Fast forward in time, with a typically French sense of history President Mitterrand launched his own Grand Projets, built between 1981 and 1998, including the delightful Musee d’Orsay, built in, and celebrating, the Beaux-Arts railway station, the once controversial glass pyramid adorning the courtyard of the Louvre and the National Library or ‘Bibliothèque Nationale de France’ if we are going to be French about it. Together they cost a staggering amount. Almost sixteen billion Francs – which translates, in US Dollars as ‘an awful lot of tax payers’ money’. Some were started before Mitterrand came to office but he made changes and adopted them.
British Architect Richard Rodger’s Pomidou Centre, recognisable by its external plumbing is, perhaps, the best known but La Grande Arche de La Defense, officially opened in 1989 but not completed until some time after, is either a building with a hole or a building built around a hole, it is hard to know which. The 110 meter high/wide/deep cube was designed by Danish architect Johann Otto von Spreckelsen and his countryman engineer Erik Reitzel. Spreckelsen decided he had had enough around a year into construction and handed his responsibilities to French architect Paul Andreu.
The Grande Arche, built on the edge of Paris in a less than lovely commercial / business neighbourhood was looking unloved when I last visited, taking a day out from the massive furniture and homewares show Maison et Object, admittedly on a very wet Sunday when the local shops and the government offices that form the sides of the structure were deserted. The office that sold tickets for the long closed viewing platform is still there, but deserted. Homeless men drinking beer from cans outnumbered visitors and there was little to tempt anyone else to loiter. Yet, the arch, big enough to fit Notre Dame inside, is still spectacular. It is cleverly situated to line up with Palais de Congres, the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees and the Louvre, all visible on clear day. The building also lines up, sidewise as it were, with the Eiffel and Montparnasse Towers. This is city planning on the grand scale. The Arch is slightly angled shadowing what happens at the Louvre. A convenient solution to the problem of having to incorporate metro stations and motorways that run underneath. There is a point to all this. I’m trying to illustrate how that first impression of Paris, what you see when look at it from a distance, is deliberate and designed, the product of vision determination and no little investment.
Once the initial, overwhelming impression of Gallic grandeur and elegance passes there is a moment when the cities discomforts become apparent. It is true that, like most European capitals, Paris has its share of street hustlers, unattractive graffiti, crime and grime. But to linger on that second impression is to miss the point. To really appreciate the City of Lights you need to look at the details, you need to immerse yourself in them.
In Paris, people really do stand in line several times a day to buy bread. To understand why, join them and taste the bread. Submit to the temptation to break off a piece as you leave the shop, eat it, just as it is, straight away. That will be the moment when you resolve never again to buy fluffy white slices wrapped in plastic. And as you chew on, to my mind, the greatest French art form, look closely at the streets, the door handles, the window displays, street signs and a million cared for details.
The Pont des Arts, famous from the film Amelie has become, part of the Parisian tourist trail. While the city authorities worry about the consequences of their weight, romantic couples continue to write their names on padlocks, lock them to the bridge and throw away the key. There are love bridges all over the world now but it makes perfect sense that it started in Paris.
And here’s my other point. Yes there is the beauty of Paris that comes from planning and building on the grand scale but look closely at the detail, look at the things people do because they care about it. That’s love.