Paris, Ville Lumiere, Tuesday September 26, 2017
I have always wondered how Paris got this nickname. (Apparently one explanation has to do with Paris being the first European city to light its streets, with tens of thousands of gas lamps, in the mid 1800s, thanks to Haussmann’s public works, and miles of gas lines being laid underground during the Baron’s massive demolition of over 1/5 of the city of that time, allowing massive new underground work that modernized Paris’ utilities, sanitation, and transportation… .)
But in addition to the major light and space added to Paris’ map by Haussmann, there are so many other lovely associations one might invoke – thinking of the light of learning and the arts in this vast city over its long history, not to mention the clear, lengthy summer days as we benefit from the city’s Northern latitude, and the power of the vision of a small group of people to change , over time, how many others experience life.
Paris has worked hard, actually, to prolong its bright sunny evenings – as witnessed by its choice to join with the Eastern European time zone (not its natural setting) so that days would begin later in the morning and last longer after work is done. Whenever I’m here, usually in early Autumn, I become aware of that as I awaken at 7:30 or 8 am to a delayed, gray dawn. Paris is liveliest in the early evenings. Sidewalk cafes are at their peak of business and activity, with a lengthy “heure de l’aperitif” stretching into a sophisticated 9 pm dinner hour. And there are enough lights in the densely active central districts so that early evenings, even when darkness has mostly fallen, seem bright and busy. The northern latitude of Paris, equivalent in the “New World” to that of Quebec, provides for long, lazy transitions from dark to light and vice versa. Last evening, for instance, at 9 pm, as darkness slowly fell and shadows lengthened, the ivory dome of the Pantheon still stood out against a solidly azure sky. Granted it was helped a bit by artificial lighting – but that sky was still strikingly blue and radiant, despite the deepening dusk on the ground.
When it’s sunny, Parisian daytime light, at least in April through October, has a buoyant energy. I always enjoy the crisp colors against a perfect blue sky – it’s energizing. There’s a lot in Paris to look up at, making that blue sky an important visual experience.
For one thing, most buildings look pretty similar at ground level – white limestone construction surrounding store fronts and display windows, punctuated by dramatic portals that lead into inner courtyards and provide access to hidden off-street buildings.
. But look up, and you begin to see a building’s style, its period of construction, its likely history, and the architectural details that make many of the 3, 4, 5, or 6- story limestone, ivory colored buildings unique unto themselves – different proportions of different floors, different styles of ironwork, different heights of stories, and, often, wildly inventive roof lines, many unique. Colloquial wisdom says that the older buildings are those with fewer stories , and this seems to have some validity.
In the middle ages, many wooden houses covered with plaster leaned toward each other over the middle of extremely narrow streets. This construction pattern turned out to be a major fire hazard, as fires spread easily from one side of the street to the other. Consequently, the next style to emerge, in the same narrow streets, were houses that leaned away from each other. In Paris, none of these very early houses remain, although occasionally one sees a building whose ground floor bulges out a smidge more than the floors above, indicating a building of advanced age.
Most buildings in central Paris today are built straight up, and were constructed from the 1600s to the mid 1900s. Medieval Paris survived into the 1800s, by which time Paris was decrepit and ill-equipped to deal with innovations such as larger conveyances on wheels. By the mid 1800s, Paris was also unhealthy, with raw sewage and a dismally inadequate public water supply. Paris wasn’t alone in this situation, of course. Other large European cities shared these deficiencies – notably London, which is close enough geographically to Paris to serve as a role model.
Urban designers and people concerned about social justice around this time started calling out for public sanitation, urban open spaces, access to sunlight, and free circulation of traffic. London was the first western European city to be reshaped to these “modern” requirements. French observers became great admirers of London’s new, wide boulevards and expansive parks. Competition being what it is in human nature, the French quickly realized that similar changes would renew and enhance Paris.
It became possible to call Paris “Ville Lumiere” starting about 170 years ago, when medieval Paris was abruptly and purposefully demolished and “modern” Paris appeared from the rubble.
Paris today is the marvel it is because of a unique combination of possibilities. French royalty had not valued ordinary people enough to make any urban renewal efforts on behalf of the Parisian population. The first elected French president, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, was the first to start modernizing Paris.
The Industrial Age had begun, and it was now possible, using mechanical manufacturing methods, to plan for and execute vast public works. Industry shifted the balance of wealth and power to non-royals, and the sway of monarchy and the church was seriously attenuated after the convulsive revolutions that took place in the late 1700s. Both the American and then the French revolutions put real governmental power into the hands of prosperous but ordinary folks. As the old medieval order that had been controlled by king and church finally crumbled, European cities were massively reshaped into the agglomerations we know and love today. It was a time of profound, irreversible, social, economic, and political transformation on an epochal scale.
Following the French Revolution, governmental power in France wobbled back and forth between the royal paradigm in which a chief ruler had wide sway, and the popular paradigm in which a constitutional government was headed by an elected president. The nephew of Emperor Napoleon was elected France’s first president for a two year term, under the new French constitution. Louis Napoleon, who had spent years of his life living in both the United States and in London, started trying to modernize Paris in his brief, non-renewable tenure, and was stifled repeatedly by arguments in the national Assembly. When his term ended, he reverted to family tradition, declared himself emperor, and proceeded, with the help of his chosen henchman, Baron Haussmann, to reshape Paris, to an extent hard to imagine, in a brief space of 17 years.
Haussmann was apparently a benevolent yet ruthless egomaniac chosen because he had enormous ideas and an enormous ego to match. The man who hired him, Louis Napoleon, the self-declared Emperor of the French (himself manifesting a pretty big ego), gave Haussmann free reign, with the mandate to open circulation, introduce green space in every sector of Paris, rich or poor, and construct sanitary infrastructure so that people of every socioeconomic level would be able to live in healthy conditions. Louis Napoleon’s mandate to Haussmann also included making Paris the most beautiful city in the world.
Louis Napoleon and Haussmann reached into every sector of Parisian infrastructure. First, Haussmann superimposed on the Paris of the 1850s a radically new map that included wide, straight boulevards, avenues, and major streets interconnecting all sectors of Paris. Building this network of traffic arteries involved demolishing more than 1/5 of the buildings then in existence, in broad swaths that cut through neighborhoods.
Then, In addition to this vast network of traffic connections, Haussmann oversaw the construction of many parks and green squares, supervised the building of a new water system with massive reservoirs, managed construction of miles and miles of large sewers with sidewalks underground on both sides of the waterways, and drainage conduits capable of draining safely the excess waters from the River Seine’s periodic floods. He imposed draconian rules of construction mandating the identical appearance of the houses lining every one of the new avenues and streets. In every arondissement of Paris, he either built or added to the existing town hall, and built or enhanced a major high school, to provide equal access to education all over the city. In central Paris, he supervised construction of grand opera houses and theatres. He even rebuilt historic churches and built new ones. The construction of churches had been turned over to the government during the French Revolution, and therefore churches, in addition to all other public buildings, were now under control of the state.
Haussmann’s success depended on his imperially mandated permission to demolish everywhere simultaneously. He essentially created today’s Paris with massive demolition during the seventeen years between his initial appointment as Prefect of the Seine Departement and the time when Parisians started revolting against the constant construction dust and noise in which they lived and tried to breathe.
Subsequent Prefects and governments continued to implement Haussmann’s plans — needing to rebuild in the path of previous demolition — until well into the twentieth century, when his last planned project – ironically, the boulevard that bears his name, Bd. Haussmann — was completed in 1927.
Emperor Louis Napoleon had inherited a city that was crumbling into putrescence and racked with diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis, as a result of overcrowding and lack of sanitation. There were no sewers, no public sanitation, no purified water, little paving, no public transportation, no relief from dense urban construction. Life in Paris had been squalid.
Henceforth, all major boulevards (which Haussman laid out from scratch) and many of Paris’ wide avenues, likewise creations of the Baron, were lined with 6 story tall buildings of rigorous similarity. However, in the side streets that remained from Haussmann’s vast demolition, buildings from the 1600s and 1700s were intermingled with later construction, with 6 story Haussmannian buildings somehow cobbled together with these remnants of earlier times. Also, starting in 1900, Haussmann’s strict rules about the external facades of new buildings were relaxed, allowing latitude once again with the decoration of upper stories and the contours of roofs – just during the period of greatest exuberance in art and architecture, “La Belle Epoque,” Art Nouveau. The results are fascinating.
The side streets retain the randomly curving contours of streets from medieval Paris. In addition,, when examining the upper reaches of the buildings along any side street, you see inns and gatehouses from the 1600s or 1700s rubbing drainpipes with much later structures from the 1800s or 1900s. It’s the apparent ground level harmony of older side street buildings from the preceding centuries, juxtaposed against their extreme upper story variability , that I find endlessly fascinating. So I look up a lot toward the sky, to study the buildings’ balconies, stories, roofs, and dormers, and find myself endlessly fascinated by the varied age and structure of most Parisian side streets. As a result, I look at the blue sky and the beautiful Paris light a lot.
In effect, every time I admire a longer perspective in Paris toward an ornate street lamp, a beautiful bridge, or a public monument , I am benefitting from and admiring the work of an emperor and a baron who, over less than 20 years, over 150 years ago, envisioned and created today’s city of Paris as a unified work of art. I find this a monumental testimonial to the power of individual vision to bring enduring light to the lives of many.
I had a dream last night – very surreal — about light and its importance to life. The dream was about some surreal, quasi -spiritual light energy that perfuses all awareness. Through this light played strains of variegated colors and energies – some very painful, some ecstatic. After being caught up for what seemed like a long time – a lifetime, maybe? – I became aware that no matter what else I perceive and feel along the way, all that really matters is the experience of the light. Pain, squabbles, worries, concerns, conflicts — all dissolves ultimately in the light itself, which grows more and more powerful over time. I concluded, without analyzing too obsessively, that the dream illustrated a universal truth.
The dream reminded me somehow of Paris, La Ville Lumiere. Regardless of the effects of repeated convulsions of historic change, we today are blessed to stroll the fascinating streets of this cleaned up, gilded, restored living document called “Paris. The streets of this city attest to 1500 years of human habitation, as they offer their historic secrets to the exploring eyes of passers-by.