September 10, 2016

My daughter, Elle, loves to travel. She has been to Myanmar and Ghana as a high school student and enjoyed the challenge and rich education that those experiences provided. So when an opportunity to study in Paris for her Freshman year as a George Washington University student presented itself, she was all in. Me? It took me a bit longer to get on board.

But alas, on August 31, 2016 I got on an airplane from Paris to Boston without my girl, leaving her in Paris to figure out a foreign city, the language, room mates, travel and college in general. If anyone can do it, Elle can do it.

Luckily, I had five days in that beautiful city to enjoy the rich history and architecture that it presents to the world. While it is a multi-cultural city, the French are the French. There is a definitive cultural lifestyle that has not adapted to modern living but rather modern living adapts to the lifestyle.

The city is vast, dense, historic and primarily low. While high rises can be seen at a distance from the Louvre, the Eiffel Tour (1063 ft) is the predominant image with the basilica, Sacre Coeur at Montmartre can be seen in the distance as it sits on top of a hill. All the other buildings are lower than the 121 ft. height restriction.

The neighborhoods are divided into 20 different arrondissements, all with different personalities. But the height restriction has been lifted to 590 ft in the 13th arrondissement, cranes can be seen all over as building is now underway. I wonder what the city will feel like with this neighborhood of taller buildings?

The reason for allowing higher buildings is economics. As with Washington DC, the housing prices have skyrocketed – vertical building is much more economical.

Because the living is compact – the building is vertical with little air conditioning, no elevators and no outdoor space. The solution is a cultural reaction:

No air-conditioning: the residents all travel the month of August closing businesses for the month and allowing tourist to take over Paris.
No Elevators: Most of the windows are in-swing narrow French Doors with low iron railings. When they are moving into an apartment, the hoist the furniture through the windows.
No outdoor space: These iron railings act as a place to plant gardens. People grow vegetables, herbs, succulents and flowers. With the French door it is easy to create an indoor/ outdoor feel within the small space.
Cafes are a way of life. Because people don’t have outdoor space, they become more social and spend hours sitting facing the street sipping wine or cappuccino, reading a book or spending time with friends and family. Kitchens are small, groceries are expensive and limited so it makes sense to eat out quite often at your favorite café.

These cafes all have the similar chairs that can be stacked at night inside the small café and placed in order around small round tables for 2 during the open hours. It is a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere and absolutely part of the culture.

The interior layout of the apartments are still arranged within separate rooms instead of the American “open concept”. Cooking is typically done in a small function room that is closed off from the public living space. The café is a reaction to being more socialized.

I loved walking around the different neighbors (arrondissements) with large doors, corbels, brackets, iron railings, French doors, flowers, and finite details to express the Paris personality. We will often take one of these details on in our architecture but in Paris… the details define the architecture!