January 11th, 2011

Portraits of a Changing Paris

Posted in Architecture, Europe, History by Christopher Szabla

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


December 9th, 2010

Modernism Debauched

Villa Besnus in 1922 and 2010.
Photo compilation by Laurent David Ruamps

In 1922, Le Corbusier was hired by a man named George Besnus to build a new house in the Paris suburb of Vaucresson. It was the architect’s first chance to put the Purist ideals he had been toying with to practice: an architecture stripped of its excesses, made as clean, clear and efficient as possible. The house was meant as a statement, from the gracefully rounded edges of its balcony to the bathroom, which was placed in the centre of the building, allowing for an uninterrupted flow of interior space.

As you can see in the photo compilation above, though, Le Corbusier’s original design has been altered beyond recognition. Gone are the carefully-considered proportions, the clean contrast with scrubby surroundings. A four-sided roof replaced the original flat one and shops were built in the house’s front garden. It now looks like a slightly more modern version of the petit bourgeois houses that surround it, which is ironic, considering that Le Corbusier’s Modernist villa predates them by at least several years. In a way, knowing that those fuddy-duddy traditional houses were built during the emergence of Modernism makes you all the more sympathetic to Le Corbusier’s ideals. You can see very clearly what he was working against.


September 14th, 2008

Shopping Places, Then and Now


The Galéries Lafayette in Paris still is a gorgeous retail space

As with so many things having to do with taste in the 19th century, the French generally get the credit for inventing the department store: the Parisian pioneer Au bon marché adopted the formula in 1852, just at the beginning of the massive transformation of the city under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann and Napoléon III. In his novel The Ladies’ Delight (Au bonheur des dames), Emile Zola tells the story of its beginning from the point of view of a plucky young woman from the provinces who is captivated by the bustle and exuberance of the new form of selling things.

She defends the high-volume, quick turnover approach to her uncle who is forced out of business by the department store. “You probably are more competent than me, “ she says at one point, betraying a modesty that Zola seemed to admire, “but I’ll say what I’m thinking …prices, rather than be set as they were before, by 50 businesses, are set today by four or five, and they’re lower, thanks to the power of the capital and the strength of their clientele. It’s so much better for the public, that’s all.“ Reading that is like hearing an apologist for Wal-Mart (although it should be noted that Zola says Au bon marché provided health care for its staff while Wal-Mart had to be pressured into doing that more than a century later) which perhaps shows again that there’s nothing new under the sun. At any rate, the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker adapted—or maybe reinvented—the form in the 1870s in his home town. His success inspired much imitation. By the late 19th century big cities in the US and Canada each had one or more department stores that were not just places for buying but places where everyone went.


February 26th, 2008

Language in Toulouse

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, Society and Culture by Donal Hanley


Toulouse is a large, cosmopolitan but relaxed and laid back southern French city. It feels like it has as much in common with nearby Spain as with northern France.

The bilingual street signs here are a tantalising reminder of how the city’s history could have been different. Had Occitanie remained a distinct culture and society from that of Northern France, Toulouse would have been its capital. Perhaps the street signs would have Occitan on top, and might not even be accompanied by a French translation.

In fact, you will not see Occitan on commercial signs, or hear it spoken on the streets (or, at least, I did not) in Toulouse — after French, Arabic and English predominate. And yet, the bilingual street signs serve as a reminder that, although clearly integrated for a long time into the French Republic, there is something distinctively Toulousain. This is an example of the use of language as a common shared heritage, a cultural signifier, if you will, rather than simply as a means of communication.

December 6th, 2007

Paris: Beyond the End of History

Posted in Europe, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Quai d'Orsay: From Commuters to Connoisseurs

Quai d’Orsay: From Commuters to Connoisseurs

French culture is dead. So declared Time magazine’s Don Morrison recently. Complacently subsisting off plentiful government subsidies, France’s once-trendsetting culture class have failed to keep up and compete with any of the noise issuing forth from the anglophone world. If France’s capital city is any reflection of the country’s cultural decline, one might be inclined to agree with him — at least superficially.

The museum-like quality of Paris, which remains — seemingly — a sort of improbable continuation of its late 19th century self, has long been lamented. The City of Light has maybe taken its very apt nickname a bit too far, bathing, perhaps, in too much of a stage-set’s glow. It’s easy to forgeet, while strolling through the Tuileries in the evening, that the city isn’t some recently dreamed-up theme park — especially since half the park literally serves as a sort of fairground.

It’s telling that the two most controversial building projects in central Paris – the reconstruction of Les Halles, a former marketplace turned mall and train station, and the potential rebuilding of the Tuileries palace, are, respectively, an attempt to snuff out one of the few mid-20th century intrusions into central Paris, and the attempt to restore a building lost to fire in 1871. The recent installation of the Velib’ bike-sharing system has only added further to Paris’ 19th century flair: never since then have there been so many pedal warriors on the city’s boulevards. Paris may not only be ossifying, but taking active steps to turn back the clock.

Place Vendôme: Sepulchral City

Place Vendôme: Sepulchral City

Morrison hasn’t completely given up on French culture, claiming that hope lies in the cultural explosion percolating in the immigrant ghettos that proliferate in France’s suburban banlieues and the untapped engine of neoliberal economic growth: the former providing new twists on what “French” means, the latter allowing this new France to competitively export itself to the rest of the world.

It’s true that these two forces have brought considerable change to Paris, though not, perhaps, in the positive ways Morrison expects. The upscale offices of American firms have quintupled along the Avenue Georges V, and St-Germain has steeply declined from Bohemian Rhapsody to Banana Republic. This sort of sterility, more than the mere preservation of belle époque facades, has paralyzed Paris.


April 21st, 2007

Reading Alone, One Warm Afternoon

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf



Reading on the Place des Vosges and on the bank of the Seine

February 13th, 2007

Fishing in the Seine

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf


Not fish, actually—the guy caught an eel.

Eel is delicious, but I’m not sure if I would trust the cleanliness of a river that runs through the heart of Paris.



December 29th, 2006

The City of a Thousand Leaves

Posted in Europe, Film, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Running across the boulevard Saint-Germain, through the Carrefour de l’Odéon, we dashed into the box office and bought our tickets, ducking into the darkened cinema just as the opening credits finished. We sat down in the back row, interrupting a clearly annoyed couple’s face-sucking session, and watched as the first short began: “Montmartre.”

Paris, je t’aime, which we had just handed over our seven euros to see, is a collective film (it’s composed of eighteen segments) directed by a number of big names from around the world, including the Coen Brothers, Gurinder Chadha and Olivier Assayas. Each segment is set in a different part of Paris and deals with, in some way, love. In “Loin du 16ème,” Walter Salles depicts a young Latin American mother who must leave her own child in a suburban daycare in order to care for another in the wealthy sixteenth arrondissement. Sylvain Chomet’s “Tour Eiffel” is an irreverent and off-kilter take on the life of mimes.

Paris, je t’aime is more than just a collection of disparate shorts. Its producers like to call it a “collective film,” since it understands the futility of trying to reduce the Parisian experience into a single story—any attempt to do so will result in an enjoyable but empty Amélie fantasy. Instead, Paris, je t’aime suggests that Paris is a city of vignettes, a collection of dramas that share the same stage. Of course, every city is like this to some extent, but in Paris the effect is exaggerated by geographical compactness. Central Paris is a neat circle just ten kilometres across, ringed by the Périphérique highway; within its boundaries, the city is a treasure chest of humanity.


December 15th, 2006

Oh, Just Horsing Around

Posted in Europe by Sam Imberman


Bakery in the Marais. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

It’s practically a law of the Earth: the corner bakery will have croissants. The tides will roll in and out, the seasons will change, and the corner bakery will have croissants.

And so it was that on a particular Sunday, my corner bakery did not, actually, have croissants. Or pain au chocolat or much of anything else, except for apple turnovers. And I was not in the mood for apple turnovers. Being out of cereal and bread, if I was going to eat anything that morning, I was going to have to find it first. I would be meeting a friend at the Centre Pompidou, way downtown, at two. Mission: breakfast.


December 6th, 2006

Au bord de l’eau

Posted in Europe by Laine Tam

Picnic on the banks of the Seine, Paris

On the banks of the Canal St-Martin, Paris

December 3rd, 2006

Paris Gets Sassy

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture, Transportation by Sam Imberman


Paris 11ème. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Dmitri, a small man with a Russian accent as thick as the three or four red sweatshirts he was wearing, led me out a door and into a walled-in courtyard. He gestured at four plastic drums, each one about the size of two ATMs back-to-back, each one coloured in a ridiculously peppy shade of recycling-bin green.

“This,” he said, “is where we collect rainwater to use for our toilets.”

I nodded slowly.

This was a new one. In my admittedly short life, I’ve seen quite a few apartments. Exactly zero of them had toilet systems based off vats of rainwater.

Dmitri gestured to somewhere behind me. “Now, if you like, I’ll show you your room,” he said.

I nodded vacantly; my brain was still on the rainwater toilets. The implications of that system started to wash over me. It isn’t that that fact would make a difference when actually using a toilet – but what did it say about Dmitri? Was he some kind of eco-freak? Or just conscientious?

Regardless of which of the two was the case, he was now looking at me rather oddly.

“Your room is behind you,” he said.

I turned quickly; Dmitri led me into the diffusely lit enclosure via a flap of thick translucent plastic. The room, if it could be called that, was small and spare. To the right was a white mattress on what looked like exactly one half of an Ikea bedframe. To the left was a white desk with a depressed old folding chair tucked underneath. A space heater sat dejected in the middle of the room. The ceiling was made of corrugated metal on wooden slats: the kind of construction most often seen in Discovery Channel documentaries about Kenya.

“So this would be your room,” he said. “This is what we like to call the Writers’ Studio.”


November 14th, 2006

Coupe du Monde

Posted in Europe, Society and Culture by Laine Tam

World Cup Final, France vs. Italy, July 9th, 2006.

Champs-Élysées, Paris.

October 3rd, 2006

Rue de Rivoli, 17h57

Posted in Europe by Christopher DeWolf

Early one evening, outside Saint Paul metro in Paris…