By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada
The Café Marly, which faces into the courtyard of the Louvre, is the perfect place to contemplate some of the features of Paris style. It’s not the best restaurant in town, by any means, but the location is second to none.
Now, if you are there in Fashion Week, you will see bright, voluble young women dressed in tomorrow’s fashions today (this is a handy place for business meetings when the media tents are set up in the nearby Tuileries Gardens), but that’s not what we mean.
We are talking about the view through the arches toward the extraordinary juxtaposition of the old and the new that today makes up the Louvre complex. The oldest parts of the structure date from the Renaissance, the portion of the building opposite the Café is mid 19th century, and the centre is a late 20th century evocation of ancient Egypt.
Paris, a modernist fantasy
This is one of the things we love about Paris. In North America, older buildings are either demolished completely or reverently preserved. “Adaptive reuse” means exposed brick on the interior. In Paris, it seems, you can mix things up. We are endlessly fascinated by Paris décor magazines (such as Côté Paris) that show ultra-modern interiors in 17th century hôtels particuliers. Or a block of rigid 19th century façades interrupted by a modernist fantasy.
How about a little neon with your ormolu clock? An avant-garde floor covering on the 17th century parquet? A wild graffiti-inspired painting on the faded boiseries? Why ever not?
It doesn’t always work, by any means. The French fondness for modernism has led to some jarring introductions. Consider the Pompidou Centre. It’s been there long enough for one to develop a sort of cosy familiarity with the exposed pipes and the primary colours, we suppose, and the view from the interior (especially the top-floor lounge known as Georges) is splendid, but it still rather explodes out of the ancient neighbourhood, which seems all the more fragile by comparison.
The ultra-modern buildings in the Défense area to the west of Paris can also be overwhelming. And the new library (La Bibliothèque Nationale de France) on the left bank is imposing, but hard to warm to.
Still, the shiny white boutiques wedged into ancient buildings, the severely minimalist interiors behind rococo facades, the modern sculptures in ancient parks remind us that this is not a city that has been turned into a museum. Paris keeps refashioning itself, experimenting with shapes and surfaces and styles. So should we all.
Hôtels particuliers are the individual mansions that dot Paris. Each originally accommodated a single household, unlike the usual Paris apartment building. Most of these mansions are centuries old, entered through a porte-cochère (an entrance large enough to admit a carriage) which leads to a courtyard (la cour). Nowadays, many have been turned into offices; only the very wealthy today can afford to live in un hôtel particulier. Boiseries are wall panellings made of wood.
Vocabulary: French to English translations
Boiseries: Wall panellings made of wood.
Façade: Face of front of a building.
Hôtel particulier: Individual mansion.
La cour: Courtyard.
Parquet: Floor made of parquetry, a patterned wood inlay used to cover a floor.
Porte-cochère: Large entrance.
Rococo: Fanciful but graceful asymmetric ornamentation in art and architecture that originated in France in the 18th century.
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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
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