Adam Gopnik on the Ur-Gentrification Story of Place des Vosges
“It soon became apparent they were worth more as residences than as manufacturing spaces.”
Public squares in great cities come in two kinds, the declamatory and the domestic. There are the piazzas and courtyards where heretics get hanged and proclamations get read and crowds get stirred to action—the Place de la Concorde, the Piazza San Marco, the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, and, more decorously, Trafalgar Square all share this character. Then there is the smaller set of those squares that, looking inward, remake public space into a kind of shared hortus conclusus, a closed garden, where, even if the area covered is actually quite large, a hush of silence still greets us as we turn the corner, and the square seems to shun the street. Of this second kind, the inner courtyard within the city, the greatest of all must surely be the Place des Vosges in the Marais quarter of Paris. It is the supreme public space that feels private. While we know that it was made by kings for artisans and once, very long ago, had a special ceremonial place in French life—and even if we conscientiously walk around it (as this writer just did) and are reminded of how much bigger it is than we quite choose to recall—our experience of it is still intimate in ways that few other famous public places provide.
One of the world’s few great squares that really is a square, its equable, even spacing perhaps helps quiet it in our minds. A plain square surrounded by streets, each side filled with an identical procession of brick-and-slate dormered four-story buildings, its inner garden gated off and filled with a canopy of plane trees that covers children at play—in memory, it is softer than that. We see its shadowy arcades and hear the twilight sound of heels on granite, we recall children playing on the slide in the inner park beneath the plane trees, and imagine how, centuries before, horses would be put silently through their paces in the sand. Even the literature it has inspired is mostly sad. Inspector Maigret lived here and walked in these arcades, dwelling on the big murderous follies of the human heart, and the smaller, fussy ones of the French fonctionnaire class, with about equal melancholy.
History tells us that it is the Cinderella—or, as the French would say, the Cendrillon—of the world’s great squares. It was born to encourage manufacturing, quickly turned into a region for real estate speculation, then given its permanent, completely irrelevant title in one of the most cynical “naming opportunities” ever conceived before the modern football stadium. Its history, like Cinderella’s, is one of metamorphoses, from outcast to royalty then to outcast and back. It receded from the world’s consciousness of Paris, and from Paris’s consciousness of itself, to become a backwater and something close to a slum, only to return to view today. The Place des Vosges was hidden away in scullery work for centuries; it emerged again royally, or at least as a very high bourgeois, only in our own time. This means that, while it has something in common with such spaces as Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia or Gramercy Park in New York—as a residential square, in first form and continued feeling—it also has something in common with the small cobblestone streets and intersections of the cast-iron district in Manhattan, a great civic gem that for a long while, no one quite knew was there.
The quiddity, the magic spell, the resonance the Place des Vosges casts lies in some mood between the tranquil and the melancholic. Photographers struggle to find odd corners in sunlight to give it the look of the Great Public Space—to fit the expectations of what we expect a great public space to look like. In truth, its special magic is its secrecy and shadow. The arcades suggest less the flaneur’s casual encounters than the solitary walker’s shadowy stroll. (Paris in summer is very short on shade, and the Place des Vosges always supplies it.) Though not part of the original design, the plane trees’ canopy in its center hushes even the noise of the kids within. We are alone in a grand public square.
This play of private and public, so essential to our experience of the square, turns out to be implanted, like a twist of DNA, deep in its history. Where the Place de la Concorde and the Place Vendôme track the history of centralized French politics very precisely—the statue of Napoleon goes up, guillotines get put in place, then taken away—the history of the Place des Vosges is shaped by commercial forces. Indeed, the very name we know it by is all about money: In 1793 a national competition was held by the desperately indigent revolutionary government to see which department of France could pay its taxes to the people’s government most quickly—the first in would have the doddering old Place Royale renamed in its honor. The distant northern department of the Vosges won, and the name—which has, strangely, stuck through restorations and subsequent revolutions—was affixed for keeps.
So the Place des Vosges, née Royale—and for most of its first hundred years of life, that “Royale” is essential to its history—began in 1604 with what the Place des Vosges’s greatest contemporary student, the French architectural historian Alexandre Gady, has described as a burst of “pre-Colbertian politics”—meaning a royal edict that still depended on private investment, centralized in spirit without being centrally financed. It was then that Henri IV decided to build in Paris a new “integrated” space for the manufacture of silk and linens, modeled on, and meant to compete with, those in Milan. Henri, one of the few completely admirable characters in French history—a man of real public spirit, the author of the Edict of Nantes, which extended limited religious toleration to the Protestants—was an enthusiast for artisanal work as much as fine “art.” He planned a vast new square—approximately 460 feet on each face—bordered, in the original plan, on three sides only by uniform pavilions of slate brick and rock, faced with slate. The new buildings were to be models of a multiple-use efficiency that would have dazzled a Utopian urban planner in the first years of the 20th century. The four-story redbrick buildings that lined the square were meant to house factories on the second and third floors—the spacious scale they offer today to those lucky enough to live in them was, in effect, like those of the loft buildings of New York’s SoHo, derived from their original utilitarian purpose. Uniform in design, they were meant to be neatly uniform in purpose: Silk and textiles would be made on the second and third floors, while the workers who made them would live high up on the fourth floor, within the eaves, while shops to sell their goods would fill the ground floor of the arcades. The original plan of Place des Vosges is, in this way, oddly and presciently modern and public-spirited—an admirably “multipurpose” marriage of housing, industry, and retail.
The architect of this beautifully ambitious and unified plan is unknown. Various builders and designers have been nominated, but it seems likely that his (or their) identity was deliberately suppressed, or at least underplayed. The “irritating anonymity” of authorship, as Gady puts it, was purposeful; the king alone was to be understood as the author of his splendors. Indeed, the brick and slate and stone of the pavilions, which may look quaintly cozy to our eyes today, were meant to symbolize high luxury magnanimously spread, brick in the period being a rich man’s, not a bourgeois, material. The royal eye was intended to be felt everywhere, with only one pavilion markedly different from the rest. Placed on the center of the south side, and serving as a doorway to the rue St. Antoine, was one royal edifice where the king, presumably, could oversee his creation: the Pavillon du Roi.
After the assassination of Henri IV by a crazed fanatic Catholic in 1610, things quickly began to change. Though conceived as a concert of buildings, the ateliers of the Place Royale were built by individual speculation, and it soon became apparent to the 24 actual investors, in a manner eerily contemporary, that they were worth more as residences than as manufacturing spaces. The by now familiar process of gentrification, in which the well-off take over what was once meant for artisanal industry, in this case was collapsed into a single generation. Soon the fourth face of the square was filled in, while the central exercise space was gated and grilled and used for public ceremonials, royal marriages, and occasions.
The subsequent decay and forgetting of the Place des Vosges is hard to parallel in urban history. This is a case of a fashionable place falling into a kind of shabby, catch-as-catch-can existence with small, far from luxurious manufacturing businesses filling its spaces.
Though the tale of decline is fixed in place, that long falling away is inseparable from the changing Marais neighborhood around it, and so has its sweet spots. Throughout the 19th century, as immigrants flowed in from the east, the Marais became the vital Jewish neighborhood of Paris—more cautious and clandestine and ghetto-like in feeling than equivalent Jewish neighborhoods in America, perhaps, but still dense and rich and singular, with its own restaurants and little industries and institutions. Though the Place des Vosges itself took on only some of the Jewish character of its surrounding streets, and so remained in some ways apart from that neighborhood—it was still a “distinguished” enough address to attract (and keep) the great, albeit radical, poet and novelist Victor Hugo—in other ways it took part in the same change. (The Temple des Vosges, an Ashkenazi synagogue, fronts directly onto the entrance of the square.) Eugène Atget’s haunting photograph from 1898 of the perspective recessional of the vaulted arcades in the Place des Vosges shows a place utterly empty, anticipating De Chirico in its sense of the melancholy and mystery lodged deep in urban places. We might almost feel, looking at the Atget, that what was meant as a secular manufacturing space had become a piece of found ecclesiastical building, a church interior brought outside. (This depeopling of places, of course, is more or less constant in Atget’s work, but it should not be ascribed simply to technical limitations of his camera; his pregnant emptiness is purposeful, and emotional, too.) A handful of more mundane photographs of the Place des Vosges around 1900 show a place with a not unattractive—if rickety-tickety and run-down—feeling, with used goods for sale under the arcades: in feeling like that of the Marché aux Puces a decade or two ago, dusty but companionable.
The most vivid picture of the Place des Vosges toward the end of its time of decline is in Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels of the 1930s and 40s, where the Place is one of Maigret’s residences and the Marais his wandering area. The appeal of the Place des Vosges is that, for its entire faded splendor, it remained a tenement of types. There are working people, wealthier people, small shopkeepers, petit bourgeois, and workingmen, and, of course, a fonctionnaire like Maigret himself. Right up into the modern era, its back gardens were filled with small lotion-and perfume-makers.
The reclamation of the Place des Vosges only really began in the 1960s, under the pressure of Malraux and De Gaulle’s ambitious cleaning and restoration project for Paris, which swept off the encrusted dirt and swept in a new aristocratic class. Somewhat earlier, Corbusier imagined destroying the entire Marais, including the Place des Vosges, and replacing it with giant housing blocks. The renewal program has been, if anything, too successful. Now, like so much of Paris, the Place des Vosges is first of all a tourist destination—a place to buy an overpriced lunch in cafés filled with waiters who speak some weary bad-tempered English or German.
Yet public spaces, if they’re beautiful enough, survive tourism and overuse to retain their own feeling, cast their own spell. While a resident-visitor to Paris myself, another kind of tourist, I passed the happiest day of my life on a Saturday afternoon in the Place des Vosges. My son was five and his baby sister just the beautiful age of eight months, when eyes open wide and insight rushes in. We went to a café for crepes and omelets, then into the Hôtel de Sully, now made into a museum, to see a show of photographs. The baby, in tights and a white flapper-style dress that I had, as it happens, bought for her at a little store just off the St. Antoine exit of the Place—I regularly saw a doctor who worked and lived near there—suddenly, low to the ground, saw that the terrazzo floor was speckled with small spots of gilt that looked like coins. She clutched playfully at the little coins buried in the terrazzo floor of the beautiful house; the boy, catching on, pretended to dig them out and present them to her. She paused, smiled, and then laughed, her whole body alight with the joke. It was her first real joke seized and shared in company, and she vibrated with the discovery that you could have a false and invented experience that was as thrilling as a true one. He went on placing the imaginary coins in her hand, and she shut her hand again and again upon the nothing that was something because they had declared it so, and laughed confidently, uproariously—I had never seen someone outside the movies laugh at something as she did. I pushed her home in her pousette, her eyes shutting quickly after the joy of her first joke, her small hand still clutching and releasing the imaginary coins. The shadowy arcades lulled her to sleep and then the crisper air, while the bells on St. Antoine sounded in her head.
The king’s plan for the city had become a safe spot for her life. None of it, not the hotel or the floor or the arcades or the leafy square, would have been possible without one king’s ancient unifying gesture toward commerce and ceremony. It was his space, we had borrowed it. But then in another way it wasn’t, for he had borrowed it, too, from time. Now the kings were gone, even the royal name was gone, but other kinds of commerce, new kinds of ceremony, continued. The miracle of cities is that they are both there then and here now. A public square proves adaptable to a new time. We are lucky to live in old cities.
The Place des Vosges, as Simenon knew, is a melancholy place, because history is a melancholy thing. And history remains in this square in ways that cannot be wiped clean by the busyness that daily cleanses the ardoise of the Place de la Concorde or the luxury commerce that does the same for the Place Vendôme. More memory takes place in this square than in other places in Paris. Less history, perhaps, but more memory: Henri’s Paris, Hugo’s Paris, for that matter the postwar Paris that, oddly, still has a hold on us now—the old vanished sooty proletarian Paris that, if you saw Paris for the first time in the 1970s, will always be your first love—can be felt here even now, when it has mostly turned into the new Paris, the Paris made up of dormitories for the rich and cabinets for the elderly.
On a winter afternoon, the melancholy that is the rightful mood of the place—as public spirit is the mood of Trafalgar or carnival the rightful mood of San Marco—can still penetrate the visitor. We hear our own footsteps along the arcade, take in good smells from small windows, see a soul or two in the distance, and step again into Ma Bourgogne, Maigret’s café, for a vin chaud—and a crepe crème de marrons, if accompanied by a child—and brood for an hour on the vagaries of history and the beauty of escaping from them, and on the way that city spaces adapt themselves to times their makers never could have imagined, while remaining mysteriously true to type. Declamatory squares change their subjects as their subjects change. Domestic squares keep old secrets, even from themselves.
From CITY SQUARES by Catie Marron. Copyright © 2016 by Catie Marron. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.