Notes on cities and places. Paris


1. Paris, la ville


The Roman city, Lutetia Parisiorum, was founded on the heights of the left bank of the Seine: an isolated chessboard with a 300 Roman foot was organized on a north-south axis and surrounded by swamps.

Charles the Great preferred it to Aachen, and though the frantic kingdoms were meriting and cruising courts, the city was enlarged, occupying the right bank of the Seine slowly. It is under the reign of Philip II Augustus that a true kingdom capital is born. Philip, a crofter and captain of the armed forces against John Lackland; a political strategist and Machiavellian administrator, extends his kingdom from the Ile de France to about two-thirds of the entire French territory, which is governed by urban infrastructure works, fortifications and new founding cities (bastides) and through administrative ordinances.

Military and cross-country campaigns financed great works and Paris became the capital of a wealthy kingdom: 1186 is the year of foundation of Les Halles and the pavement work of the streets between 1180 and 1210, the first walled city is built then on the right bank around 1370, in 1202 the castle of the Louvre was completed, the intensive years of the construction site of Notre Dame cathedral, hospice and hospitals.

The newborn capital of the kingdom forms an orderly, united and populated body: the “cité” located on the island, the commercial town on the right bank and the university town on the left bank. In this urban scene flourish the philosophical and theological studies of the universities, the technical inventions and the management of the construction site at the base of the bold Gothic buildings, the chemical explorations on the production of colours and virtuosity miniaturists, which characterises not only France, Europe between the XI and the XIII century. Paris is then a white stone city from the Valley of the Oise and counts, by the end of the XIII century, 50.000 inhabitants while Florence then counted about 90.000.

Between 1347 and 1353 the plague, in the Danish chronicles of the time it is known as Black Death, spreads across Europe: in less than two decades a third of the population of the continent died.

In these dark years the crown of France passes by heir to heir, many of them young or children who disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It is the years of the Centenary War [1337-1453], which collects under its name the long period of conflicts between England and France and ended with expulsion from all continental areas of the British, with the exception of Calais. In this period of instability, population growth resumes [150,000 inhabitants in the 14th century] so as to expand the city beyond the medieval walls, but still within the new defensive line wanted by Charles V.

Caterina de Medici and Henry IV are promoters of a new urban development that introduces into the medieval urban plot embryos of ideal spaces constructed according to the rules of the perspective that animated the 14th century artisanal and artistic production in search of an ideal city model, whose first formulations respond rules of order and symmetry: here is the garden of the Tuilleries, beyond the walls, and later Pont Neuf and Place Dauphine and Place des Vosges.

In 1637 Paris had 415.000 inhabitants, doubling the population in less than fifty years. The court, where the power of the monarchy is concentrated, lives outside the walls; inside the walls lies the city, overcrowded by people and buildings, a medieval establishment remained unchanged. In the 16th to 18th century Paris has a flourishing and intense construction period, according to two registers.

On the one hand there are the centuries of immense perspective and landscaping arrangements for the celebration of the absolute power of the Louis XIV: the building sites of Versailles Palace, place Vendome and place des Victoires, grands boulevards along the Seine, the large tree-lined avenues that radiate from the gates of the city to a new discontinuous suburbs of parks and “maisons faubourienne”, flaunt a facade of opulence, which, however, hides a radical lack of financial and management resources.

On the other hand, within the walls of Charles V, there is a frantic activity of building speculation, which seeks to respond to both the growing demand for housing by the new bourgeoisie and the ever-increasing number of immigrants, a real estate logic ante litteram.

The dramatic financial situation of the country, due to the immense expenses incurred for Louis XV's wars in America, to the unreasonable glamour of the court of Louis XVI and to a succession of droughts and famine, together with the spread of ideas Enlightenment, resulted in the march on Versailles in August 1789 and, ten years after, in the founding of the first republic.


Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, while the philosophers of nature, namely mathematicians, were divided on Newton's Principles, the Constituent of Paris voted the meter, that is a subdivision of the meridian of Paris, as a new unit of measure, and Count Gaspard Monge invented descriptive geometry, and sequelae of ordennance defined the spheres of property and action of the state and of the private actors.

In 1850,  the first law on French expropriation was voted:

"When insalubrity is the result of external and permanent causes, and when these causes can not be removed without a coordinated work, the municipality may purchase, in accordance with the forms and modalities of the law of April 3 1841, the totality of the properties within the perimeter of the activity “.

In 1853, Baron Haussmann assumes the position of prefect of the Seine under Emperor Napoleon III, and in seventeen years of activity he worked a radical transformation of the city of Paris, which had then more than one million inhabitants. The modern city was born under the guidelines of order, hygiene, control and industrialisation: sewerage, hydraulic network, gas lighting, public transport, schools, hospitals, markets and parks constitute the body of the immense public works campaign.

The operation costs about two and a half billion francs, with a capital investment of only 100 million and the rest translated into debts that will only be extinguished by the end century; with the population growth of 1 to 2 million and the average double income [5000 francs], the Paris Commune is about to double its income in less than fifty years [200 million francs a year]. This public financial operation is made possible by the act of 1858, which authorises the expropriation with a simple resolution of executive power but at the same time prescribes that the areas around the streets would be returned to the old owners.

"The act of '58 has huge consequences and irreversibly shape Paris and other European cities. It establishes a rigid frontier between public and private space, the "alignment" or "building front", which replaces the complex system of reciprocal relations, typical of the ancient tradition. It creates an imbalance between the public administration accountancy and the land ownership - property value becomes overrated in parallel to the rise of the public accountancy deficit - and consequently deforms the character of the city: it is built more than what is needed and with higher densities in order to raise the prices of the land; public services are lagging behind and run after the private investments; the land values differences are enhanced in order to rise the annuity income with the consequence of increasing the contrasts among the different urban areas.”

Leonardo Benevolo, The city in European history, 1993

The financial operation is an immense success.


The administrative structure of the French capital was preserved until 1977, when for the first time a mayor of the city, at the time Jacques Chirac, was appointed to replace the extraordinary power of the Prefect of the Seine, authority that was equivalent to that of the President from the time of the French Revolution.

The combination of roles of the Prefect of the Seine and that of the emperor-president has somehow preserved an extraordinarily effective executive power in the public works and planning of Paris for three centuries.

In fact the fast road on the right bank of the Seine is by initiative of President Georges Pompidou (1962-1968), as well as the first high-speed railway lines and the construction of Beaubourg centre in the historic centre, and in a similar way the Grand Travaux are a metonym of the presidency of Francois Mitterand (1981-1995), when the great museums - Louvres, Gare d'Orsay, Institut du Monde Arabe - were built, as well as the new neighbourhood of La Defense and the national monument of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, although during his mandate the mayor's figure already existed.


2. Paris, the rue


"The streets are the residence of the Collective. The Collective is always shy, always on the move; it’s a being who lives in the walls of the palaces, learns, knows and invents what people do between the four walls of their home. For this Collective, brilliant enamelled advertising signs are the ornament of its walls, much more than the oil painting for the bourgeois living room. The walls with their "affection défense" are his desk, his newsstands, his libraries, the letters boxes his bronzes, the benches the bedroom furniture and the terraces of the cafes the verandas from which he watches his domestic life. Where the streetworkers hang their jacket on the grate, there is the vestibule and the door, which through a series of courtyards leads outdoor, there is the long corridor that intimidates the bourgeois and that is their street to access the rooms of the city. The passage is their living room. There more than elsewhere the road is the furnished and inhabited intérieur of the masses."

Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, Walter Benjamin, 1927-1940, edited by Giorgio Agamben, Einaudi, 1986


The 18th century is characterised by a number of embellishments, which are reflected in the construction of squares, in the levelling of boulevards, in the creation of tree-lined avenues and gardens, following a policy of celebration of the monarchy, which nevertheless resides in the city. Monumental urban works build a set design that is in dialogue with the wider urban landscape of the palais and faubourgs, and at the same time it offers new urban rituals. The daily life of a Parisian has a double register, that of the coach and that of the pedestrian. The new bourgeoisie lives in the city by coach, on a walk through exposure along tree-lined avenues and speed along the boulevards, while the residential buildings are widening to make room for the vehicle's admission. Next to the crowd of ordinary citizens, another one get lost in the maze of medieval streets, walking in the mud. In the tormented years of the French Revolution urban space becomes a symbol of popular sovereignty: the slow and systematic demolition of the Bastille, the new toponymy of the streets, the occupation of the squares by the machine of Monsieur Guillotin and the crowds of spectators.

Paris after the Revolution and the Terror is still a medieval city, where in 1828 the first “chemin de fer“ arrived, followed by the construction of six railway stations in less than twenty years: the “gare” is the modern urban scene, the laic cathedral in a very dense urban landscape. Between 1860 and 1870 Baron Haussmann aims to organise a quick and orderly connection between the “gares", located on the outskirts of the city, and the main public buildings, from government departments to hospitals, from theatres to department stores: four new stations, grands croisés, new boulevards. The boulevard is then the scene of the representation of modernity and self-celebration of the high bourgeoisie, as evidenced by Impressionist paintings. Behind the boulevards there continues to exist the medieval city, with a nearly continuous trade rez-de-chaussée and a vertical stratification of apartments, where as you add rooftops and floors. In this dense fabric, the passages, described by Benjamin as interiors, lounge and theatre of the modern citizen, are produced, and the private courts survive, often resulting from subsequent manipulations of residential densification. Rue, boulevards, passages, courtyards are worlds that live together, harmoniously and without coherence: they are the figure of the richness of this city, where you can walk for hours as in a “babushka” of unpredictable worlds.

Walter Benjamin wrote:

"The nearby glass door promises a "Petit Casino” and allows a glance to a cashier and entry prices, but opening that door, would we really enter that interior space? Or wouldn’t we find ourselves instead being inside a theatre on the other side of the street? (...) Paris is the city of mirrors. “


Facades define the character of the collective space. The legal system governing the public works of the Ancien Régime defines injunctions and constraints that apply only to what is seen from the public road: the urban landscape. The Parisian administration has no interest in regulating residential typologies, rather it focuses on defining in a simple and clear way the rules of public street scenography: real ordinances define elementary geometry, height constraints and scores, which could be easily managed from entrepreneurs. Over the next two centuries, the uniformity of the facades coexist with the most diverse situations caused by the increasing number of individual apartments, often hybridisation of existing situations, for a population growth combined with the pressure of a rapidly rising real estate market. The “ordenance des 48 pies” (1667) defines the height limit in relation to the construction technique: height of 48 feet (15.60 m) for timber-framed buildings, 50-60 feet (16.25-19.50 m) for masonry buildings. The attic, which still nowadays characterises Paris buildings, is the answer to a demand for densification and is often the result of an illegal elevation. In 1783, after subsequent refinements, an official declaration binds the height of the edifice to the width of the roads, retaining a distinction in the construction technique: heights of 48 and 60 feet are valid for widths of 30 feet (9.75 m); heights of 48 feet are valid for widths between 30 and 24 feet (7.80 m); for all other roads width the rule is that of 36 feet height (11.70 m). Only one year after, an amendment officially legitimised the 54 foot (17.54 m) height, legalizing the existence of the attic floor which in fact measured approximately 6 feet. Not long after, when the new threshold of the façades was consolidated as the horizon of the built front, the attic will return to be the main tool to attain elevations of even two or three floors. Somehow the discontinuity of the landscape of the roofs of Paris reflects the profound individuality of the immeubles.


The common denominator of the various façade scores consists of a commercial floor, characterised by the transparency of the windows and the passages of allées leading to the courtyards, from two to four floors in elevation and a top consisting of an attic and a roof. On this first horizontal score, a plurality of languages, called "styles", which express the character of the building, is superimposed: the Enrico IV polychrome scores, the Louis XIV sober stone horizontal string courses and beaded pilasters, the Louis XV rhythmic and individuality score of stone frames on plaster background defined by a delicate bas-relief, the Louis XVI massif cut stone blocks, the 18th century eclecticism, the Haussmann stone cut “chiaroscuro” combined with the transparency of the balconies and the windows overlooking the street, the expressive divertissement after Haussmann, the Art Nouveau iron and glass filigree.


3. Paris, the immeuble privé  


"Wohnen (to inhabit) used in the transitive form - in the concept of "gewohnten Lebens “(daily life) - gives an idea of the hasty actuality that is hidden in this attitude. It consists of forming a shell.”

The intérieur, the trace. [4,4] from Paris, 19th century capital Walter Benjamin, 1927-1940, edited by Giorgio Agamben, Einaudi 1986


Between the 16th and 19th century, in a time of profound transformation of the society and with the rise of the bourgeoise class which proposes new needs and new habits of living, an innovative domestic typology is affirmed, which witnesses a metamorphosis from the individual home towards a collective residence. The steps of this evolution are not linear over time. In fact over centuries there coexist phenomena of densification of the medieval lots together with the miniaturisation of suburban villas, the merging of heterogeneous building parcels behind unitary facades together with the typological inventions of small housing towers, where apartments where staggered one on top of the other.

The "types" of buildings, from the beginning of the 16th century, are not named per quality or type of space of the building, but belonging to the social status of the owner: “maison” for the bourgeoisie, “hotel” for gentlemen and “palais” for princes and kings. Therefore there is not an evolution of dwelling types, but a succession of variations on the theme of the house or of the hotel, considering the urban dwelling, where the combinations of spatial stylistic features taken from the noble architecture or from the ancient vernacular tradition depend on the owner or on the occasion.

The collective property is thus affirmed through a long process and unremitting transformation-demolition-construction activities on an already existing urban body, under the pressure of demographic growth forced into the inner city walls.

Jean-Francois Cabestan speaks of a phenomenon of "urban hypertrophy", with a soil occupancy coefficient ranging from 3 to 5.5.


The modern Parisian house can be distinguished in two families: individual dwellings (maison à boutique, maison privée and hotel particulier) and collective homes (maison à loyer, immeuble). The different typologies have long been mixed together, so it is unlawful to identify a canon or type of "modern" dwelling. Maisons a boutique appear under the reign of Louis XIV as a variation and densification of the medieval lot. It has a deep and narrow two-bay plan for a height of 5 floors (rez-de-chaussée, 2 floors and 2 floors attic); it has a clear distinction between the front - the road - and the back - the courtyard – and it is structured with a vertical distribution, which reflects a pyramidal social order. Ground floor and first floor are for use by the owner, while on the upper floors individual rooms, initially dedicated to the use of the servants and then leased to strangers and immigrants, are organised. The maison à boutique is the primitive prototype of the immeuble.

The maison privée enlarges the medieval lot width, occupying 5 bays, for a height over 5 floors and, while maintaining the distinction between the front and the rear, introduces a representative and functional garden at the level of the rez-de-chaussée. The vertical distribution of the maison à boutique remains unchanged, although there is the introduction of some spaces that serve as first filter between the public and private areas of the dwelling: on the ground floor we find the commercial activities, les sales, which are clearly separate from the private areas through a sequencing of vestibules; the distribution is more clearly defined as a double circulation, with a representative staircase and a functional service staircase; on the first floor the bedrooms, with the first forms of vestibule and cabinets, are arranged; in the upper floors there is an indifferent partition of rooms, each of which is alike a private home on its own (a Parisian family lived in 15-25 square meters).

The hotel particulier is an urban residence, which takes as model the noble country residence. In the 18th century these miniaturizations of suburban villas, which have a very low coefficient of occupancy, spread widely. The hotel particulier is located between a courtyard, which acts as a filter from the road noises and at the same time as stage of the living towards a public space, and a garden: there is no front, there is no back.

The maison à loyer defines an innovative typology, which is based on the fusion of several medieval parcels or more maisons à boutique, due to the demographic pressure and the building speculative fever of the new bourgeoisie. It faces the street with 4 alligned bays for a height over 6 floors, but unlike the maisons à boutique and maisons privées it introduces a horizontal distribution: the flat on one floor level is created and with it comes the invention of the apartment building as a vertical stratification of individual dwellings. It begins to define a clear distinction between the collective field - the passages d'allées, the court, the common stairs, the corridors - and the private spaces of the dwelling, which is considered as a sequence of rooms or as a single room for rent. The bourgeois apartment draws on the hotel's repertoire by introducing with variations the “anti-chambres-salle de compagnie-chambre à couche” sequence: the single bedroom of the noble becomes the master bedroom, the companion room becomes a variable use spatial device, where the household is located or businesses are discussed (the modern living room), and the antechamber becomes a real distribution space, declined as a small room or corridor.

The immeuble constitutes a variation on a larger scale and features a highly repetitive character. The first examples of immeuble are the real estate operations of religious confraternities dated up to the 17th century, which behind a unitary façade compose a crowd of individual housing, keeping a commercial use on the ground floor and a residential use on the upper floors. Other variations on the immeuble model, from the 17th to the 18th century, show the construction of continuous facades behind which a multitude of maisons à boutiques and maisons à loyer are organized, fused together and adapted to new needs without losing their individuality. The Haussmann immeuble de raport canonises the modern apartment building with a commercial ground floor and 6 floors of rented apartments, combining the extremely rigid constrains of the urban regulations with the liberal private initiatives in the apartments distribution. The state controls the expression and the character of the road, imposing constraints on the height of the building, offering catalogues of facade partitions and the modernization of common infrastructures. Behind this scenographic construction of the street front there is complete freedom for the inventiveness and the speculative lust of the new bourgeoisie.

There is a clear division between public spaces, where there is the rigor of homogeneity and repetition, and private environments, where in the opposite way particular and singular solutions multiply. Cèsar Daly, architect and journalist, publishes between 1864 and 1874 a three-volume publication, "Architecture privée au xixe siècle", a genuine catalogue of plans and elevations, independent of one another.

Paris seems to pose as a collage.


The various "types" of buildings, therefore, are present in continuity over the centuries: we encounter maisons à loyer in the 16th century as in the Haussmannian period, as well as the immeuble appear in the 17th century and not further. However, the private space program assists its own evolution, mirroring the social and urban transformations of the city. Between the end of the 16th and 17th century, most of the Parisians lived in multi-family buildings, where independent and non-communicating rooms were rented. At the beginning of the 18th century, bourgeois families began renting ensemble of interconnected rooms, offering a more private and intimate private environment: the anti-chambres appear as a place of transition between the collective and the private space, and the boudoir becomes the place of the greatest domestic privacy.

The progressive introversion of the domestic spaces, given by the definition of a new sense of privacy, was counterpointed by an increase of the openings and of the balconies, which until the middle of the 19th century remained circumscribed on the third floor, but as Second Empire rose, balconies were present on every floor. Francois Loyer argues that the balcony had a dual role: to exhibit a power, declaring to the public the location and size of the apartment's salon, and to create the illusion that the interieur was open to the gaze from the street.

The apartments of Paris Temps Modernes are a wide catalogue of variations in defining and provoking the thresholds between the interior and the exterior, the individual and the collective, the exhibition and the introversion.

The façade is the public paravent of a kaleidoscope of microcosmos.


Genova, 2014