If there was ever any question in your mind, be assured that Paris is much more than its monuments. It is more than the sum of its museums, palaces and art. No, the soul of the city is rather comprised of its diverse and ever-changing population. And there is no better place to witness the many faces of Paris than its public parks and gardens. Among these, Place des Vosges is one of my favorites. It has an atmosphere that is both fun and elegant. It is simultaneously aristocratic and populist, accessible to people of all shapes and sizes. This was not always so. For the first two centuries of its existence, the park’s cast iron gates were opened to the general public only one day each year for the festival of Saint Louis, the patron saint of France. The rest of the year, the Place des Vosges was the exclusive domain of the Well-Dressed.
In the first decade of the 17th century, Henri IV planned the square as part of his ambitious program of public works in Paris that included hospitals, parks, roads and bridges (such as the Pont Neuf). This particular project included the creation of a civic garden of formal lawns and crushed stone paths and the construction of a complex of hôtels particuliers (aristocratic urban residences) around its perimeter. He enlisted the aid of his court architects, Jacques Androuet du Cerceau and Claude Chastillon. As a unified ensemble of landscape and architecture in an urban residential precinct, this was ground-breaking urban design.
Sadly, Henri IV was assassinated before the construction was complete. Two years later, in 1612, the park debuted for festivities associated with the wedding of his son Louis XIII. At the time, and up until the French Revolution, it was called the “Place Royale.” Napoleon renamed the park “Place des Vosges” in honor of the region in northeast France that was first to give monetary support to his Revolutionary army. Before and after the revolution, the square was home to famous authors and politicians, including Bossuet, Victor Hugo, and Cardinal Richelieu (who commissioned the equestrian bronze sculpture of Louis XIII at the center of the Park).
Over the centuries, Place des Vosges and the Marais (the Paris neighborhood in which the Place is situated) have had to reinvent themselves repeatedly. I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ statement that “lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities). In the 17th century, these started out as very fashionable places to live. As they aged and newer architectural trends were given expression in other quarters of the city, the wealthiest aristocrats moved on and less affluent writers, artists and merchants moved in. Starting in the 19th century and continuing to the present, the Place des Vosges and the Marais have been important centers of Paris’ Jewish community. At present, the Place enjoying a resurgence in popularity paralleling the Marais, which is again one of Paris’ fashionable neighborhoods.
On my last trip to Paris, I happened to arrive at the Place des Vosges on a day when Parisians were shaking off the frost of winter and enjoying the intermittent sunshine. I was staying in a flat several blocks away and entered from the north under the Pavillon de la Reine. Within the street-level arcade that surrounds the park, I encountered a self-taught countertenor whose theatrical performance of an Italian aria was attracting a crowd of tourists. The arcade was crowded with people visiting its shops, restaurants and cafés.
Inside the park gates, I joined crowds gathered on the square’s lawn spaces for lunch, sunbathing, cigarettes and general flânerie. The park provides a variety of microclimates so that everyone can find a comfortable place suited to their own desires. The lawn crowd was mostly young—perhaps because lounging on the ground requires agility, perhaps because they were enjoying a sense of transgressing the laws of the Ancien Régime which forbade any use of the lawns other than for viewing when strolling on the paths. The elders and middle-aged were mostly sticking to benches under the lindens or lining the gravel walks. Parents and children found homes in the sand box and on the play equipment scattered under the linden canopy. (I never cease to be impressed at Paris’ playgrounds, where children learn social and aesthetic sense by playing in settings that are well-tuned to their spatial context)! Tourists and the neighborhood’s diverse populations mix throughout the park so that, even in the playgrounds, you can hear languages representing every continent on the globe. At the center of the park, within the grove of European horsechestnuts at the base of the Louis XIII sculpture, two young musicians were gifting their jazz to the city, while a toddler couldn’t help but dance along.
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