City Lights

The City as a Work of Art: London, Paris, Vienna

by Donald J. Olsen
Yale University Press, 341 pp., $35.00

London, Paris, and Vienna were the three great centers of nineteenth-century Europe. All three were imperial capitals, all three had a glittering social and intellectual life, all three contained splendid buildings, all three faced appalling problems of disease and poverty. But each had its own character. The contrast between London and Paris, in particular, never failed to fill visitors from one to the other with amazement. But what was the nature of the differences? And what were their causes?

One could ask for no better guide to the three cities than Donald Olsen. He is erudite, inquiring, entertaining, balanced, but not afraid to reveal his tastes and preferences. He has a gift for apt quotation, and exhaustive knowledge of nineteenth-century sources. Above all, he likes cities, and correspondingly dislikes most of what has happened in them since the war, especially in the black decades of the 1950s and 1960s. His book contains much curious information. One can learn from it, for instance, where “single ladies of small means, traveling without a chambermaid,” could find a suitable room in Second Empire Paris. One discovers that there was a part of Paris called West End, and a suburb in Vienna called Cottage. But the book is much more than a collection of amusing bits and pieces or a nostalgic trip into the past. It is a serious discussion of the quality of life in cities, which leaves one with much to think about.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading. It reflects Olsen’s interest in the way cities look, and the way in which deliberate attempts have been made, in their planning and architecture, to create a harmonious whole, and to influence the inhabitants of the city or its visitors in doing so. The most obvious examples of this are the Regent’s Park and Regent Street complex in London, Haussmann’s boulevards and related works in Paris, and the Ring in Vienna. All three are dealt with at length. But Olsen is also concerned with the ways in which people in cities live and behave. The middle section of the book is given over to a full and fascinating comparison of the very different types of housing in the three capitals and the ways in which they were used: in particular the villas and terrace housing of London, the apartments of Paris, and the Miethause in Vienna, in the last of which external grandeur and the provision of a suite of connecting reception rooms tended to override all consideration of practical comfort.

In the nineteenth century the stock contrast between Paris and London, which was inescapable then and is still apparent, though rather less so, today, was that Parisians lived in apartments, whereas Londoners lived in houses, and that in Paris much of life was public and on the streets, whereas in London it was private.

There were people in both capitals who admired the characteristics of the other one. There were Englishmen who were fascinated by the gaiety …

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