Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Paris Magnifique; Marville and Atget -- Saving a lost architecture on film

Standing in the sunlight, dimmed by the shadow of the wreckers, the 19 th-century photographer seems both melancholy prophet and historian of the architectural apocalypse of the last century.

In a New World without ruins, photographers like Josiah Hawes could not suspect that the architecture triumphs which their clients paid them to record would survive only on glass negatives.

About these ads

In the Old World, and especially in Paris, others like Charles Marville or Eugene Atget were more prescient: wanting to salvage a vanishing landscape.

The first, Charles Marville, was a kind of architectural historian-for-hire, pacing off the city of Balzac, Baudelaire, pacing off the city of Balzac, Baudelaire, and Hugo a step ahead of the agents of the new who paid him to document its demise under Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann's plan after 1850.

The second, Eugene Atget, the better known and later, worked until 1927 to capture the architecture and cultural ambience of an evanescent cityscape. In an Atget photo, the sense of bygone times is as tactile as the rising fog.

Only in such prints do we retain this lost architecture -- and only imperfectly at that. Without these visual mementoes we would have far less feeling for the "onionization" of urban design, the layer on layer that gives the three-dimensional art of architecture its forth dimension.

It is this sense of poignant passages, seen in a traveling show of Marville and in a current exhibition of Atget (at New York's Museum of Modern Art through Jan. 3), that reinforces the important, even dominant, aspect of architecture today. For if nostalgia is an invisible building component, it may be the most real one of our time.

"Materiaux de Demolitions" (material for demolition), says a sign on the Theatre du Luxembourg in a Marville photograph seen in its last stop, at Wellesley College through Sunday.

Baron Haussmann, planner for Napoleon III's Second Empire, was boasting in such views.

About these ads

The photographs exhibited were his way of showing that he had transformed the "dark, dirty, unhealthy, unnavigable, ungovernable, quasi-medieval city that it [Paris] was in 1850 into the airy, beautiful, healthy, orderly capital of the Second Empire."

To the extent that the Haussmann city of broad boulevards and vistas punctuated by monumental statues is now beloved, he was. But a view of its architectural predecessor, softened by time, is a remarkable revelation of the Paris turned to ashes for his phoenix. Paris, 1850-70, was a more tender and touching "bird" than the planners saw.

While Marville was sympathetic to his commissioners, the pictorial message goes at cross purposes to their point of view.

Medieval Paris -- Paris of cobbles glossed from the rain, Paris of rough-hewn stones laid like a quilt of time, Paris of narrow streets curving into mysterious vistas, Paris on the diminitive of the confined streetscape, Paris at its most massive in the timeless walled edifice plunging into the water or the grand structure standing dead-on and imposing -- this Paris arrives for the first time in America from the Musee Carnivalet and touches us still a century later with the loss.

The question rises then: how could a planner of genuis, of aesthetic sensitivity and urban astuteness, have so little delicacy of feeling for the Physical and human destruction he wrought to these aged quarters?

It is a question that modern sensibilities cannot answer.

Nor could the fin de sieclem genius Eugene Atget. The 10,000 Atget photographs culled for a four-volume series now launched as "Old France," Volume 1, by the New York Graphic Society, and in the show at the Museum of Modern Art, offer "the more remote and glorious past" along with "the eternal present," as John Szarkowski observes.

Atget gives us an architecture of survivors; and even his less unban views convey this aspect of endurance.

Stone threshholds beaten by eons of rain; doorways swollen and shrunk at the rate of a millimeter a decade, it seems; or farm roofs showing the years, seem headed on the same road to oblivion as the Parisian shops and streets whose classic image he bestowed on generations to come.

Alike in picking a subject matter that skirted around the edges of the imperial city and in their gift in preserving Paris neighborhoods that resonate still, these photographers not only let us retain but add to the presence of the architecture of the past.

What critics call the demeanor of Atget's work -- "it's air of rectitude and seriousness -- and the quality in it of wonder and deep affection persuade us of Atget's untroubled faith in the coherence and logic of the rest of the world. Poetic intuition was the means by which he served the large, impersonal truth of history."

Marville, too, for all his contract to record the past to serve its destroyers, had the skill to turn rubble-strewn streets into a source of myth.

At times, their photograph turns out to be a more powerful fixative than the architecture itself. Survey this work and you forget that Napoleon III's Second Empire Paris was, as the show organizers point out, "the embodiment of the triumph of political power and humanitarian wisdom over cholera, poverty, and dissension . . . signs of progress by a selft-styled 'artistic-demolisseur."

In our distaste for those who "shuffle little streets like cards . . . And deal them out as boulevards," we dismiss the engineer in Haussmann; perhaps we link him too cavalierly to the grim replacements of old buildings measured out by 20th-century planners.

Photography, as Szarkowski suggests, is comparable to the act of pointing.

Architectural photography, like architecture itself, is in many ways merely pointing to a route that the follower/reader chooses.

Today, assaulted by the rampant destruction of our own era, it may lead us to more mornful conclusions than Marville or Atget came to themselves; but time and modern ruins only add to the baleful quality of their rendering of this fourth-dimensional art.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.