Paris Is Not For Walking

Haussmann’s avenues were not designed for walking— a point lost on most visitors to Paris today. One and two kilometers in length, these ‘new’ boulevards exceed human scale, matching the scale and spread of the defensive walls that eventually became the first Boulevards. Extending for a distance that surpasses our innate abilities to experience place, Haussmann’s avenues were urban planning for the horse and carriage, and the linking of the stations for the iron horse. Adding flow and carrying capacity to a city-wide network it abstracted city planning to the ‘systems’ level. It was all very modern and very exciting. But it was not about adding human scale to the great metropolis.

Thus, the Metro or subway, and the subway map, are the indispensable aids for visiting Paris. We are left to figure out why 400 meters, one quarter mile, or a 5 minute walking distance represents a practical limit for human sense experience in urbanism. At the subway stations the ‘station maps’ chart this territory and provide the visitor with a snapshot of information that will reveal short cuts and save aching feet. Within a 5 minute walking radius (shown as circles on the map at the top of this post), Haussmann’s Paris rewards us time and again with complete quartiers offering seemingly boundless experiences within each one. Try to link them together on foot and Paris becomes a gruelling chore.

We delight in the Paris streets and open spaces, in an urbanism where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Yet, we barely grasp the paradox of its beauty even as we are immersed in it: Paris lacks an architectural high point. Napoleon’s Arc De Triomphe provides a wonderful viewing platform to observe Paris as a ‘work of art’. Eiffel’s tour and Tour Montparnasse provide similar kinds of opportunity. The latter an idiotic piece of hyper-modernism built at the same time of the (lost) World Trade Centre Towers in Manhattan. Perhaps Montparnasse could also be taken down, without violence and loss of life. Ultimately the lack of a ‘magnificent center’ is the great tribute to this wonderful city. As frequent visitor, I’ve learned to trade that in for 100 fabulous places.

Thus, if we cannot point to a single work of great architecture in Paris—except, perhaps 800-year-old Notre-Dame itself—then, the secret must be that this city’s great achievement is building the human scale paradigm itself. In the immense urban footprint of the French capital,  Built one quartier or neighbourhood at a time, each punctuated by places or squares, Paris is a place full of places. And tourist traps. Wonderful and worthy of exploration as the collection at the Louvre is, walking its corridors proves ultimately to be a counter-cultural experience. Last time I was there its open spaces—including the incomparable Cour Carrée at the feet of the Pavillon de l’Horloge—functioned as just so much ‘open space’. Parking lots without cars even if one has been outfitted with an imaginative glass pyramid.  Playing urban counter-point public open spaces in the neighborhoods structure our experience of each quartier. Standing against the super-human scale of the avenues and the boulevards which service a different scale of urban needs altogether, these places typically have ‘social systems’ on their immediate periphery that can be discovered and teased-out by visitors. It is a method perfected by Camillo Sitte in his visits to Italian towns where this formula was perfected: find a hotel and a good restaurant near a square, then settle in for a week or so of incomparable urban safari. In Paris, the nearest Metro station will also insinuate itself as the fourth of your daily talismans.

Visitors should heed a warning: Not every Paris street or park is as good as the next. Yet, an early morning stroll in the Jardin Luxenbourg can be unforgetable; nearly every square in the Latin Quarter imparts an immediate ‘sense of place’; a good café au lait, a glass of wine, or a good meal can be had at the establishments ringing the Palais Royale where the urbanism is good both inside and out (important to remember when the nearby Louvre and needing to enjoy a brief respite); and the best picnic spot is an hour before sun down on the western tip of Île de la Cité. Paris’s greatest achievement is being a city conceived as background. Beneath the trees that drape street and place in the luxury of shade, Parisians bathed in stippled sunlight are the real stars. (Note: Parisians are infinitely more amenable when visitors begin a conversation with either a “Madame” or a “Monsieur”).

The plan of Paris is more or less a circle, with the Seine meandering through the middle. A giant cross-pattern is superimposed by its two major axis: the east-west Champs Elysées-Rue Rivoli axis linking Arch de Triomphe to the Bastille (about 3 miles); and the noth-south Sebastopol-St. Michel axis crossing the Seine to join Gare du Nord with the university district of La Sorbonne. The heart of Paris—and its founding place—is the island in the middle. Standing there with your back to the great Gothic monument Cathédrale Notre-Dame the Left Bank is on the left, and the Right Bank is on the right:

The pattern of a city is formed not only by its streets but also by its characteristically different districts. Medieval Paris consisted of three parts:la Cité, the original island, the seat of secular and ecclesiastic power; la Ville, the burgher’s quarter on the right bank; and l’Université on the left. A fourth aristocratic district was added west of la Ville when the kings built the Louvre…

La Cité still is home to Notrê-Dame and also the Préfecture, which runs Paris; the Quartier Latin on the left bank, with the Sorbonne and Montparnasse, is the Paris of the intellectuals; la Ville with the stock exchange, banks, and department sotres, is the Paris of business; and the district extending from the Louvre along the Rue de Rivoli and the Champs Elysées is the Paris of luxury and fashion.

[Blumenfeld, p.260].

Notes on the Map

The plan at the top is a scan from Edmund Bacon, “Design of Cities” (1967). The plan is notable for what it shows, and what it omits. I have overlaid the ‘pedestrian sheds’ or 0ne-quarter mile radius circles, and some of the destinations left out. These include many constructions dating to the Baroque century: Place Vendôme, Place des Victoires, Place des Vosges, and the Grands Boulevards (Place Dauphin is included). Montmartre is arguably outside Paris, at least in the physical sense. However, the 19th century passages and arcades incubators of the flaneur, along with the festering problems of Les Halles, the Faubourg (Pompedou Centre & quartier), and Place de la Bastille clearly shape the city around them, and need mention. Missing on the Left Bank: Rue Tournon, Place l’Odeon, and La Sorbonne.