May 23, 2014

‘How Paris Became Paris’ shows city’s influence on modern urban culture

Each facet of Paris’ long and varied history is captivating in a different way. A new, richly researched book explores aspects of the city’s path in pursuit of the elusive question of just what gives Paris its inimitable character.

Well before we had anything resembling a city on our shores, Paris was defining core aspects of what we still regard as modern urban culture. In “How Paris Became Paris,” Joan DeJean presents the city’s role as a precursor of urban modernity by taking us to the 17th century, a decisive period of change for the city.

One of the milestones in the emergence of an urban culture came in the summer of 1606, when Parisians witnessed the opening of the freshly built Pont Neuf, or New Bridge. For the first time, people were able to walk, ride and drive over what was not just a new bridge, but a new type of bridge.

It was an engineering feat, a broad structure suited to heavy traffic and therefore able to serve as the first real artery between the two banks, with a stop on the Ile de la Cite in between. It was the first Parisian bridge built without houses, affording views of the water from the deck. It featured a broad space for pedestrians to circulate, elevated and protected from vehicle traffic by high stone curbs.

Most important, it was not just utilitarian: It was treated as a place for urban civility and exchange, and it had a small square with a statue of the king, Henri IV, on horseback.

This audacious bridge was only one of the projects that marked the emergence of a new kind of city during the reigns of Henri IV and Louis XIII. Two major urban developments of the time, the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges) and the Ile Saint-Louis, each with an ordered layout and new amenities, contributed to the formation of the urban ideal that Paris was beginning to embody.

The next major projects for Paris came later in the century, when the Sun King, Louis XIV, again launched not just a new project, but the prototype of a new kind of urban space that has persisted until today. He took the bold step of having Paris’ ramparts pulled down and elm trees planted to create a promenade, a remarkably ambitious public space.

These “boulevards” became a tremendous success, immensely popular with Parisians and visitors alike for strolling and riding, a magnet for restaurants, cafes and, later, theaters. For two centuries before the building of the Eiffel Tower, the boulevards were the symbol of Paris and the emblem of its urban culture.

Like the Pont Neuf, they were places to see and be seen, engines of the high fashion for which Paris became equally famous.

Although to Parisians, the term “boulevard” should, strictly speaking, be applied only to these original promenades along the former rampart, others have since been built in cities around the world. The boulevard has become a defining element of what makes a city.

“How Paris Became Paris” is not exclusively about built space. DeJean covers La Fronde, the mid-17th-century period of revolt against the monarchy, and how it represented the emergence of modernity in terms of political thought, communication and urban services.

The greatest strength of “How Paris Became Paris” is the richness of its subject matter, which provides consistently compelling content throughout, but the period covered is vast and the scope broad, making the maintenance of a cohesive story at times challenging. The author asserts the interest and importance of the period at length, which is not only unnecessary given the quality of the material but detracts from the thrust of the narrative.

Nevertheless, if one has a strong interest for this fabulous subject and a willingness to ride through the slow parts, “How Paris Became Paris” is well worth reading.

Stephane Kirkland, the author of “Paris Reborn: Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann and the Quest to Build a Modern City,” is a writer, architect and urban planner based in Paris.

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City, by Joan DeJean (307 pages; Bloomsbury; $30)

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