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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 of the Parisian streets, and others who wanted Londoners to go over to living in flats; as Frederic Harrison put it in 1887, “We must boldly face the necessity of rebuilding London some day for the masses in blocks.” There were Parisians who opted for villas in the suburbs; although just as in London apartments, at first, were considered daring, in Paris and Vienna suburbs were for small groups of consciously progressive and often Anglophile professional people—hence Cottage in Vienna.

But on the whole the denizens of each city preferred their own way of life. Parisians such as Hippolyte Taine found villa suburbs “depressing” and terrace housing “funereal.” The English tended to react to Paris with a mixture of moral outrage and smug superiority. The Parisians, they complained, had no home life worth speaking of; when they should have been at home with their families, they were out on the boulevards, up to no good. Their apartments were small and dreadfully arranged, with bedrooms doubling up as living rooms and kitchens so small that they forced families to frequent cafés and restaurants in order to escape from them.

Olsen reveals the inadequacies of this point of view. In the first place, as Parisians at the time were not slow to point out, Englishmen’s complacency about their own domestic life did not bear too much looking into. Any house of any size in London was carefully stratified so that the children, isolated up on a nursery floor with their nannies and nursery maids, intruded as little on their parents as possible. The gigantic, elaborate, and carefully oiled machinery of London club life was designed to give Victorian fathers an alternative to going back to their warm domestic nests in the evening.

Moreover, much thought went into the planning of Parisian flats, and the result, once it was accepted that high density and the desire to live in the center meant settling for smaller living areas, could be extremely ingenious. When space was in short supply, to put a bed into an alcove in the bedroom and to use the remaining area in the daytime was a sensible allocation of resources. Parisian kitchens might be tiny by London standards, and lack the London accompaniment of larders and sculleries, but Parisian housewives produced delicious meals from them, whereas, as Muthesius put it in 1904, “English cooking is the most artless, most uncultivated cooking in the world…. They are content to eat roast beef and roast mutton alternately for their main meal throughout the year.” Parisian housewives could make do with smaller kitchens because they bought fresh food in the markets every day.

Even so, there was no denying that Parisians, on the average, lived in more cramped surroundings than Londoners, and were prepared to put up with small rooms and outlooks onto dark internal courtyards in order to be close to the shops, cafés, restaurants, and gaiety of the center; and, on the other hand, Londoners had a prejudice against apartments, and accepted with equanimity the lack of good places in which to eat out and, on the average, much emptier public spaces in their more diffuse city.

The problems begin when one starts to ask, Why? Why did Londoners choose one style of life and Parisians and Viennese another? The differences had not always been so great. In the eighteenth century London’s coffeehouses, for instance, filled much the same functions as Parisian cafés, and existed in equally large numbers; London taverns were frequented by all classes, and Londoners went in crowds to pleasure gardens scattered all over the town, or to public walks like the Mall in Westminster or Moorfields in the City. It was the clubs that killed the coffeehouses and turned public houses into places which no one above the lower middle classes would think of entering. But what caused the clubs?

It is both tempting and worthwhile to look for causes in cities, but very difficult to do so adequately. On the whole Olsen is better at describing differences than explaining them. He is the least dogmatic of historians, and it is to his credit that he has no neat all-embracing theory. Any explanations must be very complex, and it is likely that the roots of many of the differences lie far back beyond the nineteenth century. It is always tempting to latch on to one particular factor and give it more importance than it deserves, but Olsen can only occasionally be criticized for this. He makes the interesting point that, until Haussmann’s improvements, Parisian streets had no pavements at all, or very inadequate ones. Street life was unpleasant, and even dangerous. But to suggest that Paris “became and remained an ‘out-of-doors’ city” as a result of the facilities of Haussmann’s boulevards is to draw too strong a contrast between Paris before and after the Second Empire.

Haussmann only made it easier to do something that the Parisians had already been doing. Louis XIV’s boulevards provided the space for pedestrians and the agreeable ambience so notably lacking in the Parisian streets, and as the city spread around them became the focus of a lively outdoor life sooner and to a greater extent than Olsen allows for. Cafés with tables outdoors as well as in are shown on them by the mid-eighteenth century and were also among the most notable features of the Palais Royal from the 1780s onward. By then the Champs Elysées were also crowded with people and refreshment stalls.

By the 1770s what is now the Boulevard du Temple was established as the resort of the Parisian working classes (but with a noticeable admixture of the upper classes, come to watch the fun) and by the 1790s, if not earlier, what is now the Boulevard des Italiens was equally well established as the fashionable boulevard, filled with strollers and sitters-out and lined with buildings on both sides. By 1829 Galignani’s guide described the northern boulevards in general as “well lighted, and the thousands of people going to or from the theatre, coming from dinners, or lounging about for diversion, keep up the hustle and animation till all-subduing sleep bids the busy world retire.”

Throughout the nineteenth century English visitors were commenting with surprise and appreciation that the good manners and lack of drunkenness of the Parisian working classes were a remarkable contrast to their English counterparts. It is tempting to put the differences down to the sense of status and selfrespect induced by the French Revolution. But then one finds Mrs. Thrale and other English visitors making the same kind of comments in the 1770s.

It would seem that cities are set on a particular course early in their history, and patterns of living can be set up which continue even when the causes that produced them have disappeared. In the seventeenth century the walled city of Vienna was not only far from large but was surrounded by a great circuit of open land which, for reasons of military security, could not be built on. It was, in effect, an island, and when an imperial court and aristocracy, with all attendant services, was poured into it, buildings of five or six stories or more divided up into apartments were the inevitable result. The Viennese came to take this kind of living for granted. Paris was less constricted, but even so it was a city with a single center that had to absorb a much greater variety of activities and influx of population than was ever the case in Vienna. Its tenements were being commented on as a distinctive feature of the city as early as the sixteenth century. London, on the other hand, developed around the two centers of the City and Westminster, the second of which was never constricted by walls; the pressure was much less great, with consequent effect on its patterns of housing. So one may argue. But then why was the double city of Buda and Pest, as Olsen reveals, even more crowded than Vienna, with 70 percent of the population living two or more to a room?

Such factors clearly affect the way cities grow, but they are by no means the only ones. Olsen discusses the importance of the London system of building on lease-hold land, and the way in which this kept down building costs and made lowdensity development easier. Another factor which has to be taken into account is the English belief that city living was basically against nature. This becomes especially noticeable around 1800. It was the point of view, implicit or explicit, behind the rash of books of designs for cottages and villas which broke out in this period. James Malton, for instance, in his Designs for Rural Retreats contrasted the “pure and tranquil retirement of the country” to the “foetid joys of the tumultuous city.” J.C. Loudon, in his Country Residences, called city living “unnatural” and thought that the only reason for engaging in commerce was to acquire the means with which to “retire to the country.” It was for people who thought like this about cities, as opposed to regarding them as the summit of civilization, that villa suburbs were evolved.

An urban historian can be haunted by the vision of the total explanation, an analysis of cities and their background so all-embracing in its range and depth that everything falls neatly into place. It is an objective impossible to attain, but arguably still worth aiming at. A major problem is that it calls for talents unlikely to be united in any one person. Exhaustive statistical analysis, and the preliminary research needed to produce the statistics, can have extremely illuminating results when applied to cities, but architectural historians are seldom equipped, by training or inclination, to make creative use of it. Although Olsen by no means ignores statistics, there are times when one feels the lack of, for instance, any attempt to discover and compare the incomes of equivalent groups in the three cities.

What architectural historians can do is to bring out factors that social and economic historians tend to ignore, or even dismiss as irrelevant. The last part of The City as a Work of Art is devoted to an exposition and defense of the way in which architects and artists in cooperation set out to illustrate, teach, and improve, and of the cityscape that resulted in the three cities: a way of using cities not unlike that in which cathedrals had been used in the Middle Ages. The result, as Olsen convincingly argues, was a much more human, varied, and entertaining cityscape than that produced so devastatingly in many cities since the war. He supports his argument (as throughout the book) by a superb selection of illustrations, ranging from the skyline of the Gare du Nord in Paris, enlivened by allegorical statues of the cities of northern France, to the opulent surface modeling and attendant caryatids of the Ring in Vienna. “The nineteenth-century city,” he writes, “strove to be a Gesamtkunstwerk, a vast opera to which all of the arts made their due contribution, but in which each subordinated itself to the artistic vision of the whole.”

What exactly is meant when the author refers to a city as “striving”? Is the Zeitgeist, so beloved of some nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians, being invoked, in the sense of a spirit greater than, and independent of, the individuals through whom it speaks? Olsen does indeed defend the idea of the Zeitgeist, but only, it turns out, in the less extreme and controversial sense of a set of beliefs and attitudes, widely held and powerfully at work at any particular time. It was such a consensus that produced the common aesthetic character that unified individual nineteenth-century cities and, to a lesser degree, linked city to city. This sounds convincing, but leaves one wondering whether the result of such a consensus can be termed a “work of art.”

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