August 29, 2014

French Friday: An apartment in Paris

Paris wasn't always the breathtakingly beautiful city it is today. It's wide boulevards, sweeping vistas, and lovely limestone buildings were preceded by a maze of medieval alleyways and overcrowded, slums resulting in poor health conditions and dangerous rioting factions.

In 1853, Emperor Napoleon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to improve the city's sanitation and traffic flow by widening avenues and designing the legendary water and sewer system. Several neighboring towns were annexed to Paris (including Auteuil, Batignolles-Monceau, Montmartre, La Chapelle, Passy, La Villette, Belleville, Charonne, Bercy, Grenelle and Vaugirard) and the spiraling twenty arrondissements were established. Haussmann and his successors designed new train stations, public squares, and parks, but his most recognizable contribution to the renovation of Paris is the iconic Haussmannian apartment building.

Baron Haussmann first established a standard ratio between the height of the buildings and the width of the streets to optimize space, light, and proportion. He declared that the buildings would not be more than five or six stories high, and that roofs required a 45 degree pitch to allow daylight to reach the sidewalks. Haussmannian buildings were constructed of massive limestone blocks that were quarried underneath the city itself. The construction of the sewer system, and later the subway, required the removable of thousands of tons of stone that eventually reappeared in the new construction of apartment buildings and storefronts. Often entire blocks had buildings with uniform features, making the whole length of the block appear to be one entity.

Haussmannian apartment buildings typically feature:
  • a basement (le sous-sol)
  • the ground floor (le rez-de-chaussée)
  • a second floor (le premier étage) with wrought iron balconies and ornamental stonework above the windows (This was the "noble", most desirable floor before elevators were installed.)
  • third and fourth floors (les deuxième et troisième étages), sometimes without balconies and with less elaborate details
  • a fifth floor (with a plain balcony)
  • a Mansard roof with attic rooms, lit by dormer windows (These rooms were often the servants' quarters or rented to "starving artists.")
  • Apartments were usually 200 to 300 m² with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling, shuttered windows, allowing for a light and airy ambiance. 
  • Interior design included herringbone parquet floors, marble fireplaces, ornate moldings, and double "French" doors.

Living in an Haussmannian apartment in Paris would be a dream-come-true! I would decorate with neutral shades of white, gray, and oh-so-French "greige" to emphasize the magical light and to contrast with the rich parquet floors. I would juxtapose the ornate moldings and architectural embellishments with the clean lines of modern furnishings, and scour local brocantes and flea markets for unique, eclectic pieces to add color and personality.

The only problem is that if I had an apartment like this in Paris, I might never leave. Isn't the whole point of living in Paris to live in Paris -- to discover this truly enchanting city with something new around every corner?! Well, maybe that's not the only problem: I would also need a few million dollars! Oh well, I girl can dream...

Photos via Pinterest