because of these posts, the traditional load-bearing supporting walls are eliminated, allowing the apartments to have an open plan that anticipates Le Corbusier. Window projections are angled to give maximum light and excellent views, while eliminating the traditional Paris courtyard. As the building’s neighbors refused to allow windows in the back of the building, Perret introduced glass brick to light the rear stairwell. Glass brick later became a crucial material in Modern and Art Deco design. Perret’s streamlined vision perfectly suited the period between the wars, and fortunately he went on to design further masterpieces such as the Conseil économique et social at 1 Avenue d’Iena.

Pavillon Suisse

7K Boulevard Jourdan, Cité Universitaire, 14th. Le Corbusier, 1932

The most famous architect of the 20th-century, Le Corbusier completed not even 60 buildings in his lifetime. But he continues to inspire both worship and loathing around the globe. Swiss by birth, Corbu is the man who coined the term “a machine for living”—which is what he expected from a successful house. He believed that mathematics contained an ideal formula for living, and the Swiss Pavilion is a magnificent example of Corbu working at the height of his power. The 30s saw Corbu formulate many of his most influential theories; his most exciting writings on art, architecture, and urban planning appeared during this period. Here, Corbu worked in collaboration with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to create a perfect expression of his theory of four ruling elements: sky, trees, concrete and steel. His trademark brutalist materials and his love for rooftop greenery are both beautifully in evidence here. In later buildings, Corbu expanded on these concepts, but the Swiss Pavilion remains one of the most livable residential blocks the master every completed. The dormitory is an elegant, low-rise version of Corbu’s vision of high-density habitation. He dreamed of a city where streets were ignored, parks were essential, and huge high-rises boasted rooftop gardens: the Cité Universitaire was in these ways perfect for his plan. The Swiss Pavilion directs its glazed front south towards the sun, overlooking playing fields. Along the rooftop there are light and air wells, allowing students to sunbathe in privacy, and giving them a garden terrace with potted plants. Down at ground level, visible pilings support the building, which seems to float over a glass-walled lounge area. The stairs of the building are concealed in the curved back section, which is a well-balanced contrast to the 90-degree angles of the dormitory rooms. As you admire Corbu’s deceptively simple plan, consider that this masterpiece was built when many Parisian architects were still flailing around in the turgid remains of Haussmannism.

Cinema Rex

1 Boulevard Poissonière, 2nd. André Bluysen with John Eberson as consultant, 1931

From the 1830s through to the 1930s, Paris was a theatergoers paradise. There was every kind of performance from music-hall burlesque to avant-garde music, housed in fantastically beautiful and innovative buildings. When film became popular, Parisian architects adapted the theater template into magnificent cinema temples. The Grand Rex is the most impressive of these halls, built just at the end of the boom in 1931; its genius comes partly from the American consultant John Eberson, who built almost 400 cinemas across the States during the 20s. The Rex turned out to be a mammoth project, taking a year to complete and housing 3,300 seats. The front is classically Art Deco, with its ocean-liner sleekness and uniquely Parisian “pan coupe” corner entrance. This style of corner was first legislated under Haussmann to allow carriage drivers better visibility when going around corners! During the 20s, these cutaway building corners were absurdly decorated with Oriental turrets, but the Rex is determinedly Moderne and has a round glowing latticework ziggurat crowning its entranceway. The interior continues this Art Deco fantasia; the well-kept auditorium features an Arabian Nights theme by designer Maurice Dufrene complete with fake constellations in the ceiling. Instead of ruining this wonderful hall by splitting it into smaller cinemas, the Rex intelligently built a couple of small screens in the 70s in the basement, where Bluysen had originally included a nursery and a kennel.


Post War through the Seventies


These years are often seen as a disaster for French architecture. This isn’t entirely fair, although some terrible mistakes were made, in particular the destruction of Les Halles in central Paris. But even after ripping out the guts of the city, one phoenix rose from the ruins. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers created the superb Centre Georges Pompidou on the square that had once been Les Halles’ parking lot for delivery trucks. The brightly-hued building changed the course of European architecture and made the careers of the two young partners, who have gone on to build fantastic buildings around the world. Their Beaubourg concept pushes all the utilities and services to the outside of the building in order to free up enormous exhibition spaces within. Whether you love it or hate it, Beaubourg has a delightful feeling of fun, its purpose-coded colors sparkling again after its 2000 renovation. The problem with many buildings from this period is that they never had a sense of humor and they have aged badly.

Although the Pompidou stands out radically from its neighbors because of its style, its height isn’t much taller than them. Paris remains largely 8-stories high. In order to keep taller buildings from ruining the skyline, a sort of architectural apartheid was introduced during this period. While low-rise Paris remained pristine, skyscrapers were sent to La Defense, a futuristic suburb just beyond the Arc de Triomphe. The first plan appeared in 1964 and was criticized for being dull; the second plan put forward much higher and more dramatic buildings and was approved in 1968. This business-oriented suburb covers about 1,000 hectares; today, some of the towers are beautiful, some ugly, and construction continues, always carefully planned. Unfortunately, other outlying areas of Paris have had to endure far less thoughtful experiments and are mutilated with residential turrets. There is no redeeming word to be said for the crumbling, supposedly Modern, architectural wrecks that litter the outlying areas of eastern Paris. It is these mistakes that have given the entire period a bad reputation.

Tour Montparnasse

Place Raoul-Dautry, off Boulevard Montparnasse, 15th. Eugene Beaudouin, Urbain Cassan, Louis Hoym de Marien, Jean Saubot, with consultant A. Epstein & Sons, 1973

This is not a bad tower. It is simply in a bad place. In building this skyscraper, the first of its kind in Paris, Beaudouin and company destroyed the fabric of Montparnasse. Was this intentional? Opinions differ, but the area was impoverished, filled with rebellious artists, and as such was undesirable in President Pompidou’s vision for a modern city. The French could stick the blame for this tower on its American developer, Wylie Tuttle, but they usually take full responsibility for the unfortunate and lonely building. It’s possible that the tower would have been more attractive had Raymond Lopez lived to work on the result. Modernist urban planner Lopez contributed to the initial 1959 plan, which casts the tower in less aggressive pale concrete with transparent glass. What we ended up with is a 56-storey black tower that seems to have landed from another planet, blasting tiny historic streets and artists’ studios into oblivion. Hated when it was completed, the tower forced the French into awareness of their skyline. The government rushed to protect downtown Paris, forbidding other turrets in the city center. Contemporary architecture was forced to go horizontal, as seen in the Centre Pompidou or more recently with the Quai Branly museum project. Looking at this tower, New Yorkers might be reminded of Midtown’s more successful Pan Am Building (whose consulting architects were Walter Gropius & Pietro Belluschi—Europeans out for revenge?) The Tour Montparnasse is best admired from afar, from the other side of the river. At the corner of the Rue du Louvre and Rivoli, you can just see the tower looming at twilight, a Modernist brontosaurus glittering beyond the Neo-classic turrets of Saint-Sulpice.

Les Orgues

67-107 Avenue de Flandre, 19th. Martin S. Van Treek, 1973-1980

Little good came from the public housing projects of this period. About all that can be said in their favor is that people were housed. Not well, and not always willingly, but housed with running water, nonetheless. Les Orgues is a good example of the aggressive urban planning carried out in the Northeast of Paris. The 11th, 12th, 19th and 20th arrondissements have traditionally been left-wing; during the Occupation, most Resistance members came from these areas (while the wealthy 6th, 7th, and 16th merrily collaborated.) The Northeast has also traditionally been home for any newcomers to the city. In the 60s, Paris powers-that-be decided to eradicate the unsanitary poor sections of Paris; this was part of the rational behind the Tour Montparnasse. In the northeast, Belleville, Menilmontant, Faubourg Saint-Antoine, and this part of Avenue de Flandres were specifically targeted. Fortunately, some sectors fought back; Belleville and Saint-Antoine continue to be exciting and historic neighborhoods. But Flandres was not so lucky. An enormous and vital quartier was torn down here to make way for the 1,950 apartments housed in Les Orgues. This conglomeration of buildings is supposed to represent the pipes of an enormous church organ (no doubt a bizarre reference for the largely Muslim immigrant population that lives here.) Although quite safe to walk through, unlike several similar projects in the Parisian suburbs, the dusty central gardens and tagged tiles confirm the feeling of dislocation promoted by this style of architecture. It’s amazing proof of human resilience that children actually play here, laughing amid the monoliths.


Contemporary, 1980 to Present


In the 1980s, President Mitterrand unveiled a new architectural concept to move Paris into the next millennium. His “grands travaux” brought both praise and horror as they evolved, but no one can deny that the final result is a renewed and thrillingly diverse city. Mitterrand is responsible for commissioning the Grand Louvre’s new glass pyramid entrance (created by I.M. Pei), the move of the Ministry of Finance into a new building (designed by Paul Chemetov), the Grande Arche de la Defense (by Von Spreckelsen), the Cité de la Musique (by Pritzer-prize winner Christian de Portzamparc), the Institut du Monde Arabe (by Jean Nouvel), the Opera Bastille (by the less-accomplished Carlos Ott), and the new library (by Dominique Perrault), now named after the grand master puppeteer himself as the Bibliotèque François-Mitterrand. Not all of these buildings were successful (the Opera Bastille stands out as a particular blot on the landscape), but overall, Mitterrand’s desire to make Paris a contemporary architectural star turned out to be a resounding success. Some of the most exciting names in the industry are now French (see below) and if the mayor of Paris can successfully improve the city’s circulation problems, the future for Paris architecture is looking very bright indeed.

Ministère de l’Economie, des Finances et du Budget

Quai de la Rapée & Boulevard de Bercy, 12th. Paul Chemetov with Borja Huidobro, 1989

Chemetov is an exciting but uneven architect. He excels at innovative sculptural forms and beautiful use of materials, both of which are admirable here, but he often falls down in the human aspect of architecture. He doesn’t seem to always remember the fact that people have to live with his buildings on a daily basis. Here, Chemetov has created a sarcastic but perfect symbol for the Finance Ministry: its Orwellian shape looms like a monster guarding the entrance to the city, with two feet firmly planted in the rushing waters of the Seine. Chemetov might be making conscious reference to the 18th-century Paris walls which once stood here, exacting tolls on all merchandise entering the city. But sometimes architecture should be more than historic sculpture, especially when it’s 1,200,000 square feet of offices. It’s hard to pity Finance Ministry workers, but their souls must suffer every morning as they are sucked into this weighty hulk. The Minister, though, has a very spiffy office, facing the water, and some of the inside spaces are magnificent; unfortunately they’re almost impossible to visit. The best way to see this building is from the river. If you can’t find a boat, stand on the Pont de Bercy and be thankful this was plonked down towards the edge of the city and not in the middle of it. Despite its rather monstrous shape, this building is typical of Chemetov. At least you can’t call him boring. To see his sculptural sense at work in a different environment, check out his very successful Les Halles underground entrance, near Saint-Eustache, which in 1988 was added to the hideous 1979 mall. Or if you’re up at Parc La Villette, drop by the fabulous sunken bamboo garden, which Chemetov co-designed with visual artist Daniel Buren.

Postal Worker Flats

113 Rue Oberkampf, 11th. Frédéric Borel, 1994

Borel worked as an assistant to the popular Parisian architect Christian de Portzamparc during the 80s, which obviously influenced his playful geometric style. These postal worker apartments and post office are an exciting addition to the street. The unusual receding view into the lush green courtyard keeps this building from being an aggressive block in the middle of what was the old Menilmontant working class neighborhood. Borel is part of what’s called the “new architectural hedonism”, which is the gleeful opposite of minimalism. Color, contrasting textures, and angular juxtapositions create visual interest and reflect what Borel sees in Paris itself: a great mélange of faces and places. This particular building feels like a giant transformer robot toy, about to get up and walk away through the cityscape. Critics have compared Borel’s work to an ocean liner (shades of Art Deco)—what they mean is that his work can be too independent of its environment. But the streetscape here remains light and I think the silvery finish of the post office is intriguing rather than alienating. If you like this building, be sure to check out Borel’s latest work, a new day-care building near Canal Saint-Martin at 8ter Rue des Recollets.

Fondation Cartier

261 Boulevard Raspail, 14th. Jean Nouvel, 1993

Jean Nouvel is the supernova of Paris architecture stars; an entire show at the Pompidou was devoted to him in 2002, and he is responsible for the popular Tour Sans Fin in La Defense (which isn’t actually endless, only 100 stories high.) Nouvel was the main architect of the brilliant Institut du Monde Arabe, and expectations are high for his latest Paris project, the Musée des Arts Premiers, opening in 2004 on Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower. Until this new museum is finished, you can best appreciate Nouvel’s vision at one of his older buildings, the Fondation Cartier. Here on Boulevard Raspail is the essence of Nouvel’s vision. Relying on new types of glass and support structures, the Fondation building is transparent, emphasizing its natural surroundings. The site was once the home of French writer Chateaubriand, who planted a tree in the yard. Nouvel managed to design the new building around the tree, to preserve the living link to the past. Nouvel is part of an international trend away from the purist manipulation of space, towards a crucial focus on building materials. Just as Haussmann’s Paris was defined by its golden “pierre de Paris stone,” and mid-20th-century Paris was defined by gradual discoveries using reinforced concrete, Nouvel reveals the most recent incarnation of Paris by using glass to reinterpret the City of Light.

Special thanks to
France: Still Revolting
Class, race, power, geography: Why Paris and its suburbs just keep burning
by Joshua Clover
November 8th, 2005 12:00 AM

Being the center of Western cultural history (if never of military-economic dominance), Paris is more like a diorama than a living metropole: the museum of modernity, the monument museum, the museum of museums.
This preservationist urge has many intertwined roots and implications; chief among them is that the city’s 20 arrondissements (especially the inner 10) remain occupied by the überbourgeosie. Reversing Stateside logic of white flight, Paris (and, less rigorously, many another French and European town) offers a white core, and suburbs of another color. Our understanding of the word “suburb,” and the kind of life it suggests, is so powerful it can be hard to grasp the difference. While there are some well-heeled enclaves like Neuilly-sur-Seine (home to Gerard Depardieu and former Neuilly mayor/ current interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy), the banlieues now in flames around Paris more often resemble the center of Detroit, wasted holding areas for a working class whose presence is only occasionally requested by prevailing economic conditions. The classic film of suburban life isn’t the Stepford Wives but La Haine (Hate), Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 fearjerker. The “Neuf-Trois” (a postal code for St-Denis) is Compton and Queens rolled together just north of Paris, home to hardcore hip-hoppers including Supreme NTM. Nique ta mère may be slang for “fuck your mother,” but their best album translates as “Paris under bombs.” That’s the sound of the suburbs around here.

Great effort and expense goes into maintaining the boundary between the collar and the nation’s beautiful throat. At the metro stations serving as main gates to the downtown, consistently named for French Revolutionary history, police routinely harass and intimidate youths as they deboard. Because the suburban rail runs to Les Halles at the center of town, the complex found there, once upon a time the center of working-class life, is being torn up and bourgeoisified . . . for the second time in a generation. Unlike the events of 1968, these begin at enforced distance from monumental Paris, separated from history itself. "How do people make history,” asked some French folks about the Watts riots, “under conditions designed to dissuade them from intervening in it?"

Now that question has come home again. The prohibition against the ‘hood coming to town is so forceful that these riots spread to other cities before leaping the invisible Parisian walls: a circulatory motion of stark historical interest. Meanwhile, such an urban geography has implications both tactical and theoretical. Because the riots are not flaring in centers, they can’t be isolated and contained.

By the same token, the hand-wringing line about how the rioters may have legit causes for anger, sigh, but really are just despoiling their own streets, deep sigh — a rhetoric so popular with politicos and self-professsed liberals alike in the United States in 1965 and 1992 — just doesn’t make much sense in this conflagration. A few government honchos experimented with such an analysis last week; it didn’t take. How could it, when the riots are entirely decentered, and sometimes appear to take the shape of an anarchic, darkly joyous siege? Of all the moving quotations in recent newspapers of the world, not the least of them noted, without moralizing, that one thing driving the nightly festival of lights was the simple fact that “it’s fun to set cars on fire.” At last, something we can all agree on.

Though a vast portion of the banlieusards are darker- skinned immigrants and their children , one colorful phrase with real explanatory power is banlieues rouges: “red suburbs,” historically working- class districts which turn out to be, quel coincidence, Communist in spirit and mayoralty. This is by way of saying that there are three ways of understanding the borders between downtown and the ‘burbs, Paris-style: racialized, religious, and economic. Recent news in the U.S. has foregrounded the first two, displaying a withering hostility to reality en route. To lump various French Arabic and French African publics into a single cultural body is to beg the adjectives “stupid” and “racist.” To imagine that the HLMs (the massive housing projects ringing Paris) are zealous, jihadist strongholds is equally ludicrous. That’s not to say that such struggles don’t fall like shadows across every moment; these events are fed by numerous confluences of history, of exclusion and tension. There is no doubt, for example, that the new imposition of curfew can’t help but resonate with the era of the Algerian War, in which the French Government has after long delay admitted to crimes including torture, and murder of protesters.

Nonetheless, the last dozen days won’t succumb to suddenly convenient templates about nationalisms, or narratives of Islam balling out of control. Sabine Roddier, a French Lebanese seven-year old living in a suburb of Toulouse, told her aunt Mireille, "It's the revolution! The poor are revolting against the rich, just like in 1789! I wish they'd waited until I was a bit older and my dad would let me go. Now I come home from school and watch the news."

Ah, the optimism of youth. Still, as her aunt reports, “there was no apparent awareness of the fact that she's both foreigner and Muslim in her sense of solidarity. In her eyes, it's just about the empowerment of the lower classes.” As usual, even before 9-11, the news in America hews to the popular fantasy that class war is so last millenium; that the concept of class itself has somehow been “discredited.” Just as 1968 must now be remembered both abroad and by France’s backlash generation as a brouhaha over the spirit of youth and free love and all that — anything but a general strike by two-thirds of the nation's work force — the urge now is to settle swiftly on some sort of cultural explanation, any will do, anything so as not to see this as a long-gathering confrontation between the museum-city’s exiled and unemployed support staff, and the security guards charged with protecting the patrons, the princes, and the museum itself. It couldn’t possibly be exactly what it is.

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