Pixar Resurrects Les Halles

The people at Pixar really surprised me this week.

The movie “Cars 2” includes lots of breathtaking architecture, including both reconstitutions and fanciful inventions. Of course, for the scenes in Paris, I was watching with rapt attention. What was my surprise when the protagonists suddenly drove into the Les Halles market building designed by Victor Baltard – which was torn down more than 30 years ago.

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Château de Compiègne

With all the great things to do in and around Paris, it is understandable that the Château de Compiègne remains relatively marginal in the visitor statistics. Nevertheless – especially for anyone interested in Napoleon III and the Second Empire – it is a very worthwhile outing.

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Victor Louis’s Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux

French monuments outside Paris can have difficulty getting the attention they deserve. To prove I am not too “Parisianist”, I am writing today about a building that ranks among the most perfect works of French eighteenth-century architecture: Victor Louis’s Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux.

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The Landscape of the Bois de Boulogne

Today I took part in a lovely walk through Paris organized by the association Les Promenades Urbaines.

The theme of the walk was “The Urban Nature of Alphand”, a reference to Adolphe Alphand, the head of the Parks and Promenades Division of the Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, during the Second Empire.

We went down the Avenue Foch (known as the Avenue de l’Impératrice during the Second Empire) and through the Bois de Boulogne. It was a wonderful chance to explore the genesis of a new form of urban nature in the mid-nineteenth century and what remains of it today.

The walk started with Michel Audouy, a landscape architect and professor, discussing how the design of the urban spaces of Second Empire Paris incorporated nature, for example through the systematic inclusion of alignments of trees. We walked down the Avenue Foch and explored this splendid space designed by architect Jacques-Ignace Hittorff and the city park department of Alphand.

Michel Pena, a landscape architect currently in charge of the requalification of a portion of the Bois de Boulogne, took us through the Bois. He passionately spoke about the park and its history, showing the great quality of the Second Empire achievements. He discussed Napoleon III’s personal passion for the design of parks and the tremendous achievements of Aphand’s parks department. He also showed us ways in which the original design has been severely compromised over the years and shared his travails in trying to restore the spatial qualities of the park as initially envisioned.

Les Promenades Urbaines offers urban walks in Paris throughout the year, led by experts and practitioners. They are a great way to learn about the city and its projects in greater depth. Perhaps if there is enough demand, they will do some in English some day. In any case you can visit their web site at www.promenades-urbaines.com and “like” them on Facebook.

Paris’s First Public Garden

Until 1844, there were no public gardens in Paris. There were of course wonderful gardens in the city, like the Tuileries Gardens, the gardens of the Palais-Royal, and the Luxembourg Gardens, but these were the private property of the Crown or of other citizens, to which the general public was granted access based on “tolerances”.

The very first garden in Paris to be owned by the city for the enjoyment of Parisians is the garden now known as the Square Jean XXIII, on the east and south sides of Notre-Dame. Its story, like so many things in Paris, is a fascinating memory of painful and turbulent events.

1830 was the year of the July Revolution that removed the Bourbon dynasty and introduced King Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans, who was much more amenable to the the new measures of political liberalization. The religious and conservative parts of the population, however, refused to acknowledge the new king and sought to reinstate the last member of the House of Bourbon, the Count of Chambord, whom his partisans considered to be Henry V, the legitimate King of France.

On Sunday, February 13th, 1831, word circulated around Paris that the portrait of the Count of Chambord had been hung at Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois Church. A group of partisans of the Revolution of 1830 responded by descending on the church and sacking it. From there, they went to the Archbishopric, considered to be a center of Legitimist sentiment.

The Palace of the Archbishopric of Paris was a fine structure built by the Cardinal de Noailles in 1697 located adjacent to Notre-Dame Cathedral. The crowd arrived there and threw all the books and furniture into the Seine. The next morning, they came back to finish the work and burn the building down. The authorities were in a strange position, fundamentally aligned with the objectives of the anti-Legitimist actions, but still not pleased to see uncontrollable masses pillaging the national heritage. They issued calls condemning the Legitimist conspiracy while asking the people to spare the monuments.

Then, something strange happened. Tuesday, February 15th was Mardi Gras. The Palace of the Archbishopric still in ruins, Paris was overtaken by the spirit of festivity. The angry mobs simply dissolved into the crowds of revelers.

The remains of the building were eventually taken down and the space was left as a public promenade. Then, in 1844, the Prefect of the Seine, Count Claude-Philippe Barthelot de Rambuteau, a lover of nature who had grown up on a magnificent estate in Burgundy, opened the space as the first public garden entirely dedicated to Parisians, to be known as the Square de l’Archeveché. In 1850, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus, who were responsible for the comprehensive restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral, added the Sacristy and the Rectory that we see today along the south side of the Cathedral. Years later, the park was later renamed in honor of Pope John XXIII.


Poster of the 1962 film of Les Mystères de Paris by André Hunebelle with Jean Marais

The Mysteries of Paris

June 19th, 1842 was a Sunday, like today. At the time, the bottom of the front page of the French dailies was occupied by a novel in serial form. On this day, the Journal des Débat Politiques et Littéraires, a popular Parisian daily, published the first installment of a tremendously important work of literature that is all but unknown in the English-speaking world today.

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The Cultural Reach of the Second Empire

I am in Washington D.C. these days, where one can see a few examples of “Second Empire style” architecture, most notably the Old Executive Office Building.

The “Second Empire style” enjoyed a great vogue in the U.S. in the 1860s and 1870s before becoming reviled. I understand that there was a similar enthusiasm in Melbourne, Australia and I know there are examples of the style in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, Canada.

I can well imagine that the images of the expanded Louvre, opened in 1857, and of the façade of the new Opéra de Paris, unveiled to the public during the World Exhibition of 1867, travelled around the world and caught the eye of architects looking for stylistic inspiration. As an aside, and as readers of my book will see, it is worth knowing that these stylistic devices did not even come close to characterizing the architectural production of the Second Empire years, which had a number of other, very different strands.

The part of all this that interests me the most is how very successful Second Empire France was at establishing itself as the reference of taste. In the 1870s, it seems, refinement was defined as all things French, not just in architecture, but in all facets of the art de vivre. Part of this, no doubt, is related to the sudden opening up of travel to France to whole American families in the 1850s and 1860s due to steam ships. It is clear that the French thought highly enough of themselves to proclaim their own superiority, as one can see from the commentary to the artistic part of the 1867 World Exhibition. And there is no doubt that there was a concerted effort to project French greatness as part of Napoleon III’s political and diplomatic program. Still, the success of these efforts and the impact they had so very far from the French shores is impressive.