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Old 12-23-2007, 02:04 PM   #1
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Streetwalls of Paris


Paris? present look flows from centuries of layered development. Romans founded it as Lutetia, but little remains from those times. Medieval Paris persists as numerous churches, some secular monuments, and whole districts of ancient houses built on mazelike medieval street patterns: the Latin Quarter and the Marais. In the Renaissance, developer-kings instigated harmonious squares and residences of uniform design: Place des Vosges, Palais-Royal, Place Vendome, the Louvre.

Gustave Caillebotte

But what defines the character of Paris in most people?s minds came later. First the idea of grand axes migrated to Paris from Rome, then the architect of the Rue de Rivoli tacked a uniform wall to a long street. Finally, Haussmann combined the two ideas into today?s dominant impression of the City of Light. In the process, he helped create La Belle Epoque.

His boss, the proto-fascist Napoleon III, eventually found himself deposed-- but not until he had immersed all of Paris in his passionate hobby, which was rearranging Paris. Haussmann enthusiastically complied, scattering boulevards like angel dust, while evicting thousands of the disgruntled masses from their hovels, sometimes at gunpoint.

Gustave Caillebotte

The outcomes were: urban renewal on the most grandiose scale, and the Revolution of 1870. Now that the disgruntled masses are cold in their graves, the results look pretty good to us, unlike those of most urban renewal schemes. Could the ends in this case have justified the means?

* * *

Haussmann?s basic boulevard fa?ade consisted of five or six stories of streetwall and an additional story or two inside the mansard. Servants lived in the mansard because it was a long climb:

Assembled, these facades make continuous, harmonious streetscape out of a similarity (but not identicality!!) of parts; they?re particularly adept at defining axes because they meet the sky to make a fairly straight line. Haussmann linked up the major landmarks of Paris with shafts of space lined with variants of his trademark streetwall:

The much-loved boulevards are defined by more-or less continuous streetwalls of sufficient height to proportionately define their considerable breadth. Ground floor shops serve the residents above, though there?s also often a healthy sprinkling of offices on the upper levels:

At sidewalk level the buildings? upper reaches hardly matter; what?s important is that the street/corridor is intact with no unsightly and boring gaps. Such streets are livable, so people live in them:

The result is so picturesque that commercially-inclined oil-painters grind out renditions for the tourists to take home as reminders:

Major Impressionist painters started the trend when the buildings were still brand new.

Camille Pissarro

Claude Monet

Can you imagine painters vying to document the crap we throw up nowadays? For starters, it rarely generates coherent streetscape:

Proposal for SoMa, San Francisco

The man to thank for all this lovable order is Georges Eugene Haussmann (1809-91). Here?s Napoleon III doing just that:

Napoleon III (goatee, left) issues his mandate to Baron Haussmann (right).

Haussmann?s semi-standardized buildings gave leeway in detail but not much in massing. The mansard was an essential component; it tempered the sheer height of the streetwall, while it retreated from the edge to allow lots of sunshine:

These buildings, though tall, predate widespread use of the elevator. Hence units grew less pricey and desirable the higher you had to climb; the uppermost stories were deemed fit only for servants. In a curious reversal, these garrets are now often the most desirable units, as the buildings have almost all been retrofitted with lifts:

A mansarded modern building capitalizes on the elevator by selling views. The proportions aren?t quite right, for orthodox modernism doesn?t allow the tried and true:

Uppermost stories provide panoramic views of Paris? scenic roofscape:

The view from the Arc de Triomphe towards the skyscrapers of La Defense, which is like Houston or Charlotte, but entirely outside the city limits. Within the city limits Haussmann?s spirit pretty much continues to rule; and that spirit insists on a height limitation. This helps account for Paris? remarkably uniform population density. It hardly matters where you emerge from the Metro; you will find roughly the same condition. And that condition is Haussmann?s street wall:

The city line is marked by the solitary skyscraper (right) at the Porte Maillot. One or two modern buildings have abandoned the mansard rule; the Haussmann zoning must have been amended. The result can be a penthouse with terrace (right middleground). Square ?arch? in distance is meant to echo Arc de Triomphe at a more colossal scale; its legs are office buildings, and a couple of observation floors span between them, while the slender, off-center tensegrity shaft encloses glass elevators loaded with tourists. These wobble as they ascend (French engineering specializes in stretching the envelope: it brought you the Concorde, the Eiffel Tower, the Millau Viaduct, the Citroen, and this).

As time went by, the Epoque got more and more Belle as the Arts grew more Beaux. A sedate fa?ade from the time of Haussmann:

By contrast, Belle Epoque exuberance:

On the avenues, most buildings are built of a limestone that reflects what the weather is up to: grey in the rain, a warm, glowing buff in the sun, and burnished gold when the sun comes out just after a thunderstorm. Occasionally, a polychrome oddball crashes the scene. Think of it as welcome relief:

Lots to look at, but fortunately no great ideas:

In Paris great ideas are reserved for the monuments?from which we should demand great ideas:

Ordinary architecture runs in familiar and reassuring patterns, but it?s mostly neither dull nor ugly:

?A louer bureaux?: Offices for rent. There are probably apartments too; these buildings often aren?t zoned by function.

The train of historical-inevitability-in-hindsight hurtles toward Art Nouveau, gushing curves:

Art Nouveau meets medieval Chateauesque: both Richardson and Sullivan appear to be influences here.

Can this architect have been looking at Frank Furness? Gives a whole new meaning to the word ?eclectic.? Still interesting to look at, still no great ideas.

Beaux-Arts tending toward Art Nouveau, and a great idea striving to be born: the slender iron curtain wall. (Looks like the rooftop addition is fairly recent):

And finally the train pulls into the station with Hector Guimard, Art Nouveau genius par excellence (best known for his Metro entrances):

Castel Beranger

An amazing building:

Dragons or plant debris?

New meaning for the term ?organic.?

Full of great ideas:

The age of genius architecture upon us:


More Art Nouveau, though not by a genius:

How many geniuses are there anyway? Enough to populate the architectural profession?

Later the train pulled into a station marked ?Deco? (or did it say ?Mussolini??):

Things didn?t get boring on the boulevards until modern times, when the ordinary architects were robbed of their rich vocabulary by the theory of modernism. Now they could speak only in grunts:

Mansard abandoned, lifeless ground floor, not much to engage the eye, totalitarian monotony, footprint too big (does anyone buy the architect?s pretense that this is two buildings?).

Boring and insipidly full of the constructivist sculptural clich?s of orthodox modernism: the cantilevered corner, Aalto-esque tapered columns, vain repetitions of machine order, use of utilitarian objects as decorative elements (concrete mullions!!), the mandatory translation of traditional forms into approved vocabulary elements (thus dark mansard roof becomes bronze-tone curtain wall!). Aaaargh.

When the mirror-glass box arrives on the scene, things go seriously wrong:

This building?s exactly the height of its neighbors, but it drastically disrupts the scale of this street. Here you can see that being out of scale is not for one tiny microsecond a question of height. It?s instead a function of too big a footprint and too little articulation of surface; there isn?t enough detail to break down the utterly banal gigantism of the overall form and the undifferentiated surfaces. Why doesn?t zoning address itself to these two very genuine issues instead of obsessing about building height, which is usually a red herring?

This building?s form would be ok at about the size of a toaster. The Art Nouveau building just beyond may be overdone but it offers reproof; maybe the sheer glass banality of the new building?s a reaction to all that sculpted cream. Skyscraper at end of street: Maine-Montparnasse Tower, one of two unclustered skyscrapers inside the city limits. It looks ok compositionally at the end of this street, but it ruins countless views in this city. Well, it?s ironic that this street is ruined anyway?and by its little brother! It?s the skyscraper that?s not out of scale.

Scene much improved:

Hong Kong comes to Paris. The balconies are for displaying your junk:

In the blunt-pencil school, neither the buildings nor their architects are sharp. Just regardes-moi those flaccid polygonal bays with their upper story?what is it--balconies:

Meeting Haussmann part way, Post-Modernism (right middleground) makes a (not very) valiant effort to emulate the mansard, but the building?s thin and brittle like a saltine, and the footprint?s way too big. This one?s a galumphing rhino:

In the sad Les Halles redevelopment, newish mansarded superblocks pretend they?ve been there for a century and change. No one?s convinced; a century ago nobody in Paris would have put a single apartment building on a whole block. Too bad (post-)modernist budgets don?t allow the kind of exuberant articulation of the wall that characterized the beaux-arts examples?not that today?s architect would likely know how to ornament his building, even if he had the budget. Still, I guess it could be worse; at least it?s fairly polite:

A better-than-average postmodernist?s take on his Art Nouveau-ish neighbors. Not too bad and definitely contextual:

Can you guess which is the brand new building? Look at the shoe size:

And don?t forget the machine order.

* * *
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Old 12-23-2007, 02:08 PM   #2
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Streetwalls of Paris

Haussmann?s is probably the best instance ever of an urban zoning envelope. Of course it was form-based; he knew exactly what look he was after. He came up with the physical form first, and only then did he make up rules to guarantee adherence. He built a few examples, and saw that they were good:

His choices produced an amazingly coherent environment:

It was the high point of city planning, because it actually was city planning. It?s been downhill ever since for the planning profession, whose Twentieth Century achievement was the Suburb. If we survive it, that will be remembered for bringing us global warming, automobile dependence, despoiled countryside, decaying cities, a nation of fatsos, Muslim domination, and the ugliest built environment since they tore down the Walled City of Kowloon.

Pure garbage.

Haussmann?s basic configuration could take any condition in stride and make order of it:

A formal idea for a whole city: urban fabric as uniform carpet, with monuments sticking up, but sort of shot the bird by the anomalous American-style office skyline out of town on the horizon.

Haussmann?s formal idea for a street: Sheer, multi-story streetwall hugging the sidewalk with zero setback, fairly uniform cornice line and smallish increment of development.

We associate it with avenues and boulevards, but the self-same buildings (with identical densities) work just as well on narrower streets, providing intimate and comforting closure, with plenty of protection from the sun (for which you need trees on the boulevards):

A smaller street lined with much older buildings reveals where Haussmann got his idea. Here the streetwall?s only three or four stories, befitting its meager width. Haussmann?s boulevard buildings are patterned on these, but they?re much larger:

Haussmann?s idea had legs, so it traveled all over the world. Here it is in Buenos Aires, complete with mansards:

When the streetwall goes to seven stories from five, buildings are afflicted with gigantism and grow a bit overbearing. Goes to show how much Haussmann knew, plus the architect was a klutz:

Surface articulation and massing, new and old:

When a modernist building sidles up, it?s an uneasy coexistence, though perhaps interesting for its perversity:

Truth is, the concept survives translated into a modernist vocabulary, provided the human module?s kept evident. Note how fastidiously (and gratifyingly) the foreground building?s glass fa?ade reports location of the floors; with this information comes human scale:

For contrast, back in Paris, two glass walls with no scale; the essential information?s left out. The building at street?s end substitutes what architects used to call colossal order: the gathering of several stories into a single opening to gigantify the scale (if a story?s so tall, giants must occupy this building?or very important people). This is why colossal order columns are used on the White House, Perrault?s Louvre fa?ade and Southern plantation houses. Important people:

In Buenos Aires again, building height creeps upward, and balconies replace caryatids for play-of-light articulation, and there?s no mansard; but the concept survives. It all has to do with more-or-less uniform height streetwall (and for goodness sake, hold the building line; please mister, no setbacks!!):

Here?s an even higher streetwall in New York:

West End Avenue: 15 stories!

Nine stories in Valencia:


The idea in pastel colors.


Proposal for Berlin by New Urbanist Andres Duany.

Washington, that most Parisian of North American cities, a city of height-limited streetwalls:

L'Enfant's ronds-points and axes were actually conceived over half a century before Haussmann's Paris.

Zoning envelope produces a plateau of roofs.

A Parisian condition bluntly rendered.

Modernism just doesn?t know how to do a fa?ade. It?s hampered by the style?s tiny vocabulary. Like trying to translate King Lear into grunts.

All you?re allowed is horizontals and verticals.

And Vancouver:


Though truth be told, most of Vancouver looks more like this:

This is the spatial character typical of North American cities, even the relatively intact ones. In place of a simple and comprehensible order derived from an artistic idea with economic virtues, this is basically whatever raw economics can squeeze past the NIMBYs, grafted onto a previous small-town order, no longer very economically viable.

The form itself, however, is as close to a gold mine as the developer can get it; it derives from numbers, and the units attached to the numbers are dollars. The street?s a battlefield where the developer?s profit slugs it out with the NIMBYs? ?environmental values? and phony-baloney aesthetic theories--while government agencies try their best to mediate. Should we wonder our streets look like the product of conflict?

Sometimes, not often: due to the titanic efforts of a talented architect or serendipitously, the result is actually interesting, like the music of John Cage--also the product of a chaotic process.

* * *


Not allowed to.

It?s not that architects couldn?t do it; it doesn?t take much talent. To someone trained in soft pencil or charcoal drawing and classical vocabulary, how much genius do you think it really took to produce this?:

And yet it?s pretty nice to look at, even if it?s not a work of breathtaking originality. It?s good, journeyman work in a tradition of competence; it represents mastery of a vocabulary that?s inherently engaging. Fairly average practitioners used it to produce an acceptable product. And it could be relied on to deliver the goods. Every time. I?d be happy to predictably get work of this quality any day; no genius required, save that for the monuments.

Not allowed to. Endless innovation: that?s what modernism has trained us to demand. We can howl about it on forums when Gehry does another recognizable Gehry building. What, again? When?s he going to do something novel again?

Can you imagine what this kind of thinking produces in the mind of the average-joe architect?

Endless innovation. Cartoonish but true: when you run out of new good ideas, there are only bad ones left.

But wait a minute, there?s the budget to consider. Fancy fa?ade work not allowed by developer; he?s now used to low-cost modern architecture: no frills, no fuss. Just let him have glass, and a little concrete, brick or stucco?nothing fancy.

You actually have to be a genius to extract much beauty from the utilitarian employment of these materials. And even that might not be enough: Corbu was a genius, and almost everybody hates his concrete megaliths; Mies was a genius, and hardly anybody gives his buildings a glance now that the clean-and-new?s worn off; Wright was a genius and everybody loves him, but he only pretended to give up ornament.

So what?s a poor architect to do? Contort the building and make the whole building into an ornament.

Well, that?s the opposite of Haussmann?s approach. And you can?t make a city out of a collection of ornamental sculpture.

This is one thing the agencies, zoning and NIMBYs can?t be blamed for.

Though clever zoning could prevent its worst excesses.

* * *


The chairs all face the sidewalk. No pretense that people are here to eat.

Medieval Paris: what Haussmann supplemented and opened up in places, but never supplanted.

Medieval Paris again: the street?s from the Middle Ages, but not the buildings.

And a bit more.

* * *

Something to consider: only two buildings in this post are products of true genius?the ones by Gustave Eiffel and Hector Guimard. Maybe it?s time we stopped demanding the originality that only genius can deliver, and adopt an architectural style that makes good-looking buildings easier to provide. Isn?t this the reason Art Deco is preferable to its severe brother, orthodox Modernism?

Thanks to those whose photos appear in this post.
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Old 12-23-2007, 11:50 PM   #3
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Re: Streetwalls of Paris

Outstanding. Thank you for posting this. It makes me want to move back to Paris!
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Old 12-24-2007, 09:23 AM   #4
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Re: Streetwalls of Paris


Thank you so much for these essays. Each one is a valuable lesson.
Hopefully they will be lessons well heeded.
I wish I had more to add to the discussion but I'd just show myself to be a fool.

I'd love to see your take on Prague. Very similar but less Haussmann and more medieval if I recall correctly (I have photos from a trip a few years back - I'll try to post them as soon as I get a chance.)

I'd also love to see an essay on Art Deco (but no pressure )


Is this gate original to the building? It seems so... modern... in a deconstructionist sort of way.
Was this part of a style at the time or was it just about a century ahead of it time?
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Old 12-24-2007, 10:30 AM   #5
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Re: Streetwalls of Paris

^ It's Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau took its ornamental inspiration from undersea vegetation.
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Old 12-27-2007, 08:07 AM   #6
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Re: Streetwalls of Paris

Ablarc, thanks for re-posting all these threads. For some reason, I thought most of these were on the current board, but they aren't.

Anyways, let me revisit them. I'll try to give you a better response than this after I mull them over a bit, and I'll try hard not to repeat myself.

Great stuff though. Thanks for re-posting them.
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Old 12-28-2007, 01:16 AM   #7
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Re: Streetwalls of Paris

Haussmann?s idea had legs, so it traveled all over the world. Here it is in Buenos Aires
I'm glad you caught this. Benjamin Moser has a fascinating piece in the latest Harper's on Brasilia at 50. He looks back at previous importations of modernity in Brazilian urban design, and finds the Parisian boulevard was once as de rigeur a symbol of worldwide modernity as the skyscraper became at midcentury (the first favela was actually created when a Parisian boulevard was rammed through Rio).

Interesting that - something once considered novelty for novelty's sake (or, more accurately, progress') is now considered the epitome of timeless design and good craft. If we don't allow radical innovation to flourish, how will we find the next Hausmann? (And if there's no need for a Hausmann now, why was there ever a need for one? Why should we celebrate the innovator when the received concept of the medieval street web was just fine, really?)
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Old 12-30-2007, 03:24 PM   #8
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Re: Streetwalls of Paris

^ I'm alright with anything that's pedestrian-friendly. Current practice mostly isn't.

We can look to the past for a critique of the present, so we can do better in the future.

Incompetence is never OK, and if you can't come up with a new way to be competent, you can use a way that's established.

Btw, the boulevard as a building type was well-established when Haussmann latched on to it; he was no innovator.

Can you say Sixtus V? Can you say Rue de Rivoli? Can you say St. Petersburg?

Nothing new under the sun, only failed experiments or false claims.

I just want something that works, and I don't need to wait around until the next genius whips it up out of whole cloth.

The wait may be too long.
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