Considered by some as the best example of Baroque Planning, the Paris we see today is actually more modern than Manhattan. While the Commissioner’s Plan for NYC dates from 1811, Paris was re-invented between 1855 and 1871 during the Haussmann-Napoleon III administration. The urbanism of the Belle Epoch was so good that three 19th century Exposition Universelle held every 11 years showcased the city as much as any agricultural or industrial product. Eiffel’s tower, built for Expo 1889, remained the world’s tallest structure until the Chrysler Building opened in NYC in 1930.
Paris is the most beautiful city in the world, yet all the buildings look more or less alike.
The real charm of Paris may be that much of its Baroque glory, dating from the first decades of the 1600’s, was preserved and lies awaiting our rediscovery. When the age of iron and steam finally arrived the French nation set about putting to work knowledge gleaned over two centuries of building a great city. All of it, of course, playing against the background of one of the most progressive political reform movements in the west. For, if fate were a choice between amassing great power, or making livable a great city, Parisians have always opted for both.
The round rose window framed by Notre-Dame’s two towers—salt-and-pepper icons of a past Gothic Age—has beat for a thousand years as heart and symbol of nation and city. Erected on a site active since Roman times, Cathédral Notre-Dame’s façade is worth a careful look:
The section under the towers almost forms a square (41 x 43 meters) divided into three, tic-tac-toe style… The Revolution first made it into the The Temple of Reason, then it became a wine warehouse before returning to worship in 1803. [G 71]
We begin here at the site of this resplendent Cathedral our quest to understand human scale in urbanism. According to the classical sources, the optimum distance to see detail on this façade will be at a distance of 40 meters; the optimum distance to see the building as a whole will be at 80 meters; and the optimum location to experience the ‘urban room’ framed by this majestic monument will be at 120 meters. It just so happens that the open space in front, the Parvu Notre-Dame, measures 120 meters in length and was planned by the Haussmann-Napoleon III administration.
We will come to see how the simple ratios just described of 1:1, 1:2 and 1:3 frame the limits for human sense experience in urban space. We will discover in the course of this review that the most memorable places partake a proportioning system that resonates with the innate mechanisms we experience as the evidence of our senses.
It is from primary data such as this that we shall build our understanding of the origin of cities. Such primary data represents the concrete and verifiable principles of ‘good’ urbanism. Universally quantifiable stuff that we can use to build a lasting consensus about the planning and development of any one place.