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Portraits of a Changing Paris

Boulevard Exelmans at Rue Chanez, XVIe Arrondisement, 1905-2008. Contemporary photos by Laurent David Ruamps

Chat up a critic of historic preservation and the conversation may turn, sooner or later, toward Paris. What the French capital’s historic center has retained in fin-de-siècle flourish, s/he might claim, it lacks in the dynamism that fuels the growth of other great cities. London, New York, and Tokyo boast continually adaptable, evolving cores. But in attempting to cling to its glory days as “capital of the 19th century”, Paris consigns its modern needs to forgettable, peripheral suburbs. Its heart risks becoming little more than a quaint period museum.

You don’t have to be a Paris detractor to buy into such a narrative. Luc Sante, the author of a recent look at two new Paris histories in the New York Review of Books, has noticed the city’s chroniclers shifting their gaze, increasingly focusing on the large-scale changes now taking place outside Paris’ core. Today they find it impossible to even conceive of the city as a living, breathing organism without casting their glance toward its roiling, occasionally riotous, undeniably more au courant satellite settlements. As Eric Hazan writes in his new book, The Invention of Paris:

[A]nother “new Paris” is taking shape…it is leaving the west of the city to advertising executives and oil tycoons…crossing the terrible barrier of the Boulevard Périphérique…and stretching towards what is already de facto the twenty-first arrondissement, towards Pantin, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais, Bagnolet, Montreuil…

There’s no question that much of Paris’s cultural and economic dynamism alike is now weighted toward its outskirts. But to what extent is its center’s supposedly stultifying over-preservation to blame? Images taken by Laurent David Ruamps, an architecture enthusiast who has rephotographed a number of old postcard views of early 20th century Paris, suggest that the idea itself that Paris has been frozen in architectural time might not be so fully borne out.

Ruamps’ then-and-after views of Le Corbusier’s modernist Villa Bresnus, swallowed by denser, more street-sensitive construction, demonstrated the resilience of traditional urban development in a Paris suburb. That makes it less surprising to consider that, much more than many casual observers would suppose, the central Paris we know today was a relatively recent invention.

Rue Raynouard, XVIe Arrondisement, 1900-2008

The postcards Ruamps has collected — most depicting the 16th Arrondisement — show that the Paris of a century ago was surprisingly distinct from today’s supposedly museum-like metropole. Haussmann’s “renovations” of the city had only been completed a few decades earlier, and newer streets were still struggling to match the grandeur of his completed boulevards, some appearing almost vacant by comparison. Industrial and residential districts had yet to sort themselves out; railroad infrastructure intruded far more often on now-elegant streets and squares.

The shock of the city’s rapid expansion left its edges looking haphazard. Low-scale farmhouses still lined city streets that had been extended into Paris’ hinterland, giving parts of the city an architectural blend now characteristic only of Montmartre. The quirky, individualistic eccentricities of brash new real estate ventures — chateau-like features cropping up on single-family mansions, apartment houses flaunting orientalist flourishes — were far more prevalent then than today.

Remnants of the old village of Passy still stood along rue Beethoven in 1900, but had been largely replaced by apartment houses on the standard Parisian scale by 2008.

Turreted mansions stood out on the Boulevard Emile Augier in 1906. By 2008 they had largely been replaced by apartment houses reflecting various 20th century styles.

This apartment building on Rue Octave Feuillet had plenty of orientalist flair in 1910, but was altered to conform with Second Empire fashion sometime before 2008.

In short, Paris had yet to find its cohesive sense of self. When the period’s Impressionist painters depicted their fellow Parisians as flickers on the sidewalks of handsomely uniform streets (most notably in Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre series), they were coloring a new urban identity into being, emphasizing Paris’ aesthetic cutting edge. Off their canvasses, behind the scenes of the most coherent new boulevards, this Paris was still messily taking shape.

It’s evident from the dates in Ruamps’ photos that a surprising number of the storied apartment blocks that saddle Paris with the label “museum of the 19th century” were actually built sometime into the 20th. In fact, the Paris that evolved even during or just after Haussmann’s renovations was more of a reaction to 19th century trends than their embodiment, incorporating the period’s material and technological advances to combat the shocking poverty and potential political upheaval endemic to its rapid urbanization. The city that excited the Impressionists — often considered the first modern artists — was a substantially different place from the Paris known to Napoleon or the Commune.

The 20th century’s most prominent artistic movement, Modernism, continued in the post-Haussmannian vein. Although its most extreme proponents rejected even Paris’ early 20th century configuration, many Modernists fully embraced the spacious boulevards of the Haussmannian city. Ruamps’ then-and-after photos show how more than a few major streets were filled in by unassuming, Modernist background buildings. Many of them blend surprisingly well into the rest of the streetscape; it’s easy to forget they’re even there — and easy to see why those who believed there wasn’t much architectural vitality left in central Paris continually pass them over.

Modernist apartment houses filled in empty space behind the Gare de l’Avenue Henri-Martin between 1905 and 2008.

The alteration of Paris’ built form is the most visible of the shifts apparent in Ruamps’ juxtapositions, but it’s far from the only significant change the city has undergone in the last century or so. Just as important — perhaps more so, in the course of evaluating central Paris’s economic and cultural dynamism — are changes in the character of neighborhoods that remain frozen in the architectural past today.

The streets around the Gare de Port-Maillot, for example, have evolved from a largely quiet, residential neighborhood into a traffic-clogged commercial district. And in the span of the last forty years, the Champs-Élysées has lost much of the café society its broad sidewalks accommodated so well, becoming prey to the death knells of desirable neighborhoods anywhere: bank branches and luxury brand showcases. On the block depicted here, the sidewalk has been given over to parking ramp entryways.

Even seemingly subtle shifts in advertising culture can significant change the nature of a space where ads are prominent, as along the rue d’Auteuil, where ads occupy the same spaces in 2008 as they had in 1903, but are so distinctive in character that they have altered the look and feel of the street substantially.

The area around the 17th Arrondisement’s Gare de Porte-Maillot hasn’t changed much architecturally since 1903, but it was a much busier, more commercial area when the second photo was taken in 2008.

The Champs-Élysées retains its prestige, but not the café society that once flourished there in the 1960s. Outdoor eateries persist along parts of the street, but by 2008, this stretch was dominated by banks and a parking ramp.

Ads still occupy many of the same spaces on the rue d’Auteuil as they did in 1903, but in 2008 changing trends in advertising have made the streetscape look far different.

Some changes are so inexplicable that they seem to indicate that urban artifacts have a shifting nature regardless of changes in taste or need. Ruamps’ collection depicts a number of Paris statues that appear to have been replaced with slightly different designs over the last century. Alphonse Dumilatre’s classical bust of poet Jean de La Fontaine, visible in a 1908 postcard, dates to 1900. Charles Correia’s more “lifelike” version, in which La Fontaine is petting a pair of sculpted dogs, was put in its place in 1983.

There’s another example not too far away. The statue of Alphonse de Lamartine sitting casually in the square bearing his name was, more unexpectedly, replaced by a rigid, standing version of the writer and politician; according to Ruamps, the new sculpture dates to 1951.

In either case, given the lack of any radical departure in design philosophy — the slight postmodern flair of Correia’s work aside, both are classical realist sculptures that could have been cast in the 19th century — or of any obvious source of political outrage motivating the statues’ substitution, the reason for their replacement remains a mystery. “Did Dumilatre fall from grace?” asks one commenter on Ruamps’ Flickr page, only partly in jest.

In 1951, one classical statue replaced another in Square Lamartine. The first photo was taken in 1900, the second in 2008.

Statues of La Fontaine, Jardin du Ranelagh, 1908-2008

Why replace one traditional artwork with another that serves the same purpose? The question begs disdain for Paris’ current state of inventiveness: the cart of cultural stagnation may not have followed the preservation horse. Overall, Ruamps’ juxtapositions raise significant questions about what has actually been preserved over the course of Paris’ history — and what’s more representative of contemporary cultural restraint. Paris’ critics might consider looking not so much at the city’s reverence for its past as its timidity in the present.

It’s not difficult to speculate as to how Paris wound up this way. In 2007, I attempted to refute an argument that the city’s center risked becoming little more than a “museum of the 19th century” through over-preservation by arguing that its homogeneity might have had more to do with skyrocketing property values. Sante also blames central Paris’ stagnation on its class composition, lamenting the “ruinous” 1960s policy of “zonage à l’américaine” that ended mixed-income housing.

The result, he claims, was a gentrified city complete with “high prices…an antiseptic street culture, the further polarization of classes, and the gradual strangling of vertical mobility”. Paris has also embraced, he notes, a “fetishistic” style of “skin deep” historic preservation. In other words, the city is hardly over-preserved, inside or out. But central Paris does have one trait common to its older constructions and their more modern intrusions, one consistent with its status as a bastion of privilege — its aesthetic conservatism.

The city has become so steeped in this reactionary aesthetic that the brick industrial neighborhood around the rue de Crimée, which actually does retain intact much of its 19th century built form, seems wildly heterodox. Strange as it is to believe, the parts of Paris that best survived the last one hundred years often look the least like the city most imagined to belong to the era of Balzac and Baudelaire, Hugo and Flaubert. Substantial portions of the “finished” Paris imagined to be so fiercely protected and preserved didn’t really assume their current form all that long ago — a fact that should lead many to reconsider its the city’s capacity, if not its will, for reinvention.

The 19th century industrial landscape around the rue de Crimée in the 19th Arrondisement is strikingly similar to this postcard view from 1907.

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow Szabla on Twitter.)

Related on

—A Tale of Two Beijings
—When the Streets Were Swept by Hand
—Modernism Debauched

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