Posts Tagged ‘literature’

When it comes to drawing a metaphorical comparison between Paris and New York City – though comparing these two cities is probably impossible -, my favorite literary image is that of Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his famous Journey to the End of the Night, describing his arrival in New York.

Figurez-vous qu’elle était debout leur ville, absolument droite. New York c’est une ville debout. On en avait déjà vu nous des villes bien sûr, et des belles encore, et des ports et des fameux même. Mais chez nous, n’est-ce pas, elles sont couchées les villes, au bord de la mer ou sur les fleuves, elles s’allongent sur le paysage, elles attendent le voyageur, tandis que celle-là l’Américaine, elle ne se pâmait pas, non, elle se tenait bien raide, là, pas baisante du tout, raide à faire peur.
Louis Ferdinad Céline, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, 1932

Just imagine, that city was standing absolutely erect. New York was a standing city. Of course we’d seen cities, fine ones too, and magnificent seaports. But in our part of the world cities lie along the seacoast or on rivers, they recline on the landscape, awaiting the traveler, while this American city had nothing languid about her, she stood there as stiff as a board, not seductive at all, terrifying still.
Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Translated by Ralph Manheim, 2006

With a few aesthetically questionable exceptions such as the Eiffel and Montparnasse towers, and in its peripheral areas – like the surroundings of Place d’Italie in the XIIIe and the Front de Seine in the XVe – Paris skyline is devoid of skyscrapers.

Urban regulations, dating from Henry IV have narrowly controlled the use of materials, shape and height of Paris constructions. These rulings first aimed at preventing fires as they forbid the use of timbers and bow windows considered to be more vulnerable to flames. Height limitations obey to rules depending on the geographic situation (strict limits apply in the historical center) and the width of the street (the larger the street, the higher the building can be). 20 meters being the maximum authorised height.

Synagogue rue Pavée par Hector Guimard - 1913

Synagogue rue Pavée par Hector Guimard - 1913

Architects have had to use their imagination to find ways to express grandeur while overcoming these physical restrictions. The picture on the left shows a synagogue built by Hector Guimard in the 1910’s. Its curved facade punctuated with columns of oblong twin windows creates a sense of verticality that conjures up the spirit of Manhattan houses when seen from below. Ironically, Hector Guimard, once a leading architect of the Modern style (Art Nouveau) emigrated to New York in 1938 where he died in oblivion in 1942.

In New York, developers can freely trade air rights according to the following latin legal concept Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad caelum et ad inferos (“To whoever owns the land, shall belong the earth to its center and up to the heavens”). The only limits usually being financial.

Today, most Parisians stand against the growth of new towers in their city. Few are the Parisians proud of Tour Montparnasse. Instead, they think skyscrapers would break the harmony and stillness of the capital. In Paris, history not only infiltrates the wall, but also hearts and minds. However the current city officials have recently unearthed plans to facilitate such projects. But who knows if such plans will ever be carried out?


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“Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards”

The history of Paris can be observed through the evolution of its frontiers. Yesterday the early Gaul, in search of protection against invaders, settled in the Ile de la Cité which frontiers were naturally drawn by the Seine river. Today the boulevard périphérique, a ring road completed in 1973 with a traffic exceeding one million vehicles a day cuts Paris intra muros from its suburbs.

The function of the walls that surrounded Paris has evolved over time. They were initially designed to protect the city from external agressions. Louis XIV, who left Paris for Versailles, replaced Charles V walls with boulevards in 1670.

In 1784 a new barrier appeared: the wall of the Farmers-General. Unlike its predecessors, it was was not designed to protect Paris from invaders but to collect taxes. It was very unpopular and a song went on “le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant“. It was destroyed during the Revolution but restored by Napoleon.

The gates that punctuated the barriers have always attracted various traffickers of more or less legal goods, smugglers, prostitutes and all sorts of shady businessmen. The French picturesque expression dubbing prostitutes “vénus de barrières” conjures up these forgotten times. Today one may still observe working girls on the boulevards des Maréchaux, or elegant transvestites hailing cars around the périph’.

It is striking to see how the Parisians often assimilate their own identity with the limits of their city and insist on their difference with the “banlieusards“.

The natural trend of the city has been to expand and to assimilate new districts. Victor Hugo wrote amazing pages that suggest how this natural and irresistible process took place as if the city was possessed by some sort of inexhaustible vitality.

Peu à peu, le flot des maisons, toujours poussé du cœur de la ville au dehors, déborde, ronge, use et efface cette enceinte. Philippe-Auguste lui fait une nouvelle digue. Il emprisonne Paris dans une chaîne circulaire de grosses tours, hautes et solides. Pendant plus d’un siècle, les maisons se pressent, s’accumulent et haussent leur niveau dans ce bassin comme l’eau dans un réservoir. Elles commencent à devenir profondes, elles mettent étages sur étages, elles montent les unes sur les autres, elles jaillissent en hauteur comme toute sève comprimée, et c’est à qui passera la tête par-dessus ses voisines pour avoir un peu d’air. La rue de plus en plus se creuse et se rétrécit ; toute place se comble et disparaît. Les maisons enfin sautent par-dessus le mur de Philippe-Auguste, et s’éparpillent joyeusement dans la plaine, sans ordre et tout de travers, comme des échappées.

Little by little, the tide of houses, always thrust from the heart of the city outwards, overflows, devours, wears away, and effaces this wall. Philip Augustus makes a new dike for it. He imprisons Paris in a circular chain of great towers, both lofty and solid. For the period of more than a century, the houses press upon each other, accumulate, and raise their level in this basin, like water in a reservoir. They begin to deepen; they pile story upon story; they mount upon each other; they gush forth at the top, like all laterally compressed growth, and there is a rivalry as to which shall thrust its head above its neighbors, for the sake of getting a little air. The street glows narrower and deeper, every space is overwhelmed and disappears. The houses finally leap the wall of Philip Augustus, and scatter joyfully over the plain, without order, and all askew, like runaways.

Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 1831
The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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During the 19th century, Paris attracted the most ambitious people who would escape their modest rural condition in search of success, power and affluence. In these post-revolutionary days, success was no longer determined by birth only, but also by talent, determination and social abilities.

Balzac, a great contempter of modernity nostaligically praised an idealized vision of rural simplicity. He depicts here the effects of arrivism in the modern urban life as a sort of rat race disguised under the garb of hypocrisy.

Les émotions de Paris sont cruelles pour les âmes douées d’une vive sensibilité : les avantages dont jouissent les gens supérieurs ou les riches irritent les passions ; dans ce monde de grandeur et de petitesse, la jalousie sert plus souvent de poignard que d’aiguillon ; au milieu de la lutte constante des ambitions, des désirs et des haines, il est impossible de ne pas être la victime ou le complice de ce mouvement général ; insensiblement, le tableau continuel du vice heureux et de la vertu persiflée fait chanceler un jeune homme. […] Ce combat dessèche, rétrécit le coeur, pousse la vie au cerveau et produit l’insensibilité parisienne, ces moeurs ou sous la frivolité la plus gracieuse, sous les engouements qui jouent l’exaltation, se cachent la politique ou l’argent.

Life in Paris is a cruel ordeal for impressionable natures, the great inequalities of fortune or of position inflame their souls and stir up bitter feelings. In that world of magnificence and pettiness envy is more apt to be a dagger than a spur. You are bound either to fall a victim or to become a partisan in this incessant strife of ambitions, desires, and hatreds, in the midst of which you are placed; and by slow degrees the picture of vice triumphant and virtue made ridiculous produces its effect on a young man, and he wavers. […] His heart is seared and contracted by this struggle, the current of life sets toward the brain, and the callousness of the Parisian is the result—the condition of things in which schemes for power and wealth are concealed by the most charming frivolity, and lurk beneath the sentimental transports that take the place of enthusiasm.

Honoré de Balzac, le Médecin de Campagne, 1833
The Country Doctor, translator: Marriage, Ellen.

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