Thursday, June 23, 2011

City of Light

Barrière du Trône. (LoS)
The radicals of the French Revolution were ambitious fellows.  They not only sought to overthrow a regime and its accomplices, but to export this revolution around the globe.  Most audacious perhaps was the goal of redefining consciousness itself via the cultivation of reason and a new way of perceiving reality.  If the senses were the gateway to the mind, how they processed that sensorial input, how they measured and categorized it, would need to be reworked.  For this reason the French revolutionaries adopted the metric system, changed the calendar and reorganized the administrative lay of the land, all towards a goal of establishing a radiant citadel of reason.  Paris, if not the geographical center, was nevertheless the center of this beacon.  La Ville-Lumière....The City of Light.

Every man and woman could be a star, but they needed a city to reflect this....and magnify it.  Thus Paris itself is a kind of temple to the principles the revolutionaries wanted to instil...not within its subjects, but its citizens.

Architecture and urban planning became a crucial weapon in this struggle.

The Triumph of the Republic.  Aimé-Jules Dalou, 1889. LoS
Paris's Place de la Nation features a massive bronze sculpture which represents the Republique and its virtues in allegorical form:  The Triumph of the Republic.  At the eastern entrance stands a pair of massive columns, surmounted by globes, marking the Barrière du Trône.  These colums were erected in 1787 and designed by architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux.  Ledoux is believed to have been part of a Rosicrucian order and a Freemason, attending the Loge Féminine de la Candeur.  Perhaps this influenced his design.  Two freestanding colums  have marked the entrance to sacred space since antiquity:  the Egyptians used two obelisks and the Phonecians used pillars, a design reproduced by Hiram of Tyre in Solomon’s Temple, the model for the use of pillars at the entrance of a Masonic Lodge (see previous stuff here and here).  In any event, Ledoux was considered a rigorous Neoclassicist and utopian whose designs reflected the ideas of architecture parlante (both Ledoux and "ap" previously on LoS).

The columns and two nearby pavilions were originally part of the Mur des Fermiers généraux, a series of towers, wall and barriers used to enforce the octroi.  This tax on goods entering the city has ancient roots, but it was certainly a gripe for many.  Tax farming was essentially privatized tax collection, a neat deal in which tax farmers at the head of private companies reaped colossal fortunes at public expense.  The Parisian wall was very unpopular, it was said, "Le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant".  (Loosely: "The enclosing wall has Paris grumbling").

There was also an epigram:

Pour augmenter son numéraire (To increase its cash)
Et raccourcir notre horizon (And to shorten our horizon),
La Ferme a jugé nécessaire (The Farm judges it necessary)
De mettre Paris en prison (To put Paris in prison).

The architectural style of these buildings, "dens of the Tax Department metamorphosed into palaces with columns" according to Louis-Sebastien Mercier, highlighted the oppression which the wall represented for Parisians.

The toll on goods was removed on May 1st, 1791 in the early stages of the French Revolution, but was restored in 1798 by the Directory.  The tolls persisted under Napoleon, but the majority of the barriers were destroyed during the expansion of Paris in the 1860's and the octroi that had been collected at the wall was abolished.

Perhaps because this place was so emblematic of the abuses of the Ancien Régime, a guillotine was set up here.  A sculpture was created to honor the centennial of the Revolution : The Triumph of the Republic.  The central figure of liberty, herself mounted atop a globe, looks towards the hated place where the Bastille prison once stood, while four paths (in the four cardinal directions?) and then streets radiate outwards like rays of light.

Placing the columns in the east is also interestng, coincidence or otherwise,  for the east has alway been associated with light and the rising Sun, which as we have seen, was a Revolutionary symbol of both Wisdom (Illumination) and regeneration.  We have also seen this represented by columns themselves.

The columns are a perfect illustration of competing political agendas.  During the Restoration, the globes were fitted with a pair of rather severe statues of Philippe August (1165-1223) and Saint Louis (1214-1270), deftly celebrating both the monarchy and the church.  They separate the avenue de Trône from the Place de la Nation, whose previous names reflect the upheaval of  the Revolution :  place du Trône (Place of the Throne) became place du Trône-Renversé (the Throne Overturned) during the Revolution.  Its less aggressive moniker dates from the Bastille Day festivities (July 14th) of 1880.

from Wikipedia
Post-revolutionary Paris became a series of gateways into new spaces.  Napoleon created the Arc de Triomph on the Place de l'Étoile, so named for the symbolically-laden 12 streets radiating thenceforth like beams of light.  Napoleon's arch is echoed in the La Grande Arche de la DéfenseThis arch in perfect alignment wih the Arc de Triomph along the "axe historique" which radiates westward from the Louvre and includes the obelisk of the Place de la Concorde.

La Défense
The Arche is almost a cube (width: 108m, height: 110m, depth: 112m).  It was inaugurated in July 1989 with military parades to mark the bicentennial of the French revolution...just as the The Triumph of the Republic was created to celebrate the centennialIt is is turned at an angle of 6.33° on this axis. The most important reason for this turn was technical, but the turn emphasizes the depth of the monument, and is similar to the turn of the Louvre at the other end of the Axe historique.

Even as is drives the nation's motors of commerce and finance, Paris remains a kind of ceremonial space, both rational and mystical, organized along various significant axes, boulevards and plazas.  Washington D.C. is such a "ceremonial" city in an even stricter sense.  Unlike Paris, it has only one function:  to house the government and the monuments that glorify its values and accomplishements.  It is a hieratic city, a kind of city/temple and funerary monument.  It is not the home of a significant cultural, financial or commercial industry, aside of course from the very significant governmental or quasi-governmental organisms which partake in those sectors.  I've always thought it quite like Paris in its physical arrangement.  Perhaps this should come as no surprise when we consider the original design stems from the hand of a Frenchman.

Indeed, there is a book called Paris on the Potomac dedicated to exploring the influence of Paris on the US capitol.  Apparently in 1910 John Carrère, consulting architect for the US Capitol complex, said "learning from Paris made Washington outstanding among American cities" and that both plans should "underlie all city planning."  I've only glimpsed through its "Google booked" contents, but it seems clear Washinton was consciously modeled on Paris, a city which didn't become fully rationalized itself until the 1860's, and this at the expense of the medieval clutter which had been growing organically for centuries.

America provided the rationalists with a new and fresh start, not only in forms of government, but in the neat little grids they plopped down and which are characteristic of American cities and which one only finds rarely in Europe.

On the square, as it were.


  1. You've been busy, my man!

    Enjoyed reading this.

    You might like this poem:

    Kay Smith
    for Kathy

    In all the old paintings
    The Virgin is reading--
    No one knows what,
    When she is disturbed
    By an angel with a higher mission,
    Beyond books.

    She looks up reluctantly,
    Still marking the place with her finger.
    The angel is impressive,
    With red shoes and just
    A hint of wing and shine everywhere.
    Listening to the measured message
    The Virgin bows her head,
    Her eyes aslant
    Between the angel and the book.

    At the Uffizi
    We stood
    Before a particularly beautiful angel
    And a hesitant Sienese Virgin,
    We two sometimes women.
    Believing we could ignore
    All messages,
    Unobliged to wings or words,
    We laughed in the vibrant space
    Between the two,
    Somewhere in the angled focus
    Of the Virgin's eye.

    Now, in the harder times,
    I do not laugh so often;
    Still the cheap postcard in my room
    Glints with the angel's robe.
    I look with envy
    At the angel and the book,
    Wishing I had chosen
    One or the other,
    Anything but the space between.

  2. I like that last stanza. A word to the wise?


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