Imagine working in a local council office. Now imagine that the view from your desk involved gilded statues and paintings worthy of a national museum? What if your office made the Palace of Versailles look plain? There is such an office. If you are the mayor of Paris (Anne Hidalgo) you’ll know, because she and her staff work in the Hotel de Ville – the City Hall – of Paris. Even most Parisians won’t have seen it – unless you are paying your water rates or getting some official paperwork signed. Or you might be lucky enough to be a fonctionaire (bureaucrat). But once a year, in the third weekend in September, Paris has a Heritage Weekend (Patrimoine) where anyone can go through the building. And we just happened to be in Paris on the right weekend. And what a building!
The Hotel de Ville stands out even in central Paris on the Rue de Rivoli for its renaissance style, perfect proportions and amazing decorative elements.
It occupies a plaza between the Rue de Rivoli and the Seine river. And there is a story to it. In the early part of the 12th Century the merchants of Paris formed a corporation – possibly to fight off competition from Rouen. By 1121 King Louis VI agreed to transfer the income from wine taxes from wine imports into Paris. And they imported a LOT of wine! His successor – Louis VII – gave the merchants a monopoly on all river-based trade between Paris and Nantes, giving them the name ‘water merchants’. Perhaps they drank like fish?
As their wealth and power grew, they took on more of the administrative tasks of the city, establishing a city council, a court for disputes and, in 1357 the merchant’s provost bought a house next to the river – already a landmark, known as the house of pillars – which was to become the seat of municipal institutions. By 1529 the house – already much extended and falling into disrepair, was demolished along with some neighbouring buildings to make way for a new one. King François I saw an opportunity for ‘re-branding’ and re-affirming his authority, and offered his personal architect, the Italian Domenico da Cortona – known as El Boccador – who had built many chateaus in the Loire Valley. It was ambitious and took a while to build, finally completed in 1628. By now it was heavily influenced by high Italian Renaissance design.
In the 19th century it was extended further and given a makeover with interiors decorated by some of the leading artists of the day – Ingres, Delacroix, Cabanel and Lehman. But the Paris Commune of 1871 saw it destroyed by fire.
In 1872 an open competition was held for its restoration – with stringent design conditions, such as the original El Boccador Renaissance facade had to be replicated as closely as possible. Rebuilding took a decade between 1873 and 1883 with the result being an amazing renaissance-style building – yet fitted with the most advanced additions, such as electric lighting, a hydraulic lift, a steam-based central heating system, and the bureaucrat’s delight – the telephone!
If you ever wondered about the efficiency of French bureaucracy, consider the distractions….
And if you look up you’ll never go back to your engrossing spreadsheet again. Indeed you won’t even be checking Facebook!
Ever wondered why council meetings take so long to reach a decision? Consider the council chambers where the counsellors gather for their meetings – I think I would be spending most of my time just gazing around!
This is definitely one of Paris’ hidden gems – which sadly few get to see. If you want to plan to see it – it is open to the public once a year during the Heritage week (la Patrimoine) – when not just the Mairie de Paris throws open its doors, but also some 40+ other buildings, galleries and museums offer free entry – If you get the chance, don’t miss it! There’s even an app to download for your ipad or iphone (not sure if there’s an android or windows version).
Hmmm – maybe it’s time I refurbished my office…
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