The architectural historian and urbanist John Massengale, author of Street Design, sent to TradArch a most provocative email, with a photograph of the Municipal Building of New York City superimposed on a photo of the district of central Paris near the Opera Garnier.
It looks almost as if it belongs there, but don’t be fooled. It was submitted to Designboom.com‘s open request for reader contributions, and it links to a site hosted by Tumblr called Haussmanhattan. I cannot find any name or attribution, but it has even more photographic transpositions that totally pique my interest and even adoration. But that is a dangerous thing.
Haussmanhattan takes New York buildings circa 1900-1930 and places them into the Parisian cityscape. On first inspection the towers seem not to harm the Parisian aesthetic but seem an outgrowth of it. The Flatiron Building, for example, looks quite at home on the Place de la République circa 1900. Some of the transpositions are more successful than others, and some attempts are literally stretchers. The site is extraordinarily provocative, as I said, because its initial enchantment masks a stark reality about the Paris we treasure today as it relates to the New York we’d treasure even more today if its architecture had not strayed so far from the architecture of yesterday.
For we mustn’t forget that in 1900 New York was not all that different from Paris. A mostly low horizon of architecture in New York City was ornate in much the same way as the architecture of Paris was at the same time and is today, mostly. Massengale and the creator of Haussmanhattan both note that Parisian authorities of a century ago looked across what the Brits call the pond at what was occurring in Manhattan, where skyscrapers were popping furiously out of the ground – and decided that Paris should not go there.
If it had gone there, Paris might have been as unable to resist the next step (the next historical step, not the next logical step) of permitting modernist towers to elbow aside its beauty just as New York has been unable to prevent modern architecture from elbowing aside the beauty of Manhattan. After all, Paris did entertain Le Corbusier’s plan to demolish much of central Paris and litter it with towers. Paris said no, but the fact that Corbusier was given a hearing at all suggests the degree to which Paris could be manipulated.
Now Manhattan, however extraordinary, and however beautiful in parts, is no longer a beautiful city. I fear that Paris might have suffered the same fate if it had permitted beautiful classical skyscrapers to refract the allure of the City of Light. Glad it didn’t happen. Hope it won’t happen now.