The Tour of Guimardia (English Version)

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Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Un Maserati ne peut pas parcourir l’avenue Foch aussi vite qu’on peut accéder à la version française de ce texte en cliquant ici.

In its shopfronts cashmere sweaters the colors of macaroons. Behind their digicodes its reposing hameaux. In its ballot boxes three out of every four votes for Sarkozy. Hidden in their Maseratis its children dressed in black. The sixteenth arrondissement of Paris is a peninsula between the Bois de Boulogne (which belongs to it) and the Seine; there is the slight feeling of a border crossing, of breaching a feeble forcefield, upon entering or leaving. One can find here the works of Perret, Sauvage and, soon, Gehry, but it is the section of the Earth’s surface with the greatest concentration of buildings by Hector Guimard (1867-1942). The seizième is to Guimard as Oak Park is to Frank Lloyd Wright, except that it contains works from all periods of the architect’s career, from 1891 to 1927. Along the way one passes other buildings which support the contention, inherently arguable and worth arguing, that the sixteenth is the most architecturally interesting arrondissement. Annexed to the city in 1860, the seizième grew up in what we might call, with light apologies to Robert Caro, The Years of Hector Guimard, a complex, under-appreciated and richly contested period in the history of modern architecture. A new eclecticism began to rebel against the last moments of a played-out Haussmannization. Many modernisms were in play. Art Nouveau, which seems barely able to contain Guimard’s work, let alone the output of the entire period, may now seem the stuff of coffee table books, a particularly beautiful dead end, a fashion, a decorative style, but its surviving remnants hint of an influence more spiritual than physical.

A “wavelet” within the bigger tide of modernism, Art Nouveau becomes more interesting when it is situated in history. The style seems to have found its niche on the walls of museums, rather than on the street (MoMA’ owns one of Guimard’s édicules, for example). As a disciple of Viollet-le-Duc, Guimard was as interested in structural honesty as decoration. Guimard saw architecture through the arts; he loved architecture “because it includes as its essence, in its formula, in its function and in all its manifestations ‘all the other arts,’ without exception.” However original Guimard’s response to it, this familiar definition of architecture as the mother of the arts can be dangerous both for architecture, which seems slipperiest and most interesting when it it is considered as architecture en tant que telle, and for those other arts bundled together in the greasy fish wrapper, which tend to end up mediocre when forced to hold architecture’s plodding pace. Tarkovsky could have been talking about architecture when he wrote:

Cinema is said to be a composite art, based on the involvement of a number of neighboring art forms: drama, prose, acting, painting, music…In fact the ‘involvement’ of these art forms can, as it turns out, impinge so heavily on cinema as to reduce it to a kind of mishmash, or — at best — to a mere semblance of harmony in which the heart of cinema is not to be found, because it is precisely in those conditions that it ceases to exist. It has to be made clear once and for all that if cinema is an art it cannot simply be an amalgam of the principles of other, contiguous art forms: only having done that can we turn to the allegedly composite nature of film. A meld of literary thought and painterly form will not be a cinematic image: it can only produce a more or less empty or pretentious hybrid.

As easily as Guimard, architecture as the mother of the arts might produce such familiar “pretentious hybrids” as a corporate lobby strewn with dangly bits of welded steel.

Such projects are sometimes vaunted as collaborations between architects and artists, but one reason they usually end up unsatisfying, or at least heavily demarcated, is that architecture, unlike art, must always have a back. In even the most thrilling contemporary building there are areas — plant rooms, fire stairs, back offices — where architecture is not happening, or hardly. In the ‘front of house,’ the architect is master, in other areas he is a consultant, in others he is just some aesthete slowing down the engineers and builders. Given this situation, it is no wonder that architects from Guimard to Gehry have envied the control assumed by artists. In art there are no engineering drawings, no corridors mindlessly clad in plasterboard. Guimard (and contemporaries like Gaudi and Victor Horta) is interesting because his architecture comes close to being as entirely wrought as sculpture. In a gesamkunstwerk like the Castel Béranger one admires not only the multitude of sui generis details designed by the architect, but the discipline of a building in which architecture never slides into automatic pilot [1].

In an era before the International Style brought this increased dependence on engineering, Guimard was blessed with the prosperous clientele, familiar surroundings, relatively small projects and straightforward briefs which allowed him freedom. He could and was likely expected to design a building as an artwork from the façade to the doorknobs. The consequence was his vulnerability to changing fashions. For only a brief moment between the last of Haussmann and the First World War was Guimard possible; his was a Paris beginning to rebel against the beige sweep of the boulevards, craving the stimulation of World’s Fairs and underground railways. Guimard, like others in the Art Nouveau/Arts and Crafts/Jugendstil/Gaudi diaspora was not out to house the world so much as to nourish the spirit. Such a decorative style is hard to scale up — what is exquisite in a necklace starts to lose its intensity at the scale of an apartment building; a truly Art Nouveau skyscraper might be grotesque but it would certainly be expensive. Anyway, why should everything scale up? It is a particular mania of architecture that every idea, every style should be able to imply a world. Sometimes that is asking too much. Sometimes ideas have their own proper scale.

La Salle Humbert de Romans (1898-1901, démolie 1905).

La Salle Humbert de Romans (1898-1901, démolie vers 1905).

Of all the great architects of the twentieth century, Guimard has perhaps suffered the most from demolition. Though his buildings are mostly protected today, his architecture drifted well out of fashion after the First World War.  Even Guimard’s most famous contribution to Paris, his Métro entrances, were, because of their hand-painted signs, not quite finished on opening day and fell quickly out of fashion in favor of more austere designs. Today only about half of his houses and apartment buildings survive. Among the lost are three which might have been his most spectacular realizations: the site specific Métro ‘gares’ at Bastille and Étoile and the Salle Humbert de Romans (1898-1901), an 1150 seat concert hall, purported to have had an excellent acoustic, its organ designed in consultation with Saint-Saëns, which stood at 60 Rue Saint-Didier for only four years before being demolished following the bankruptcy of its owner [2]. These three works, along with the Castel Béranger,exemplify Guimard at his most muscular and personal, the farthest from Art Nouveau as the badge of a certain kind of bourgeois prosperity. Imagine how cherished that concert hall would be today.

Now let’s go walking…

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Though many of Guimard’s remaining works are clustered in the 75016 postal code, in the southern part of the 16th arrondissement near Auteuil, I think the best way to begin this ballade Guimardienne is by emerging into the dappled light of Avenue Foch through the architect’s greatest remaining Métro entrance at Porte Dauphine (1900). Other than the custom designs for Étoile and Bastille, Guimard designed a hierarchy of four standardized entrances for the Métro. The example at Porte Dauphine is the last of eight type B édicules remaining in Paris, and unlike some others, such as the often photographed one at Abbesses, it remains in its original position. Being the most elaborate of the standard entrances, the type B was erected at termini and a few other significant locations on the network. The organic detail of the cast iron and the delicately curved roof could not be better, especially under the big trees, but to my mind the real genius is in the enamel spandrel panels, dusty green on the outside and an indescribably lovely tangerine fade on the inside, like the vulnerable underbelly of some undiscovered beetle. What architect today could imagine such a color? It is not just a beautiful color but an invented color, as one finds in nature where a flower or a parrot isn’t red or yellow but the color of a flower or a parrot. The color of the enamel is nothing other than the color of the enamel. This édicule is quite rightly a national monument, but is it not also one of the best buildings in the world?

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Avenue Foch, the widest street in Paris at 110 meters, is worth a glance as well. Formerly known, more helpfully, as Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, it is Haussmann’s most notable percement in the seizième. The avenue is spectacular for being on a spectacular scale, and the many fine trees give a sense of repose which most grand avenues lack, but this is possibly the most expensive street in the city, and guards and gates rule the frontages on both sides. Though Usain Bolt might cross in about ten seconds, take your time negotiating the eight lanes of traffic to the southern side of the road.

Stanley Biwott (Kenya) remportant le marathon de Paris 2012 dans l'avenue Foch en 2h05'12. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Stanley Biwott (Kenya) remportant le marathon de Paris 2012 dans l’avenue Foch en 2h05’12. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

From here those keen for a walk can cross to the southern side of Avenue Foch and head deeper into the sixteenth toward the heart of Guimardia. Those short of time or sore of foot can take the RER C from Avenue Foch to Boulainvilliers, skip the next six paragraphs and meet us walkers at the Castel Beranger at 14 rue Jean de La Fontaine.

The area between Avenue Foch and the former villages of Passy and Auteuil is mostly quiet and residential, with few tourists other than the unlucky seeking replacement passports in the numerous embassies. A surprising number of hôtels particuliers have survived amongst apartment buildings in various styles. Though this area is not exactly the capital of Parisian street life, the architecture is remarkably diverse without any outstanding masterpieces (at least until we get to the Castel Béranger). Typical is the nicely proportioned little Place Chancelier Adenauer at the corner of Avenue Bugeaud and Rue des Belles Feuilles. The super posh Hotel St. James dominates the corner, but the glass office building across the street, vaguely high tech, more London than Paris, plays the contextualist game pretty well, if a little anxiously. Behind the hotel is one of several enormous, rather New Yorky modernist apartment complexes which hide in plain sight throughout the arrondissement. As in New York, in Paris the ritziness of a quartier seems to be written in its modern architecture; virtually identical buildings can be sought-after or seedy depending on their address. Although the example on Rue des Belle Feuilles is well-guarded by a fence and presumably several digicodes, it does fit into the street quite well, perhaps because of the way it continues the row of trees which begins behind the much more imposing masonry wall of the hotel. Just as we become a little too pleased with the open-mindedness of our good taste there is the remnant hôtel particulier at number 60 to remind us of the cost of modernism on such a scale.

The most direct route for those still walking is to follow Rue de la Pompe, which veers off to the right at the seven-way intersection of Avenue Victor Hugo (those wishing an accelerated trip toward the Castel Béranger can take the 52 bus, which mostly follows the walking itinerary).

We are getting ahead of ourselves, but Guimard’s last realized work in Paris, the apartment building at 36 Rue Greuze (1927-28) entails a one block diversion. To see it turn left off of Rue de la Pompe onto Rue Longchamp before the slightly unnerving Lycée Janson de Sailly, then right at the next corner (Rue Herran) and left on Rue Greuze, where the Guimard stands at the corner of Rue Decamps. It is an interesting building, but does not seem to have much to do with the Métro entrance we just saw. By this late stage Art Nouveau was so long out of fashion that any return would have been akin to the revival of postmodernism today (not that there aren’t signs of a comeback…). The façade is nevertheless lively, with more than a whisper of art deco, especially in the long vertical window of the stairwell, framed by stepped bricks with rounded corners. We are just a couple of blocks from Trocadero, and those willing to save the édicule at Porte Dauphine for another day can begin there (missing it entirely would be unthinkable). To return to Rue de la Pompe follow Rue Decamps, which takes you to the wide Avenue Georges Mandel and back to Rue de la Pompe near the Métro station of the same name.

For those requiring restauration, the boulangerie at 110 rue de la Tour makes the fourth best baguette in Paris, the sixth best croissant and the ninth best Paris-Brest in the Île-de-France [3].

Immeuble, 25 rue de la Pompe (C. Lecourtois, 1910). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Immeuble, 25 rue de la Pompe (C. Lecourtois, 1910). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

There are many buildings worth admiring on the way, but be sure to pause a moment to speculate on the reason why the upper floors of the apartment building at 25 Rue de la Pompe (C. Lecourtois, architect, 1910) are kinked away from the street line. My guess is that it was done to provide views across the gap created by the garden across the street and to improve the building’s solar access. As is often the case in the seizième, the ceramic decoration is lovely and the Phillipe Starck-designed restaurant on the ground floor doesn’t look bad either.

At the big La Muette intersection continue straight as Rue de la Pompe becomes Rue de Boulainvilliers. You will pass the Gare de Boulainvilliers, which was constructed for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, closed in 1924 for lack of passengers and reopened in 1988 as part of the RER C. Continue to Rue Jean de La Fontaine, which veers off to the right at the ultra-1960s Maison de la Radio (1963, Henry Bernard architect), where the art of broadcast sound lives on in the many excellent programs produced by Radio France and in particular France Culture. The enormous building is currently undergoing renovations which I hope won’t soften the beast too much.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Finally we are stopped by another beast at 14 Rue La Fontaine, the building which made Guimard famous, the apartment building known as the “Castel Dérangé,” “la Maison des Diables,” or more officially as the Castel Béranger. In 1898, Auteuil had been part of Paris for almost forty years, but was still isolated from the rest of the city (and Rue La Fontaine still feels hidden, especially on market days). In spite of contemporary appearances, Castel Béranger was built as affordable housing. Some of the building’s delirious energy stems from Guimard’s attempts to cut costs; dressed stone is used only as an accent around the entrance and certain windows, encouraging a riot of red, brown and glazed bricks to leap gleefully into the sky. Economizing on materials allowed Guimard to design the building from façade to wallpaper.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

In 1898 Guimard was 31, and Castel Béranger could be thought of as the culmination of his early years. The influence of Victor Horta, who Guimard met in Brussels in 1895, can be seen in the more obviously Art Nouveau details, such as the front door. The appeal of the building is its guileless mixture of Art Nouveau and Guimard’s own early picturesque, Gothic-influenced style. As we will see in his works of the 1890s, the young Guimard was fascinated by mixing brick and stone in forms derived more from country houses than Parisian apartment buildings. At the turn of the century Guimard vigorously pushed and pulled his roofs and walls; later on he would write his architecture onto a flatter, street-defining edge. It’s the difference between an architecture which jumps and an architecture which flows, between montage and mise-en-scène.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Guimard’s decoration is here at its most confident and strange, but the plan is picturesque as well. In contrast to the later (and ongoing) obsession with the open plan, an apartment with a quirky layout can seem bigger than it is by evoking the romance and surprise of grander buildings. On the outside Castel Béranger sets up a complex relationship with the street by opening a ‘quiet’ façade onto the Hameau Béranger, a rare hameau open to the public. It is generous with its façade. People don’t often realize that one reason why many modern buildings are so bland is that architects are under pressure to save money by minimizing the surface area of their façades. The façade becomes a skin rather than, as at Castel Béranger, a big old overcoat full of secret pockets.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Le Castel Béranger (1898). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

This façade is most famous for having won the first “Concours de Façades de la Ville de Paris,” a competition which was run by the city of Paris until the 1930s to encourage good design in the post-Haussmann era. It both made Guimard famous and, as the reference to “diables” suggests, revealed the tension created by this new, asymmetric, Gothic-flavored architecture. A building awarded for its façade, like a baguette awarded for its appearance, risks being reduced nothing but crust and air. The Castel Béranger led to enough commissions to keep Guimard busy, and he would survive the decline of Art Nouveau by changing his style, but he never achieved his dream of what one might call democratized decoration. Aside from the Métro entrances — which themselves fell out of favor by the early 1900s — his attempts to popularize his style, including selling ready-made fixtures through a catalogue, were thwarted by its inherent expense and strangeness. There is something in Art Nouveau, a devil maybe, which keeps it outside the mainstream of architectural history. If they exist, the “tangible and permanent results” that Guimard expected from the new art of the new century are subtle, perhaps invisible.

Immeuble, 43 rue Gros (1909-11). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Immeuble, 43 rue Gros (1909-11). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Immeuble, 43 rue Gros (1909-11). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Immeuble, 43 rue Gros (1909-11). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Guimard did not manage to arrange his seizième oeuvre in chronological order, so the next building on our walk, the group of apartments which occupy the small block defined by Rue La Fontaine, Rue Gros and Rue Agar (17-21 Rue La Fontaine, 43 Rue Gros, 8-10 Rue Agar), is a jump in time, scale and style. By the time he designed this complex in 1909-11, Guimard was secure enough to act as property developer for his own designs, a logical vertical integration undertaken by very few architects in history, perhaps because good architecture and profit are rare bedfellows. What overflowed with exuberance in the Castel Béranger down the street is here refined, still exquisite, but a bit somber. If Castel Béranger piles up ideas to the point where the familiar elements of an apartment building become almost unrecognizable, a decade later every element of the architecture has its roots in the dressed limestone and shallow bow-windows of the traditional Parisian apartment building. Revved up by the earlier work, it is tempting to regret what looks like conservatism, but how far could the wildness of the Castel Béranger have been pushed? Guimard was not Gaudi.

Immeuble Trémois (1909-10). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Immeuble Trémois (1909-10). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Continue down Rue La Fontaine and turn left on Rue François Millet, where at number 11 stands the Immeuble Trémois (1909-10). The building shares the restraint of the La Fontaine/Gros/Agar complex, but gains a bit of texture from the infill of brick between the carved stone windows. The quality of construction is superb, or at least it appears so from the street. This turn of the century period might have been one of the last in which ordinary background buildings were so solidly constructed as a matter of course.

From the same period but with more verve is the Hôtel Mezzara of 1910-11, just a few steps further down Rue La Fontaine at number 60. The façade is much more three dimensional, it folds in from the line of the street on the southwestern edge like a piece of cardboard [4]. Such a bold mixture of elements which want to be symmetrical, like the central mass of balconies and bow-windows, within an overall asymmetry is in its way as bold as the Castel Béranger’s overt eccentricity.

Hôtel Mezzara (1910-11). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Mezzara (1910-11). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Turn onto Rue Ribera, which is the next street on the right and follow it to the intersection of Avenue Mozart at the Jasmin Métro station. Turn left onto Rue Jasmin and right onto Square Jasmin where we jump ahead another decade to the hôtel particulier at number 3 (1921-22). After the First World War Guimard invented a system of rapid construction in concrete block comparable to similar systems designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin. In spite of his hopes that others would take up the system, this little hôtel remains the only example. The detail of the plaster coating gives the bow windows in particular something of the thinness and verticality, but without the structural innovation, of a building by the Perret brothers, who also built often in the sixteenth.

Maisons La Roche-Jeanneret (Le Corbusier, 1923-25), actuellement la fondation Le Corbusier. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Maisons La Roche-Jeanneret (Le Corbusier, 1923-25), actuellement la fondation Le Corbusier. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Turn right back onto Rue Jasmin, and right again onto Rue Henri Heine where the Immeuble Guimard at number 18 (1926) was the architect’s last residence in Paris before he fled to New York with his wife in 1938. As at 36 Rue Greuze, the absence of anything resembling Art Nouveau testifies to how far the style drifted out of fashion after the war. Still, it is articulated eloquently, especially in the stepped upper levels. Those seeking to sample the new modernism of the 1920s need only walk around the corner to the Fondation Le Corbusier at 8 Square du Docteur Blanche and the tranquil and immaculately kept Rue Mallet-Stevens, built by the eponymous architect (surprisingly, Le Corbusier liked Art Nouveau, which he called a “magnificent gesture”)[5].

Hôtel Guimard (1912). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Guimard (1912). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Cross Rue Jasmin and follow Rue George Sand back to Avenue Mozart, which like Rue de la Pompe is one of the spines of the seizième. At number 122 is what might be considered the second climax of the walk after the Castel Béranger, the Hôtel Guimard (1909-12), which housed the architect’s apartment and studio. Here the Gothic-influenced asymmetry of le Duc’s is written with the later Guimard’s beige material palette in a recognizably Art Nouveau idiom. Like many houses constructed by architects for themselves, the site is difficult, nothing but a triangular scrap at the corner of two streets (such leftovers are scattered throughout Paris). The challenge of the site seems to have awakened Guimard’s imagination, above all on the first floor with its two oval rooms which would have pleased Borromini.

Hôtel Guimard (1912), plan du 1er étage. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Guimard (1912), plan du 1er étage. Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Guimard (1912). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Guimard (1912). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Guimard (1912). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Guimard (1912). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Likely because it was his own house, Guimard pushed harder than he might have in his speculative commissions of the period. The difference between the Guimard of 1898 and the Guimard of 1912 reminds me of the change in Frank Gehry’s style between his own house in Santa Monica and the ‘CATIA[6]’ period which began in earnest with the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997 (already fifteen years old!). In both cases the earlier projects gain their charm from a wink at vernacular forms and a seemingly-rough collage-like approach to composition which later smoothed out into a flowing juxtaposition of expressive forms against plainer backdrops. At the Hôtel Guimard this flow links the conventional elements of the Parisian apartment building — bow windows, balconies, heavy entrance doors — with flatter walls and moments of explosive whimsy like the castle-like cylinder to the left of the entrance. From the curving, nearly billowing flow of lines and planes one could isolate compositions which would not be out of place on a recent Gehry or Zaha Hadid (not that we need to relate old architecture to the present day in order to enjoy it…).

Immeuble Houyvet (1927). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Immeuble Houyvet (1927). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Across the Villa Flore at 120 Avenue Mozart, the Immeuble Houyvet (1924-27), along with 36 Rue Greuze, demonstrates Guimard’s marked turn away from Art Nouveau toward a personal version of Art Deco or the more traditional works of the Bauhaus. The small site entails a dramatic vertical emphasis rare in Paris. All that is flowing at number 122 is here stepped and folded. Some quality of “Guimardness” has been lost but the complex angular play of the two bow windows shows that the later buildings have their own genuine appeal, a charm all the more moving for existing in the face of an era which Guimard believed no longer believed in “mystery,” a word essential to his architecture. In any case it shows Guimard’s career was not a simple matter of youthful exuberance ceding to later conservatism.

The next cluster of Guimards is further south. The quickest route is to follow Avenue Mozart to the next big intersection (Rue La Fontaine), where Rue Pierre Guérin pops off to the left. After crossing Rue d’Auteuil this becomes Rue Boileau, one of the most charming of the arrondissement, a buffet of intriguing and surprising buildings amongst peaceful, sun-dappled gardens. Avenue Foch seems the main street of another planet entirely.

At number 34, on the site of a town hall burned during the Commune of 1871, is the Hôtel Roszé (1891), Guimard’s earliest surviving work in the sixteenth arrondissement. The building is difficult to see behind vegetation, but already foreshadows the Castel Béranger in its play of varied colors of brick and stone. In the sense that Guimard’s instincts are not yet translated into the familiar decorative themes of Art Nouveau which he picked up in Brussels — the whiplash curves and cast iron flower stems which we almost glide over in the later works — these pre-Béranger works reveal the essence of Guimard’s inventiveness. Their small scale also allows them to be fully wrought, like a piece of jewelry.

After exploring the Rue Boileau, head back up to Rue Molitor and turn right. Hemmed in by its neighbors, at number 1 is the Hôtel Delfau (1894). Like the Hôtel Rosze this is a real house in the city, set well back from the street. It is nicely proportioned and well kept almost to the point of seeming institutional, but the tidy gray bricks and near lack of ornament put this at the conservative end of Guimard’s oeuvre.

Hôtel Jassedé (1893). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Hôtel Jassedé (1893). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Exuberance roars back as we turn right on Rue Chardon-Lagache and consider the Hôtel Jassedé (1893) at number 41. Though still a country house in the city, the seeds of the Castel Béranger are easily recognizable — the internal stairs readable on the outside as diagonally stepping windows, the cascade of pitched roofs, the polychrome brick and rough stone mixed with delightful ceramic infill, including some cheerful sunflowers. The entrance gate is especially superb with a pitched roof floating over a brick arch; not structurally logical, but an erudite one-liner any post-modernist would envy.

A later house, the Hôtel Deron-Levent (1905-07) stands across the grandly named and tightly gated Grande Avenue de la Villa de la Réunion from the Hôtel Jassedé. It is remarkable how neatly the works on this walk seem to break down into periods — pre-Castel Béranger, the full on pre-war Art Nouveau of the Hôtel Guimard, the restraint of the early 1920s and angular quasi-Art Deco/Bauhaus works of the late 1920s [7]. The Hôtel Deron-Levent sits chronologically between the Castel Béranger and the Hôtel Guimard, and to my eye has a great deal in common with a restrained but recognizably Art Nouveau design like the Immeuble Trémois. The emphasis in the hôtel particulier is as vertical as in the apartment building, with ornament confined to the stone elements and balcony ironwork. The one zany moment, which would not be out of place at the Castel Béranger, is the gutter which bridges, practically leaps, across open space in front of the attic window.

Immeuble Jassedé (1903-05). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Immeuble Jassedé (1903-05). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Continue south on Rue Chardon-Lagache for a few steps and turn left on Rue Jouvenet. Bear left to follow Rue Lancret to its end on the busy Avenue de Versailles. The seven storey prow which rises from this corner is the Immeuble Jassedé (1903-05) constructed for Louis Jassedé, the developer and loyal Guimard client who also commissioned the Hôtel Jassedé and the Villa Jassedé (1893) in Issy-les-Moulineaux. The dressed stone and brick façade along the avenue indicates the bourgeois family apartments within, while the brick portion along Rue Lancret was intended for residents of more modest means (funny that most architects today would consider themselves lucky to work with the nice hard bricks which cloak the ‘poor’ parts of such buildings, not to mention enlightened property developers like Louis Jassedé…). The roof folds continuously around the corner, unified by the idiosyncratic baseball cap-like window overhangs, but the façades are articulated to read as different buildings. What first appears pretty sober along the avenue is cheered up by playful little oddities such as the mixture of triangular and semi-circular balconies and the big, bulging asymmetrical bow window which celebrates the turning of the corner (and with perfect functionalist logic since the two parts of the building, like the two streets which form the corner, are asymmetrical).

The most pleasant way to the next Guimard, the Atelier Carpeaux (1894-95), is to go back down the Rue Lancret, left at the next corner onto Rue Jouvenet, right on Rue de Musset and left onto Rue Chardon-Lagache, one of few opportunities to cross the formidable boundary of the Boulevard Exelmans, the local guise of the Boulevards des Maréchaux (which may one day be tamed by the expansion of the T3 tram all the way around Paris, though I fear resident opposition will leave the seizième the missing link for some time to come). The atelier is squeezed between apartment buildings from two époques at number 39. The building, which was constructed by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s (1827-75) widow in his memory, would not be recognizable as Guimard’s work without his familiar lapidary signature (shouldn’t architects always sign their work?).

From Entretiens sur l'architecture, vol. 2 (1863) by Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

From Entretiens sur l’architecture, vol. 2 (1863) by Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. 

To get to the last stop, the École du Sacre-Coeur (1895), follow Rue Boileau away from Boulevard Exelmans into a loose web of quiet streets. Take Rue Claude Lorrain, which has on its left the secluded “three villas,” a network of tiny lanes, houses and gardens. Avenue de la Frillière must be just about the narrowest “avenue” in Paris; follow it to the left where at number nine fans of Viollet-le-Duc will immediately recognize one of his most famous drawings come to life. The sloping columns and the beefy riveted steel beam they support are intact and well-maintained, but the building has suffered many abuses, above all the glass infill wall behind the columns which invades the covered play area which was the reason Guimard lifted the building off the ground in the first place. Though the school has lost its original function and logic, as always we should be grateful it still exists at all.

École du Sacre-Coeur (1895). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

École du Sacre-Coeur (1895). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

***

Among cyclists there is an adage, not necessarily true in the age of e-commerce, about buying a bike: “light, cheap, strong; pick two.” For architects with the ambition to do real architecture the corresponding choice might be: “original, influential, good; pick two.” Mies was happy to be good rather than original and as a bonus he also got to be influential, although Le Corbusier got to be all three. From ancient times until a certain point in the history of architecture, from Isidorus of Miletus to Palladio, all we know are influential architects. Architects who are good and original, but not influential — such as Guimard, Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jørn Utzon, Louis Kahn, H. H. Richardson —  are creatures of modern times. Their work may be loved, but the price of originality is a dead end, or, more kindly, an end in oneself. The good-originals leave behind buildings rather than dogmas.

What would be the influence of an architect like Guimard? As with Wright, whose work was imitated badly by his disciples, it is very easy to imagine a horrific translation of a Guimard window frame applied to dusty screen doors on any new world cul-de-sac. This entertaining nightmare ignores the complexity of influence in architecture. Influence is not a question of revering the surfaces of the past (that’s my job…) so much as the discovery of new approaches, of, with apologies to the excellent France Culture radio program, nouveaux chemins de la connaissance hidden in the architecture of the past. There is architecture which recoils from this discovery and architecture which is open to it. As Robert Venturi was inspired by the bizarre and mysterious architecture of Frank Furness (1839-1912), it is easier to imagine a contemporary architecture which improvises freely on the theme of the Castel Béranger or the Frank Gehry of the 1970s, than the full-on Art Nouveau of the later Guimard or the Gehry of the CATIA years. Influence requires an imagination — a critical imagination — which craves a certain mysterious indeterminacy and even incompleteness.

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Métro Porte Dauphine (1900). Photo © 2012 Alan Miller.

Guimard had his influence on the collective unconscious of Paris more than its physical space. If a transcendent piece of architecture like the édicule at Porte Dauphine has become, through no fault of its own, close to a cliché of touristic Paris, it and Guimard’s other works are also physical objects in themselves. This little object, just barely a building, is Paris in miniature. At first glance it seems familiar but after one looks and looks and looks some more it suddenly becomes something else; it is revealed as a thing independent of the idea, almost the logo, frozen on a postcard. The immaterial Paris which is the dream of world tourism is the crust which protects the Paris where things are the things they are, where the Eiffel Tower exists as much as the rain or the sun. The moment when one is all of a sudden struck by the weight an object exerts on the earth is magic. It isn’t a matter of a real Paris versus a false Paris so much as a Paris of received ideas and a Paris of physical objects which exist simultaneously but separately. It’s the difference between a digital and an analog city.

Paris is the city of love, but not in the way you think. Whatever happens on park benches, the enduring love in Paris, and the most basic difference between it and a lot of other cities of its size is Parisian’s love for Paris. This love is the true guardian of the city, the love described by the historian René Heron de Villefosse when he wrote that Haussmann “lacked culture, taste and the anxious sensibility which bestows a true love of the city.” (Manifestations of this love are scattered high and low: the RATP offers an excellent free app called “J’aime ma ligne,” signs encouraging dog owners to pick up after their pooches say “J’aime mon quartier; je ramasse.”)

Amour-ville au Marais. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

L’amour-ville au Marais. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Cities which are loved tend to have an idea of themselves. When a nation has an idea of itself the consequences slide towards iffy; an oversimplification which excludes or the patriotism of downright scoundrels in t-shirts. A city is singular enough that its idea of itself can be physically manifested [8]. Guimard, even though his architecture was out of fashion for much of his own career, is intrinsic to the idea of Paris. The particulars of his ornamentation are less important than the way that his kind of ornamentation asserts the power and the necessity of tiny delights in a city. We live in times in which questions urbanism and infrastructure, and most particularly transport, seem — and probably are — more important than the purely architectural, aesthetic agenda of someone like Guimard, but without poetry, without love, even urbanism of the best intentions is nothing. The TGV and the Métro, for example, are works of poetic engineering.

Remember that Art Nouveau doesn’t do S, M, L and XL; it only goes from XXS to M at a pinch (however thrilling Art Nouveau City planning might have been — Guimard’s envisioned “new cities where the roofs will rival the gardens of Semiramis!” — it never happened). Paris remains lovable — and remaining genuinely lovable while being the most visited tourist destination on Earth is an almost impossible accomplishment — by being itself, its local, specific, frilly, historically loaded self at every scale from the price and design of a paper Métro ticket to the sheepish seventies charm of the RER to the sewers (Haussmann’s grand sweep contradicted the medieval spirit of the city as it stretched nearly ad absurdum the city’s monumental tendencies; to my eye French architecture today continues to wrestle or, better, play with these two ideals to often marvelous effect). Today the particularity of Guimard protects Paris against the horrific oxymoron of the ‘global city.’ If we look down on a city from too far away we risk dulling our minds to the wonder of a well-glazed brick.

[1] Confining architecture to the front of house is one of the characteristics of modernism. The modern city suddenly had new building types which relied on technology and engineering beyond the competence of the architect. Such complication continues today to the point where among the peloton of consultants on a big project are professionals whose job, like a kind of lay priest, is to interpret the local building code for the architect. A Gothic cathedral is a total artwork in a way that no building is allowed to be today. It is also pretty chilly and kind of echoey — let’s put in a HVAC system and call the acoustician.

Though it is trickier now for architects to resist their own marginalization, it is not futile and some interesting buildings have resulted from the attempt. By putting the services on the outside of the Centre Pompidou, Piano and Rogers subverted the separation between a building and its poche, the dark space where ducts and pipes are traditionally hidden. By making the guts into decoration they set up their entire building as a framework rather than what was expected of them as architects — a composed form clad with a composed façade (many of which both architects have designed since). As Paxton did at the Crystal Palace (1951), Piano and Rogers dodged the system by designing a system rather than a building, or a system which accidentally became a building since the form of the Pompidou has become iconic enough to serve as the museum’s logo.

[2] The client was the Societé Anonyme des Immeubles of Rue Saint-Didier, the instigator a Dominican monk named Père Lavy and the benefactor Mme. Heine, who donated 500,000 francs. Père Lavy was banished from the order shortly after the opening and after the dissolution of the Societé, the hall was sold at auction in 1904.

[3] According to the 2012 Grand Prix de la baguette de tradition française de la ville de Paris (results here (PDF)), the 2011 Concours du meilleur croissant au beurre, (results here (PDF)) and the 2011 Concours de la meilleure pâtisserie Francilienne (results here (PDF)). These are important documents to have on hand…

[4] Parisian architecture of the turn of the century, perhaps above all in the sixteenth, played with its alignment to the street in a way which would not have been allowed under Haussmann and the result, compared to certain later modern buildings, is more a pleasant complexity than an alienating chaos. In New York the Seagram Building’s setback from Park Avenue was marvelous when the building opened in 1958. As soon as other towers nearby imitated it, the surprise was lost, the idea became boring and the avenue wind-swept. The unfortunate consequence of such excess is the strict regulation in many cities of the alignment between a building and the street. Buildings which play hide and seek with the street in the manner of the Hôtel Mezzara are now hard to find, except perhaps at Rue Rebière in the next arrondissement over.

[5] Most histories of architecture don’t convey the full richness of the 1920s. Proof is everywhere in Paris, but nowhere more surprising than in the vicinity of the Jardin du Luxembourg, where the Institut d’Art et d’Archéologie (1925-30) at the Sorbonne, a contemporary of Corb’s important early houses, rises like a brick cliff. It was designed by Paul Bigot, an architect who spent thirty four years building a model of ancient Rome. If Louis Kahn politely asked his brick what it wanted to be and settled for the first answer off the top of the brick’s head, Bigot came back the next day and conducted a full interrogation.

l’Institut de l’art et de l'archéologie (1925-30, Paul Bigot). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

l’Institut de l’art et de l’archéologie (1925-30, Paul Bigot). Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

[6] CATIA (Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application) is (French) software developed for the aeronautical industry which allowed Gehry to capture the ‘improvisatory’ forms of his physical models in digital models which could be rigorously defined and costed.

[7] There is an almost eerie balance to this walk in general — the two tight clusters of Guimard buildings with the pre-Béranger works all in the south, the similarities between the way 122 and 120 Avenue de Mozart, and the Hôtels Jassedé and Deron-Levent face one another across the street, separated by 15 and 14 years respectively…

[8] I think Sydney would be a lot better off if it organized itself around the idea of “the luxuriance of nature” rather than “the double oxymoron of the global city at the end of the world with two casinos where change punishes beauty.”

To download an analog map of the Tour of Guimardia, click here.

To download an analog map of the Tour of Guimardia, click on the image above (PDF, 2.4MB). 

Alan Miller

About Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

1 Comment

  1. Richard M Harrington on Facebook

    Je ne comprende pas. Mais n’est ce pas important.

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