Monday, January 16, 2012

Paris Buildings: A Brief History

By Lisa Pasold

Paris, France, is an unusually coherent architectural creature. Paris' modern buildings have developed gradually out of earlier styles; palaces and mansions have survived by transforming into apartments and shops, and most streets harbor a range of buildings from various centuries. Our Paris guide traces a millennium of building in Paris, and what’s amazing is that so much remains visible and integrally important to the way that Paris works, from the earliest Medieval period through the most contemporary constructions.
Paris evolved out of a walled city, and some historians argue that this alone has given Paris a certain logic that London or Boston lacks. Paris has really never lost its walls: 900 years after the 12th-century wall of Philippe August, we now live in a city walled by its ring-road, the Péripherique highway. This succession of walls, gradually torn down and rebuilt through the centuries, has created a spiraling city, which grew gradually out from the Ile de la Cité. It’s not surprising that some of the oldest buildings are near the center of the spiral. 

The Medieval Period (1100-1526)

In 52 BC, the Romans defeated a tribe called the Parisii and established a city they named Lutetia, which probably means “swampy.” Today, that city is Paris—and it’s still swampy in the springtime! Traces of Roman architecture remain visible in Paris: if you look at a map, Rue Saint-Jacques cuts right through the middle of the city and was the main Roman road in and out. But when the Roman Empire crumbled, its architectural genius disappeared as well, and the Dark Ages were actually a step backwards architecturally. During the early Middle Ages, the people of Paris sometimes stole and relocated entire sections of Roman walls to use for their own buildings, because the Roman walls were so much sturdier. During this entire period, the “architect” per se didn’t yet exist, and important Paris buildings were designed and constructed by teams of masons.
The Renaissance (1515-1643)

In 1515, Francis I took over the French throne, to the immediate benefit of Parisian art and architecture. Francis was a great art lover and reader (unlike several previous monarchs, who were functionally illiterate), and he surrounded himself with the best creative minds of the time. He invited Leonardo da Vinci to Paris and hired Italian architects to renovate the Louvre. With Francis, the Renaissance arrived in Paris with a bang. He was the French equivalent and contemporary of England’s Henry VIII, without the multiple wives; the French capital surged with life and new buildings. Renaissance ideas insisted on a sense of human proportion in all the arts, including architecture. As a result, buildings of this time can be read as metaphors for the human shape: their solid base is the foot of the building, the elegant middle is the building’s body, and the peak of the roof, with gabled windows, is the hat. These carefully-proportioned ideas really initiated the concept of Classical architecture in Paris.


Versailles garden front,  Le Vau, Louis, 1612-1670, photo: Penn State Libraries Pictures Collection

A typically Parisien scene, by caribb

Church of Saint-Paul Saint-Louis, Paris, France, by fmpgoh

more about Paris:


Notes on Paris (for Miami)

sustainable transport

Graffiti in Paris 1

Reality Proves a Setback for Parisian Bike Rentals

skyline of Paris 1

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