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History in Stone: Impressions of Paris

Joanna Richardson takes readers on a mid twentieth century architectural tour of Paris; the French capital, she writes, bears the signature of successive rulers.

Detail from the Turgot map of Paris (published 1739) showing the Louvre.Not long ago, I stood outside the east front of the Louvre, and looked into the moat that divides it from everyday Paris. The moat is broad and very deep. It is also new. For though it was designed in the reign of Louis XIV, it was only excavated three hundred years later, on the orders of Andre Malraux, the Minister for Cultural Affairs. Looking into that chasm, I thought how much history had been buried in the interval; and I thought, too, how the architecture of Paris bears the signature of successive rulers.

Every king or emperor or president has been determined to leave his mark on Paris. A palace or a monument is a lasting sign of his prestige, a permanent memorial to himself. It is also an assertion of nationhood, of the brilliance of Paris. And, finally, it is a visible tribute to the love of glory that is one of the dominant features in the French nature. When President Pompidou decreed the building of the arts centre in the place Beaubourg, it was only the latest gesture in a series as long as the history of Paris.

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