Riding by versus looking at

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Boulevard Raspail, in Paris. (CPArama)

Yesterday I posted a couple of quotes from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Of a taxi ride down the Boulevard Raspail, the author has his protagonist muse: “It is a street I do not mind walking down at all. But I cannot stand to ride along it.” Walking and riding offer obviously different perspectives on the route, the primary being slow versus fast. Slow allows the walker’s eye to linger on detail, whereas fast whizzes by, giving the rider a set of glimpses that add up to a summary of the route.

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Facades of Bvd. Raspail. (MeilleursAgents)

It is easy to see why a Parisian boulevard of the Haussmannesque persuasion might be less engaging to drive and more engaging to walk. The buildings that line most boulevards are similar at a glance, revealing the differences in detail only upon leisurely examination. Still, I cannot understand why Hemingway’s character, Jake, has such hard feelings against the ride versus the stroll down Raspail. It is fair and comprehensible to like it more on a walk than on a drive, but the drive is not the antithesis of the walk but its abbreviation – not beauty obliterated but beauty rushed; not unpleasant, merely less pleasant.

In fact, if walking along a beautiful road is more pleasurable than riding along it, the reverse must surely be true of an ugly road. Driving along it is better than walking along it for the most obvious reason – driving gets you through it faster. Unless you are a masochist, or a modernist architect such as Le Corbusier, who also, like Jake, did not like the Boulevard Raspail.

“The Rue de Rivoli belongs to architecture, but the Boulevard Raspail does not,” wrote Corbusier in his Towards an Architecture. But even I have to admit that Corbu, who wanted to destroy Paris (see his Plan Voisin*), must have liked the Rue de Rivoli, at least the arcaded stretch, of which most visitors to Paris are familiar, and which predated Baron Haussmann by half a century. In his Seven Ages of Paris, Alistair Horne writes:

Even though the original grand design was never completed, the seemingly endless perspective of the massive arcades and the continuous line of ironwork balconies above them today still presents an effect unrivalled anywhere else in the world, an example of the true grandeur of Paris.

I guess that’s architecture, which not even Corbusier could deny.

* I’ve linked to a Business Insider article about the Plan Voisin from 2013 by Gus Lubin, who tries to convince us how sensible it would be to destroy much of Paris even after admitting it would have been a very bad idea.

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Rue de Rivoli, in Paris, circa 2003. (photo by David Brussat)

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Facades of the Rue de Rivoli. (Wikipedia)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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