A friend who sells vintage accessories has just sent me an old postcard of parc Monceau that she bought in the northeast of England. Postmarked 1905, it shows the rotunda designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the 1780s as a tollgate for a deeply unpopular customs duty. Now, as in 1905, the splendid neoclassical building sits at the main entrance to the park.
Comparing the postcard with a photograph taken this morning in much the same spot, what is interesting is the similarities between the two. Apart from the obvious seasonal differences, not much has changed at this grand Paris park in 106 years. The fine ladies promenading with their children have become scurrying commuters dashing across the park. The building looks rather cleaner, and there are the distracting features of a modern city parks department, including wheelbarrow, empty terracotta pot and bright green rubbish sacks. But the essential layout and feel remain the same: a wide, inviting pathway, shaded by large trees, leading to the rotunda and the gilded entrance gates, backed by two stately Haussmannian apartment blocks.
You would need to go back another fifty years to see real change at Monceau, and indeed throughout the capital. In the 1850s and 1860s Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann thrust grand boulevards through the old medieval city, in the first example of major urban planning. Haussmann is frequently reviled today as a destroyer of the charming byways and old buildings of Paris, and it is easy to forget that one of his aims was to introduce light and air into filthy slum districts.
A new book, Paris avant – après: 19e siècle, 21è siècle by Charles Marville and Patrice de Moncan (Editions du Mécène, 2010), shows the impact of Haussmann’s work, taking nearly four hundred photographs of the city from 1865, which capture old Paris in the midst of its transformation, and pairing each one with a photograph taken from the same place today. It is fascinating. Fellow blogger Adam has an interview with author Patrice de Moncan, who defends Haussmann’s legacy and wonders what future Parisians will think of today’s city.
As well as new boulevards, sewage systems, aqueducts, grand civic buildings and uniform apartment blocks, Haussmann also created a network of public parks and squares around the city ‘where the working classes could beneficially spend their leisure time… and all families, whether rich or poor, could reliably find healthy places for their children to play.’
For me, one of the most fascinating images from the book is a site in the 19th arrondissement. Previously a limestone and gypsum quarry, a rubbish dump, an outlet for the city’s sewage and – for many centuries – a gallows, the place had become a barren industrial scar until Haussmann and his team turned it into the city’s most dramatic park, Buttes-Chaumont. You can see from the two photos here that the steep, entirely artificial topography of the quarry was retained, but softened with extensive vegetation, including fine trees such as beech, chestnut and cedar of Lebanon. The arched viaduct is also still present (now known as the ‘suicide bridge’) and leads to the romantic Temple of Sybille, added in 1869. It was designed by Gabriel Davioud, who also created the beautiful gilded entrance gates at Monceau, visible in the postcard above.