Paris was my education, but it has fallen from grace
First published in AT10, 1990
Paris. I found my education there in absentia from a post-war AA. Cradle of modernism, Paris also breathed the art and craft of city – how to make it, how to live it – including sleeping below airy attic studios on summer quais busy with barges trundling across Europe, instead of slumming it in the Rue de Seine.
Students sardined into Le Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse confirmed that his ésprit nouveau had little to do with the pearls Jean-Paul Sartre dropped at our sandalled feet at the Café de Flore. Next to the Magasin des Beaux Papiers in Rue Jacob, where no two marbled sheets were quite the same, Juliette Greco was existentialism until she hit the discs. Henry James had written of an earlier Paris still evident despite German occupation, although the polish had a bloom and mirrors were cracked.
Classic Paris is transience become permanence through the idea of its hôtels particuliers; escaped families in town for a visit, their spiritual chateaux deep in the country. The different apartments (how practical not to have stairs between supper and bed, shower and breakfast) gathered around quiet courts concierged-off from the streets, among whose shops and workshops their entrance arches signal calm. Outside/inside: two complementary worlds check by jowl but kept distinctly separate. The Paris of the Marais, of Saint-Germain-des-Prés for example, is never provincial though it was fed from the country, from feudalism.
And the same notion of hôtel was then Haussmanned into impeccable delineated, close-knit blocks of even height that line the boulevards and fill the interstices between them; a socially-steeped formula that underlies the ordinary pattern of the city, the special being in grandiloquent cathedrals and churches, palaces and neo-classical public triumphs – buildings, sculptures, fountains and heavenly gardens. Within the faubourgs, originally suburbs which have their own characters, are the little quarters with their loose, intermingling edges; communities instinctively felt according to your habits. Both types of agglomeration break the metropolis down into recognisable entities, the bureaucratic arrondissements cutting across history.
What unreasoned vision persuaded Le Corbusier to violate the heart of Paris with Plan Voisin instead of making a Plan Périphérique?“
High art is the craft of the masons and glaziers who made the Sainte-Chapelle, for instance, but save for the grander hotels tricked out by architects of fashion, it is essentially a tradition of crafting towns hand-in-hand with a developing way of life which made the stuff of the city. Here is reason: an order of building that stimulates and sustains different levels of life together, and due to the denseness of the great Second Empire developments, does not need replacing still. Parade along boulevards or in the Tuileries to be seen, or find solace in the Jardin du Luxembourg or in narrow, granite-paved shutter-patterned streets with their occasional libraries (dark green), antiquités (dark blue), pocket handkerchief cafes (wine) and the succulent elegance of boucherie displays (rare). What unreasoned vision persuaded Le Corbusier to violate the heart of Paris with Plan Voisin instead of making a Plan Périphérique which might even have been discussed?
The French have always found the line between finesse and opulent vulgarity fine, pace Eiffel. La Défense is out on a limb but the recent archi-nasties – the Louvre pyramid with its entry gash in its side (engineering craft there is in the metallic structure, but it is the knocking of an ancient archetype that hurts), the art deco Opéra with its insensitive glass (was Mr Ott unaware of Sainte-Chapelle, Notre-Dame du Raincy, Maison de Verre?) – they and others threaten the city’s sanctity. Like gangster-developers, Presidents shout for ART, the media echo and gangster-architects, shooting with faxed computer printouts, provide. But when craft disappears, as it has largely done, the real art goes out of architecture. All that is left is sculptural abstraction to which ordinary life and its rituals are no longer seminal. Traffic and crowds are too thick for civilised parading or wandering. Instead, why not keep them in clumps, wide-tailed tourists from Tallahassee can queue for tickets to enter art encapsulating further art, the museums like so many Russian dolls. After La Villette and the Musée d’Orsay with their colossal, intellectual emptiness, I am not surprised that von Spreckelsen has stuffed his vacant ‘triumph of mankind’ (the La Défense Arch) with air-conditioned offices, but my soul is vanquished: the Louvre a tomb for art, the Arch a burial vault for life.
I am not just mourning a Paris that made extraordinary sense, but an understanding of architecture, of town-making first stricken by the assumed importance of ‘object’ in Heroic times. Architecture that has meaning for ordinary people – and let us remember that Gothic cathedrals were designed to implant philosophies of life in people who could neither read nor write – is no surreptitious game. It arises from certain hard facts that surround the question of being; being in a natural world that needs our help if it is not to collapse around us. If architecture concerned itself with these issues through a craft of town-making rather than as art for objects – an entirely different emphasis – the discipline might well assume that hegemony which the term ‘mother of art’ implies.