Geography of Paris squares or plazas

October 29, 2012

In a complex urban environment, each square will tend to be specialized toward a function rather another one: Square are not in competition but compliment each other. Hereafter is an essay on the geography of the Parisian squares:

Identifying
Le Louvre (Cour Napoleon)

This place is not a people place, it doesn’t mean to be. This square is the heart of the French DNA. a 1000 years mille-feuille of History in the making. The headquarter of the old regime, transformed into a monument to the culture, is supposed to represent what French are or at least think they are, and it does quite well:

Cour napoleon, where the Louvre’ s Pyramid sits – credit (11)

Representing
Place de l’Étoile

Like for the Louvre, this place is designed to have you overwhelmed by the “grandeur” of the State. The Arc de triomphe built by Napoleon is a monument crowning 500 year of planning of the Royal axis, originating from the Louvre. The hill where it sit on has been leveled, giving it a concave slope, enhancing the overwhelming presence of the Arc, sitting in the middle of a 240 meter diameter round place:

Place de l’Étoile is a very large traffic circle. Going to the middle is usually done thru underpass – credit (2)

Celebrating
Étoile-Concorde: Champs-Elysées

En route from The Louvre (old regime) to the Arc (new regime), it happens to be the Concorde, where the last french king, Louis the XVI has been guillotined. Where French celebrates is on The Champs-Elysées, between the Concorde and Étoile, a vast public space able to contain one million people, with huge plazas, Etoile and the Concorde providing very comfortable overflow, and entry/exit point.

The Champs-Elysées on New year Eve (here 2006) looking toward The Concorde – credit (5)

The size and topography of the Champs-Elysées help people to appreciate the size of the crowd. The celebration like above suppose to close the 10 lanes of traffic the avenue is normally supporting: A celebration on the Champs-Elysées means not “business as usual”.

Demonstrating

République-Bastille-Nation

Demonstrating is also part of the french DNA, and demonstrating supposes to walk, from one point to another:
Those points are usually République-Bastille-Nation, in that order!

Demonstration at Republique – credit (3)

Place de la République one of the largest Parisian square is 283x119m is well suited to accommodate large crowds. Beside it, it is not a necessarily inviting place. It is currently under renovation: respecting its history, its current use as a place to vent social message, while making it a more inviting space, especially outside demonstration time, was one of the challenge the contestant had to address. A water mirror, is part of the answer:

A water Mirror, as seen in Bordeaux, can “activate” large esplanade, while still leave it clear of encumbrance when needed – credit (1)

Programing
Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville
It is a “people place” per design, and the PPS editors like it [7], but this 155x82meter square is not a self-sufficient one, where people will intuitively go. they will go there only knowing the square is hosting some events, usually sponsored by the City:

Paris- Hôtel-de-Ville is a place for programing; ice rink in winter, beach volley in summer, all sort of fair in between – credit (4)

Meditating
Place des Vosges

A plaza in word, a park in theory, this almost perfect square, is a hit with many urbanistas for good reasons.. like Rome’s Piazza Navona, reaching Place des Vosges requires journeying along minor, often hidden streets. Then away of the crowd and noise of the surrounding city, you find an intimate, secluded, and still comfortable place. The square dimension, 127×140 meters,as well as the building lining help it, contribute to it. It is surrounded by a street allowing a light amount of traffic contributing to a safety feeling at any time any season.

Paris Place des Vosges, the oldest suqare of the city is requiring some effort to be found

Place Dauphine dating of the same era work a bit differently- may be too small and carry an oppressive feeling. Place Vendôme, has been designed along the Place des Vosges model (same size), but again it is a colder place. In Paris, Palais Royal, offers almost a similar setting

Relaxing
Place George Pompidou

Better known as Place Beaubourg, or simply the Piazza, it has been created ex-nihilo by architect Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers and opened in 1977. In despite of its relatively novelty and use of modern architecture in a city full of heritage building, this square works very well at the difference of many other one created in the same period. Due to this, it makes it a very interesting case study:

It is facing a Modern art museum known as Beaubourg built at the same time by the same architects. Like Sienna’s Piazza del Campo, the 170x65m square has a slight declivity along its narrow edge, which allow people to appropriate the space like it was a beach: it is not uncommon to see people sitting on the pavement, facing the museum, which happen to have corridors and stairs on its outside facades, offering continuous movement of people to watch from the square.
Like Place des Vosges, this square is not obvious to find, and offers some respite, step away, of the capharnaum, the Halles can be:

Paris Place George Pompidou, is a successful square created ex nihilo

At the difference of Place Des Vosges, this square is fully pedestrian, and is surrounded by cafes and other shops.

Meeting
Fontaine des Innocents

Place Joachim du Bellay is a name very few locals know, but no Parisian ignores its fountain:
When they need to meet, Fontaine(fountain) des Innocents is the natural rendezvous.

It is easy to understand why: It is strategically located [10]

  • It is at the cross road of the main Parisian arteries.
  • Today, it sits midway between the Parisian subway hub (Châtelet ) and the Regional Express Rail network hub (Les Halles)

However, it is not directly on the way, rather on a “corner” of the intersection, so that the traffic doesn’t pass here. but, more important:

  • the square’s size, 53x80m, is big enough to accommodate a substantiate activity making a good hangout, but small enough to be able to recognize a person in it (see the notion of social field of vision in [9])
  • and the square design is perfectly appropriate:

Fontaine des Innocents IS the meeting point in Paris – credit (6)

This square is also surrounded by Cafes.

Concluding

Paris’s Place Stravinsky, a “secondary” but still lovely place – credit (11)

This geography is far to be exhaustive, Paris has many other squares, of various size, various features, some more interesting than other… what we have presented are what we see as the “staple” squares of Paris, and we can see some features emerging, noticeably regarding the size of the square:

  • Different square size are needed in a big city, to accomodate the different function
  • And still, the square where people feel comfortable to stay, will tend to be in the 120x120meter

This size could be not purely arbitrary, and could have to do with our field of vision- we tend to not recognize people beyond this distance and from smaller distance, we tend to be able to describe people facial characteristic – the ~100 meter range lie in between [9].


[1] flickr user hisgett

[2] flickr user ar56

[3] flickr user tofz4u

[4] flickr user babicka2

[5] Franck prevel via Le Monde

[6] Projet Les Halles

[7] PPS page: Paris’Hotel de Ville (City Hall)

[8] See for example: Squaring public space with human needs, Lisa Rochon, Globe and mail, Nov 25, 2011. Curiously enough Vancouver bloggers like Lewis n Villegas and Stephen Rees, will use this square to illustrate Vancouver specific problematic. For the record, architect Ricardo Boffil had a project to built a place inspired by Place des Vosges at Paris The Halles: Parisian didn’t like the idea, and their mayor, then Jacques Chirac, basically “chased” the architect…

[9] Cities for people, Jan Gehl, 2010

[10] Paris, les Halles :introduction to its anatomy

[11] vivendesign.com

2 Responses to “Geography of Paris squares or plazas”


  1. Wonderful post! I really loved reading it. I spent a month in Paris in July while I was studying, and explored many of these places – even the mention of Chatelet and Les Halles had an unexpected tug on my heartstrings! I really miss it. Thanks for such an insightful and informative post – so far I’d learnt about the meaning behind various seemingly decorate statues ( I.e. the horses rearing in Concorde Square, because this is where the guillotine was, so they are angry because of the French blood spilt there), but it was so interesting looking at the function behind the different squares themselves 🙂

    Genevieve, http://genevievewanderbug.wordpress.com


  2. […] recently Place de la Republique, Paris, a huge “demonstrating” square, as we have seen before, that […]


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