Paris is the epitome of the noble well-planned city, to which countless other cities around the world have looked for inspiration when they wanted to give themselves elegance and grandeur, and a strong sense of order. The Parisian conception of the grand city has been developing ever since the rise of the Bourbon kings in the 16th century, and Paris continues to make bold architectural gestures like no other European capital.
Three forces combine to make this so: the French tradition of strong centralised power has given the means for monument building, a certain conception of national greatness has given the urge for grand gestures, and a culture rooted in rationality and classicism has lead to orderly planning. In addition, the personal element has been crucial.
French leaders, whether royal or republican, from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte to Francois Mitterrand, have taken Paris as their stage for monumental statements – lest we forget them. Whilst none have built colossal statues of themselves, French leaders are certainly the most pharaonic in latter-day Europe, which is why Mitterrand, president from 1981 to 1995, was nicknamed “Mitterramesses”.
The supreme example of Parisian urban planning is La Voie Triomphale - the Triumphal Way - that strikes through the city centre, from the Louvre, the world's largest museum, to La Défense, one of Europe's biggest commercial complexes, for eight kilometres. Also known as Le Grand Axe -- the Grand Axis -- this vista forms a linked cityscape like no other on earth, displaying the mutating spirit of several centuries' history.
Begun by Louis XIV as a green vista through the Tuileries Gardens to be viewed from the Louvre Palace, the axis extended into a wooded promenade called the Champs Elysées, which mutated into Paris's prime boulevard. During the 19th century, the vista gained the Place de la Concorde with its central obelisk, a gift from Egypt, at midway, and culminated in the Arc de Triomphe, initiated by Napoleon (who else?), with which grand statement the vista climaxed until the 1980s. Then came Francois Mitterrand - "Mitterramesses" - and his Grands Projets (Grand Projects). A new termination took shape five kilometres beyond the Arc de Triomphe at La Defense, a vast commercial and office complex of steel, glass and concrete.
As well as a lavish statement of power and vision, the Grand Axis is a spectacular symbol of French history. The Sun King's Louvre stands for the absolute monarchy, the Place de la Concorde -- site of the guillotine -- for the revolution, the Champs Elysées for the rise of the bourgeoisie, the Arc de Triomphe for imperialism, and La Défense for global capitalism.
The Louvre grew to its enormous extent over seven centuries, starting as a medieval fortress in 1190. In the 16th century the fortress was replaced by a Renaissance palace to become the principal residence of the French kings, and came to include ministerial offices and the royal art gallery. After the execution of Louis XVI at the Revolution's height in 1793, the National Convention declared the Louvre would be an art museum for the French nation. In 1989, after the Ministry of Finance decamped from the Richilieu Wing, the Louvre became entirely devoted to museum space.
The vista of the Grand Axe used to begin in the Cour Carrée (Square Courtyard) of Louis XIV's Louvre, looking through the archway out into the Cour Napoléon, but now it begins with I. M. Pei's 1990s glass pyramid. The Chinese-American architect's pyramid resulted from President Mitterand's 1981 commission to renovate the Louvre, providing a new visitor entrance. The glass sculpture allows bright daylight into the underground foyer while highlighting the eastern end of the Grand Axe.
From there the axis passes through the Cour Napoléon to the modest (for him) triumphal arch that Napoleon built in 1805 to celebrate the victories of the Grande Armée in its European campaigns. The Cour Napoléon was once a vast courtyard of the Tuileries Palace which grew to abut the Louvre palace during the 19th century. In one of the revolutionary convulsions for which the French are renowned, the Tuileries Palace's west wing was burned down by the Communards in 1871, opening up the vista to the west.
This benevolent act of vandalism gave us the uninterrupted view into the Tuileries Gardens, originally laid out by Louis XIV's gardener, André Le Notre in the 17th century. It was Le Notre who began the concept of the great axis by greatly enlarging the gardens of the Tuileries Palace and creating a long tree-flanked avenue, the foundation of the Champs Elysées. Formal in the classic French manner, the gardens centre on a circular pool where children sail toy boats. In 1792, the scene was somewhat less tranquil: revolutionaries enraged at Louis XVI's escape through the gardens massacred 600 of his Swiss Guards there.
The Place de la Concorde
The sightline continues to the Egyptian obelisk at the centre of the vast cobbled square of the Place de la Concorde. A 3200 year old monument from Luxor donated by the Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali in 1831, the obelisk supplanted the revolution's guillotine, which had replaced a statue of Louis XV with which the square began life in the mid-18th century. The guillotine claimed 1,119 heads, including those of the mightiest on both sides: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Danton and Robespierre.
Immense, imposing and whirling with traffic, the Place de la Concorde is arguably the centrepoint of Paris and is roughly the halfway mark of the original Grand Axe from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe. Starting as Place Louis XV in conventional royalist homage in the 1750s, becoming the blood-soaked Place de la Revolution in the 1790s, it was renamed Place de la Concorde in a spirit of national reconciliation.
The Champs Elysées
West of the Louvre were royal meadows and hunting grounds, which gradually became leafy promenades for gentlefolk, fancifully called the Elysian Fields, evoking the classical heaven. Eventually, in the mid-19th century building boom, a tree-lined avenue of bourgeois apartment buildings rose up the hill in line with the axis. In the 20th century, the Champs Elysées became the world's grandest street, the magnet for every boulevardier, two kilometres long, 70 metres wide and lined with expensive cafes, restaurants and hotels. With some of Paris's grandest theatres and cinemas, the great avenue became a playground for all Parisians with a few francs to spare, or even none, because you could just stroll up and down and simply enjoy being there. Lately, however, McDonaldsisation has taken it down several pegs. Every July 14th, it lives its greatest day as the scene of a great nationalistic military parade in which the French armed forces show off for the President of the Republic.
The Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe, one of France's national symbols as well as one of the great Parisian landmarks, was begun by Napoleon during the Empire but not finished until 1836. Commemorating the armies of the Revolution, it only came into its own as a scene of triumphal progress during the 20th century, with one of the victory parades regrettably enacted by "the other side" - Hitler in 1940. De Gaulle's Liberation parade of 1944 was the most recent. The space under the arch is a memorial to the unknown soldier, with an eternal flame.
La Défense complex was begun as long as ago as the 1950s and is still developing, but its apotheosis undoubtedly occurred on French National Day, July 14th, 1989, precisely two centuries after the Revolution began, when the Grande Arche de La Défense was opened by President Mitterrand. Its Danish architect announced it as "an open cube, a window on the world, a symbol of hope that in the future humankind will be able to meet freely".
It stands 110m high and 108m wide, its two 19m thick towers housing 35 storeys of offices. Clad in 2.8m square segments of white Carrara marble and glass fitted around a prestressed concrete frame, the entire construction rests on a dozen 30m-tall underground pillars. The crossbeam roof has an observation deck and exhibition space reached by panoramic-view lifts which whoosh up the towers.
A grand esplanade leads up to it, one kilometre long, flanked by a variety of steel and glass structures and modern sculptures. The buildings are head offices for many of France's largest corporations and for leading multinationals, and also include exhibition, shopping and entertainment complexes, plus residential blocks. This is the largest of the Grands Projets which came to fruition during Francois Mitterand's 14-year presidency, a gigantic yet beneficial bout of pharaonic monument building.
Despite the grand linear concept, the Grande Arche is actually 60 30' out of line with the axis because the underground rail and road facilities did not allow the
foundations to be laid exactly in line. Not to worry - this neatly complements the misalignment at the other end, where the Louvre archway is slightly out of line with the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. It's not very Cartesian, but Parisians don't seem to mind.
But is this really the end of the Grand Axis? The window form of the Grande Arche gives the opportunity to continue the axis further west, and there is indeed a vision of eventually terminating the world's longest monumental urban vista at a new complex five kilometres onward in the far suburbs.
Cue the next Ramesses.
© 2011 Keith Mundy