If you don’t know what to expect, the Ile Saint-Louis may be as much of a shock as Greenwich Village in New York. There are no winding streets and cosy facades. Instead, it is a seventeenth-century planned speculation, ruled out with the utmost strictness. Four- or five-storey buildings face outwards solidly around the four quais; one long narrow street runs down the middle (rue
Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile) and two or three other short streets intercept it from side to side. The whole thing is a sober and consistent prose piece, oddly Cromwellian.
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It works perfectly: better, in this one case, than a more imaginative layout. The Ile is so small that the straight perspectives never go on for too long: yet, especially in the central street, there is an immense sense of being in a private world, accentuated by the severe elevations and the slit of light at the end. And the little grid of streets is given massive reinforcement by the treatment of the river. Three of the four quais have a lower level, done without fuss – nothing more than a few laconic road signs’ for the heavy water traffic. Otherwise it is the simple contact of water and stone, sofened by fully-grown trees. The upper branches are level with the street above: the leaves that much more effective, the facades behind largely clear of the tree-tops. It is an ordered, reasonable effect – the whole island composed as a facade, from water to chimney-pots.
Specific buildings and specific views are the least part of l’lle, as they are of Paris as a whole. The grandest hotels are inaccessible to the casual visitor, and enjoyment comes down to inflections, like the majestic drainpipes on Le Vau’s Hotel de Lauzun, swelling at the lower string course into dolphins to become a symbol of water-passage, and then reverting to their strict purpose. The only place where you can really sense past magnificence is at the former Hotel Chenizot (51 rue Saint-Louis) where a doorway embroidered with griffins leads you into a majestic courtyard: come down in the world, but still all alive.
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More than half of the city’s important buildings, but less than half of the character. The middle, including Montmartre, is eaten out by boulevards and the Gay-Paree kind of tourism; the west, around the Arc de Triomphe, is French-with-a-top-dressing but on the whole both dull and expensive. Life stays in a band between the geometrically straight rue de Rivoli and the sneaky, snaky rue Saint-Honore, one of the world’s great streets. Then east from there into the Marais, eighteenth-century elegance gone into slum and now on an uneasy way up to politeness. And then north-east, beyond the boulevard ring, into the Parisian East End. Slum, maybe, but full of native elegance. Menilmontant and Belleville are my personal Champs-Elysees.
AROUND THE LOUVRE Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois and friends
Facing the Louvre colonnade and a very good joke, probably unintended. The church gave itself a good deal of Gothic porch-work in the fifteenth century; in 1857 Hittorff set down a mairie near it using a pretty style which has Gothic and Renaissance details irretrievably scrambled. And the year after, Ballu deposited a semi-detached Gothic bell-tower which plays Couperin at midday. The whole lot looks like a trade card or a child’s handblog of architectural styles. To the Parisians of a hundred years ago it looked like a cruet.
The inside of Saint-Germain is quite different: sober and sombre, a sudden reminder that Paris is afer all a northern city, and that Amsterdam is nearer than Lyons. The choir is thirteenth-century, and the rest, which really sets up the rhythm, is late Gothic; the choir was later fitted up with classical detail which matches better than the original stratified work would have done. There is no room here for any more than the bald statement, big window above big arcade. It is handled with Wren-like objectivity and complete workmanlike success; the touch is very welcome just here, at the heart of polished classicism
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