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Rue de Rivoli

Percier and Fontaine, 1802 onwards

The rue de Rivoli is very straight and unaltered from end to end: three simple storeys above an arcade. But it feels quite different from the autocratic straightness of the eighteenth century. That was for show; this, basically, is for convenience, and there is a fine, underplayed urbanity in the way Percier and Fontaine consistently refused to hot up what is in fact a very long elevation. Impersonal but not inhuman; the mile-long covered street never gets on top of you, and life can take what shape it likes inside the framework.

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Rue Saint-Honore, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore

Rue de Rivoli Paris Tourist Attractions Map

This is the real high street of the Right Bank, streaking behind the boulevards and the rue de Rivoli never quite straight, never too wide. It is a marvellous chameleon, taking up five or six personalities on its way across Paris from west to east without losing its own identity. The classic familiar character of the rue Saint-Honore is the kind of luxury street which makes Bond Street look dowdy: the stretch between the Palais Royal and the rue Royale is truly elegant, one of the few places in the world where expensive goods really seem worth the money. But this affluence is built on a classless solidity which can be felt immediately in any of the side streets. West of the rue Royale there is a subtle change into the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore – quieter and wider, with a dash of Pall Mall in it: the Elysee Palace and the British Embassy on the south side, and the amazing clockwork displays in the windows of Roger et Gallet’s shop (no. 62) on the north. And beyond this there is again a widening and coarsening so that at the far end it is almost indistinguishable from the rest of the well-heeled faintly vulgar streets east of the Arc de Triomphe. Yet at the other end, east of the Palais Royal, it can slip just as easily into working-class clothes, sandwiched between les Halles and the Samaritaine. Always, west or east, it feels indispensable.

Saint-Roch Plans and maps of Paris

Basic Jesuit, like basic English: one would guess that neither Lemercier who built the church nor de Cotte who added the facade2 had much joy of the job. Behind the altar, Mansart in his turn added a circular chapel, and here the French virtues of elegance and a just balance begin to flower. Looking back from here, the spaces in the side chapels are immediately more vivid: but they act against the religious sense of the building.

Saint-Roch is also a miniature Westminster Abbey, full of eighteenth-century monuments and works of art by famous names (Coysevox, Girardon). All seems petrified by the need to strike an attitude, as English sculpture was later to be, in the colossal official commissions in St Paul’s. The group above the altar of Mansart’s chapel can stand for all of it: the Nativity, by Michel Anguier. He could do fine things (as he did on the Porte Saint-Denis), and this subject could call up marvellous Baroque music. Yet the figures of Mary and Joseph are stylized, feeling what they ought to feel or are told to feel. Only the Christ child kicks out; even the most august rulemakers were defeated by a new-born baby.]

Place Vendome

Hardouin-Mansart, 1698-1720

What to say? This is one of the acknowledged sights of Paris, its importance newly reinforced by the Gaullist administration: the visual image behind the television fanfares or the canned music at Orly. But the plain truth is that in European terms it is nowhere near good enough. The space is ruined because the roads in and out are too wide, though to be fair they originally led in a few yards to the facades of churches; the pediments crammed on to the diagonal corners are no substitute for the spacedrain.3 But generations have paid their unthinking respects and now the Place Vendome is impregnable. As the swishest part of a swish city it is now getting a super-gloss which Paris doesn’t want and which London and New York could ruin themselves trying to emulate.]

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