Paris has always had a ‘taste for tumult’, as Théophile Lavallée noted in 1845, with its ‘hurried, seething, tumultuous’ population, but today it presents a serene face to the world, in spite of all this revolting and murdering. To take a stroll through the lower levels of the Gare du Nord, or to watch the cop show Spiral, is to quickly locate the discord simmering in today’s city.
And yet on some streets you could forget all that, places so beautiful it’s as if no conflict has ever touched them.
Was this spot on the earth beautiful always? Did the Romans notice the light?
Yet the beauty of Paris is very much man-made, crafted out of speculation and conflict. In the late seventeenth century, Louis XIV asked his chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert to decide what would be the best stone to build with. They were looking for a new quarry, as the one they had been using directly under the city was having the predictable structural consequences. (Those quarries were shored up by Charles-Axel Guillaumot and became a useful spot for depositing all the bones from the Cimetière des Innocents when it was destroyed in the late eighteenth century.) Colbert reported back that a commission had found a quarry in the Oise region, conveniently accessible by boat, which produced stones to match those used to build Notre-Dame. The bricks for Parisian builds have come from the Saint-Maximin limestone quarries ever since. Did they know they were building houses that would absorb and reflect the light? And who drew the rooftops, with their sloping slate and their chimney pots, their slices of masonry standing up from the curve of the rooftops like the finish of a ballerina’s port de bras, the lilt and lift of their fingers Surrealist vessels for exhaling smoke?
Some of these buildings came into being through Haussmann’s determined plan to modernise Paris, tearing down entire neighbourhoods and displacing thousands of residents in order to make way for the boulevards we recognise today as so quintessentially Parisian. They represent at the same time a stunning feat of urban planning and a breathtaking disregard for the lives of everyday people. I’m in awe of the great beauty of the boulevards but wary of their size, devised as they were to facilitate the movement of troops and goods through the city to more easily quash any rebellions that might spring up (vivid was the memory of 1848, with its perfection of barricade warfare) while also increasing the amount of merchandise that could be sold through the newly built grands magasins, like the Bon Marché, fictionalised by Zola in his 1883 novel The Ladies’ Paradise. An American friend who lives in London begrudges Paris its loveliness, preserved, she argues only somewhat facetiously, at the expense of collaborating with the Nazis. Give me the honest ugliness of post-war London any day, she says, and she’s not wrong.
Then, too, London, like Paris, filled its coffers and built its wonders off the ravages of Empire.
Today, the policy of façadisme in Paris means the uniformity of the Haussmannian (and pre-Haussmannian) buildings is preserved even if the building behind it is not, a controversial practice that gives way to what I think is an interesting compromise, creating a hybridity of structure and use within a traditional Parisian aesthetic, but I understand the anti-façadistes, who hold that this reduces buildings to little more than adorable stage sets. I’m not sure retaining the facade works in every city, in every instance, and even in Paris it can be done badly, but in principle I don’t mind it. An entire culture is distilled in that top layer, and without it Paris wouldn’t be Paris. In the 4th arrondissement the policy has been applied to such an extreme that there is a delightful free-standing doorway on the rue Beautrellis, all that remains of a seventeenth-century hôtel particulier. Behind it, unconnected to the old doorway, stands a cement building from the 1960s. ‘That’s France for you,’ an ex groused once, as we walked past it. ‘A doorway to nowhere.’
When I look for the marks of time in the Paris streets, the scars of revolution and upheaval, I’m looking for evidence that Parisians fought back against what was imposed on them, that they weren’t all trying to keep their lives as undisturbed as possible. Between 1789 and 1871 these people saw a bloody uprising every twenty years or so. I’m trying to understand how they could rise up, how a collection of everydays can overturn a king and remake a world.
Lauren Elkin’s essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Book Review, frieze, and The Times Literary Supplement, and she is a contributing editor at The White Review. A native New Yorker, she moved to Paris in 2004. Currently living on the Right Bank after years on the Left, she can generally be found ambling around Belleville.