The Hôtel Particulier: A Parisian Ambition

The hôtel particulier is an urban private mansion, standing most often away from the street, between a courtyard and a garden. There are fewer than 500 of these houses in Paris today, but there were as many as 2,000 in the seventeenth century. An exhibition that opened this week at the Cité de l’Architecture retraces the history of this fascinating building type, so important to Paris’s history and character. This exhibition and the splendid book that accompanies it are a real delight for anyone with interest in the subject.

There is much more material on view than is first evident – and the meatiest part is at the back. The start is leisurely, with a stroll through spaces representing the different types of rooms found in a hôtel particulier, each garnished with the appropriate artwork and furniture. There is an entrance hall, a salon, and a marvelous little cabinet full of originals of the great treatises on French residential architecture: Blondel, Boffran, d’Aviler, Marot, etc.

A view of the rooms in the first section of the exhibition

The exhibition then shifts into high gear with a section focused on the buildings themselves, presented in small groups.

Hôtel Clisson (or Hôtel de Guise)

The oldest buildings shown are the Hôtel de Cluny, Hôtel de Sens, and other hôtels dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The architecture of these is medieval, with fortified towers, turrets, and spare windows. But still we see the important characteristics of the building form emerge, such as the positioning between a courtyard and a garden and, of course, the representational importance of the house as a symbol of political status.

The seventeenth century was the beginning of the great era of the Parisian hôtel particulier. Among the many buildings presented from this period, one of the most remarkable is the Hôtel Lambert, designed by Louis Le Vau, situated on the far east of the Île Saint Louis. In this masterpiece, French classicism is in full bloom, both in the architecture and in the gardens. The plan is a lesson in design, effortlessly articulating the garden to the side, rather than in the back, and turning this fault into a virtue by inventing a rounded library at the end of an enfilade, facing the Seine.

The ordered squares built in the seventeenth century – the Place des Vosges and, later, the Place Vendôme – posed an interesting architectural problem because of the fundamental contradiction between the hôtel, by nature individual and showy, and the uniformity desired in these squares. The Hôtel d’Evreux on Place Vendôme, designed by Pierre Bullet, is an example of how this tension was cleverly and pragmatically resolved.

The eighteenth century gloriously continued the tradition of the hôtel particulier. The hôtels are much too numerous to mention, and are designed by the great names of French architecture, including Boffrand, de Wailly, Brongniart and Ledoux, to name just a few. One can spend hours in the company of the splendid drawings and models on display, marveling at the treasures of ingenuity and intelligence they contain.

The hôtel particulier was one of the core building programs during the period of French classicism, and one of the trickiest. Located in an urban setting, the hôtels often were to be built on oddly-shaped plots, with difficult-to-resolve tensions between program and context. They therefore formed a brilliant training ground for compositional ingenuity. A simple example of this is the Hôtel de Rohan, designed by Pierre-Alexis Delamair, in which the strange shape of the plot is resolved by two opposing façades of different sizes. Both are symmetrical, and the two axes do not line up, but this is resolved by the clever lay-out of the rooms inside. Another example is the Hôtel de Beauvais, in which the architect, Antoine Le Pautre, managed to create a masterpiece of beauty and order in an unbelievably oddly-shaped plot. The facility gained with this type of situation had a profound effect on French city design, as the skills honed in resolving these spatial puzzles were perfectly transposable to urban composition

Hôtel de Soubise

One could think that in the nineteenth century, with the end of the Ancien Régime and the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, the hôtel particulier would be finished. But no, more were built throughout the century, and especially during the Second Empire, when great wealth again coincided with a desire for social representation. Henri Parent, now nearly forgotten by the history books, was among the greatest practitioners of the genre in his day. He designed the house for Edouard André on Boulevard Haussmann that is now the Musée Jacquemard-André as well as the Hôtel Menier, probably the most famous of the houses surrounding the Parc Monceau.

Model of the Palais Rose

The hôtel particulier subsisted until the beginning of the twentieth century. One of the most recent buildings shown in the exhibition is the Palais Rose, an extraordinary Belle Époque structure built in 1896 by the architect Ernest Sanson on what is now Avenue Foch. It is difficult to believe that the authorities allowed the Palais Rose to be demolished as late as 1969.

Each hôtel particulier is a story: the story of a family; the story of an architect; the story of the construction, modification, extension and sometimes demolition of the home they built. These stories are full of forceful, sometimes eccentric, personalities, of ascents and falls, of glory and ignominy. In the Cité de l’Architecture exhibition, one gets glimpses into all these private worlds, spanning centuries.

A delightful feature of the exhibition is an oversized interactive display showing a map of Paris with many of the city’s hôtels particuliers, existing and demolished, on which the user can view information and graphic resources relating to each.  It is an absolute treasure trove. There is also a space for films, where I saw an excellent documentary on the Hôtel de Soubise and Hôtel de Rohan. In a separate space to the side, there is a touching exhibition of massive black and white prints of photographs of hôtels particuliers that have been lost – a number of the photographs actually show the buildings in the midst of demolition. A fitting way to remind ourselves of the wonderful, but fragile, heritage that these buildings represent.

In total, one cannot help but be impressed that in France, for five centuries or so, the path to social status through building was assumed to require artistic production of the highest quality – not just the buildings, but paintings, sculptures, furniture, and so on. Nowadays, I fear our moneyed elite is by and large unconcerned with these expectations, and have – with rare exceptions – stopped playing the role of patronage that rich Parisians played for centuries, pulling along a whole part of the architectural and related professions. For many rich people now, large, showy, and depressingly ordinary seems to be enough.

The exhibition at the Cité de l’Architecture runs from October 5th, 2011 to February 19, 2012. The museum is located  located in the Palais de Chaillot, on Place du Trocadéro (just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower). More information is available at: L’hôtel particulier, une ambition parisienne.

Related links:

Paris’s Architecture Museum: La Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine