Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones.

The key foci of this book are urban development and population growth. In the first three chapters, we witness the ups and downs of a small island in the middle of the Seine. Continually, its indigenous population, later identified as the first Parisians, is imposed upon and influenced by successive interlopers. From the Romans through the Capetian monarchs, we watch as the outline of ancient Paris grows in population and construction. Chapter Four, “Paris Reborn, Paris Reformed,” will establish a pattern that we will see throughout the rest of the book: presenting the changes occurring in Paris, and the building projects associated with those changes. If you’re already asleep, Jones’ book is not for you.

This approach to the study of Paris does have its limits. It maintains a traditional historical focus on the wealthy and powerful, since they are the builders and planners. The less powerful are presented only insofar as they create urban challenges to overcome. In addition, some very important events in the life and culture of Paris are ignored because they do not affect planning or population growth.

French Enlightenment culture and ideas, arguably the greatest intellectual contribution of France to the rest of Europe, rates four paragraphs. Buildings and commercial growth during this period cover 32 pages. One could debate from the perspective that a greater proportion of city residents were affected by the changing composition of buildings and business interests, than they were by topics of salons and belles-lettres. But that’s like saying “we should judge McDonalds to be the most important American contribution to 20th Century North American culture, because the number of their restaurants grew so precipitously during that period and many citizens ate there. Even Voltaire is a pawn in the discussion of urban planning. No mention of Candide or his social critiques, just a short blurb involving Les Embellissements de Paris where he proposes combining “humanitarian, hygienic and utilitarian considerations with a concern for urban beauty” (Jones, pp. 207-8).

Some important occurrences in French history that did affect the populace at large, but do not involve urban growth, receive little attention as well. The Dreyfus Affair divided parties and households for a decade. It is dispatched in one paragraph, with just two other mentions in name, within this 566 page book.

We get a reprieve from tales of urban renewal in the first part of Chapter Seven, “Revolution and Empire.” This is largely due to the fact that benefactors of construction were more busy preserving their wealth, their political positions and their heads, than building. But then it’s back to cityscapes with a vengeance as we head into Napoleonic projects, through Baron Haussmann’s reinvisioning of the city, and ending with Mitterrand’s “Grands Projets.” There are a couple of lulls in construction during wars and occupations. But mostly it’s build, build, build.

For tourists interested in the history of buildings they will see in Paris, this book is a fine resource. Architects, urban planners and those interested in municipal physical growth, will find Jones‘ book a fascinating read. But those more interested in a cultural and political history will be disappointed by the dearth of examination.

Jones, Colin. Paris: Biography of a City. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2005.

For more on French History and culture see: