A tale of two cities' architectures

'The centre of London is higgledy-piggledy. It was a miracle that Nash found aroute for Regent Street'
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The Independent Online

Having spent most weekends in Paris since April, I have been asking myself why the French capital is so different from London. I don't say better, just unalike.

Having spent most weekends in Paris since April, I have been asking myself why the French capital is so different from London. I don't say better, just unalike.

In fact, London and Paris appeared pretty similar at the end of the medieval period. Both had been Roman settlements on river crossings. Tall, gabled houses predominated on narrow streets, among which stood semi-fortified noblemen's residences, a royal castle, churches and monasteries. There was, however, one key difference between the cities.

In London, the main residence of the monarch, parliament and the courts was at Westminster, a couple of miles upstream from the medieval city itself. That is physical evidence of an important truth. The state has never dominated London as the French government has its capital. When Baron Haussmann was opening up Paris in the middle of the 19th century by driving new boulevards through the old city, as prefect of the Seine he actually appointed the city council. At the same period, the administration of London was divided up between the cities of London and Westminster and about 60 parish councils, each responsible solely to its local electors.

The result was that in the middle of the 19th century there could be a battle of styles in London, neo-Gothic vs classical. But no such contest took place in Paris. Between 1850 and 1870, Napoleon III was able to veto the use of Gothic design in public buildings; the church was one of the few institutions able to avoid the prohibition.

Nor was that an isolated incident. When Renaissance styles and notions of town-planning (straight streets, vistas, squares, fountains, obelisks, columns, statues and gates) reached north-west Europe from Italy in the first half of the 16th century, they took a much greater hold on the French imagination than on the English. And a Parisian version of the classical style was institutionalised so strongly that it went largely unchallenged until the 1950s. That is why Paris still seems all of a piece.

As you walk the central streets, you see only variations on a theme: here, arcaded ground floors; there, shutters at the upper windows; in the next street, little balconies with iron balustrades; then, a road where the façades carry plenty of stone carving. The notion of architecture d'accompagnement keeps everything in line.

Compared with that, the centre of London is higgledy-piggledy. London has had only one development with the same sweeping practical and aesthetic ambitions as Haussmann's, and it was carried out 30 years earlier, in 1825 - the building of Regent Street by the architect John Nash, in partnership with his patron, the Prince Regent. It was a miracle that Nash could find a route, for it had to be built on Crown Estate land and avoid the aristocratic estates.

But unlike the long Rue de Rivoli, which was built at the same time, not much of Nash's work has survived. Portland Place has been extensively redeveloped; in London, the kind of classical uniformity that Paris possesses is not found until one reaches the inner residential areas, the wide arc of terraces that sweeps from St John's Wood down towards the Thames through Maida Vale, Notting Hill, Kensington, Chelsea, Belgravia and Pimlico.

Behind this difference lies another. Paris had a powerful school of architecture for over 300 years. It was founded by Louis XIV in 1671. From the beginning, it controlled the profession and its output. Outstanding students were sent to Rome to study classical remains. It was shut down in 1793 but re-emerged in 1819 as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

In Britain, no schools of architecture existed until Queen Victoria's reign, no doubt an expression of the enduring cult of the amateur. The Architectural Association school was the first. It was founded in 1847 by a group of dissatisfied young architects to provide a "self-directed, independent education". Self-directed and independent? Very British - but such a thing would have been detested by the French.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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