PALAIS ROYAL TO LES HALLES
Place du Theatre Franais
This is a kind of Parisian Piccadilly Circus where five or six different parts of the city meet. They are much more alike than the characters which nudge in from Regent Street, Piccadilly, Shafesbury Avenue, and Coventry Street: that is the basic difference between London and Paris. It may make parts of Paris monotonous, but elsewhere it gives a majestic and genuine community of interest. The harmony is all the better here for not being tied to a regular shape. The place itself leaks out eastward into another square, beside the Palais Royal, and it is intersected diagonally by the avenue de l’Opera which instead of destroying the space merely enlarges its possibilities. The southern exits come up with a squeal of brakes against the long flank of the Louvre; to the east and west the rue Saint-Honore pursues its metamorphoses.
All this comes to an epigrammatic climax in the small space south of the theatre itself. It has in the centre a Metro entrance and a newspaper kiosk. Around the perimeter there are twelve plane trees; four lamp-standards, one with a bus-stop, one with street directions, two with floodlights; one bus shelter; two post boxes; two wastepaper baskets; one circular poster-frame; one set of traffic lights; two seats; and two mysterious plain objects inscribed only ‘Defense d’afficher’. And this whole unlikely collection is full of chic.
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Victor Louis, 1782-6 or bonjour tristesse. Luminous melancholy has never found a more elegant home than the gardens enclosed by this colossal Louis-Seize speculation, designed for the Duc d’Orleans by
Victor Louis (imported from Bordeaux for the job). The arcaded walks, intended for an intense life, have slowed to the gentle pace of philately. The space in between, designed for spectacle, is gravelled and filled with six lines of trees pleached out of roundness to run along the allees and shade seats in a physical graticule which becomes also an emotional one. Layers shift, recur, shift again while your own position – in this avenue, not that, in this situation, not that – becomes lucid and precise, defined by a hundred imprecisions. Because so defined, then accepted, and because accepted then joyful; surely among the greyest joys in the world, that far end of Mozart which already seems beyond the grave.
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Faced with a monolithic city, Parisians are always embroidering it: posters, Metro signs, shopfronts. In Louis-Philippe’s time it was fountains. Not a simple matter of a jet of water, but in this case a complete little building, stuck on to a wedge-shaped site between two tall narrow streets (rue de Richelieu and rue Moliere). Disquietingly off-centre, as though the designer had a squint, Moliere is enthroned, dead serious, above a pair of languid nymphs who couldn’t care less. The playwright did in fact die near here: but if he hadn’t, then something would have had to be invented to be an excuse for this preposterous and enchanting public gesture.
Bibliotheque Nationale: reading room
Henri Labrouste, 1868
Don’t miss this on any account: Labrouste here created, without effort, the kind of majesty that the Mansart tribe strained after at such length. His solution for the reading room was nine top-lit domes, three by three, with a wide and shallow apse at one end. Six iron columns, unbelievably thin, hold the whole thing up. It has the flavour of Adam crossed with the Brighton Pavilion but expressed in French terms, smooth and rhetorical at the same time. (Entrance on the right-hand side of the courtyard. Without a reader’s ticket you can only get as far as the glass-fronted entrance lobby, but the inside is clearly visible from there.)