At the Met

Lauren Elkin

Charles Marville, Rue de Constantine, c.1865.

New Yorkers have been mobbing the Charles Marville exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 4 May). ‘Paris has gotten so expensive,’ I overheard one woman saying to her friend. ‘I used to stay at the Meurice all the time but now it’s $1500 a night!’

Marville was hired as Paris's official photographer in the 1860s to preserve traces of the old city, but also to capture Haussmannisation in action, the demolition and rebuilding necessitated by the new streets, regularised building façades and such monuments as Garnier’s new opera house. Still, to judge from the response of the crowds at the Met, it's the vanished cobblestones and shadowy courtyards, not the rubble and scaffolding, that are the stars of the show.

The curators make no mention of it, but the exhibition coincides with the latest development in the Grand Paris project. The city itself, with a circumference of 22 miles, is comparatively tiny for a world capital. Within the next decade that will change, as the departments of the Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis and the Val-de-Marne (the ‘petite couronne’) and other regions further out (the ‘grande couronne’) become an administrative part of the city proper. The plan is the legacy of Nicolas Sarkozy (once described as 'Bonaparte in a suit'), and will include 100 miles of new train line connecting these territories to the transit mainframe, at a reported cost of €35 billion. New maps have gone up in Metro stations, showing the enlarged Paris on a scale to rival London, dwarfing the central 20 arrondissements.

Paris has been spilling out beyond one enclosure after another since the Middle Ages. In the late 18th century, the city's old defensive walls were replaced by the Mur des Fermiers Généraux, which collected duty on all merchandise entering the city. It ran along the belt of ‘exterior’ boulevards that today are well within the city proper: Montparnasse in the south, up to Bercy and Picpus in the east, Charonne, Belleville, Clichy in the north, and down Wagram, Iéna, and Grenelle in the west.

The last wall to be built, in the 1840s, was the Thiers wall. It ran along the outer limit of the present-day city, though Paris itself did not extend that far until 1860, when Napoleon III incorporated the suburbs of Auteuil, Passy, Belleville, Ménilmontant and so on, expanding Paris’s 12 arrondissements to 20. The Thiers wall was knocked down in 1919, and replaced by the Boulevards des Maréchaux. In 1958 this was reinforced by the Boulevard Périphérique, beyond which grew the low-income housing projects containing the immigrant poor. The ring-road as boundary was a cynical stroke of urban control: a means of keeping people out under the guise of letting people in.

Charles Marville, Carrières d’Amérique, before 1877.

Charles Marville, Carrières d’Amérique, before 1877.

In Marville’s photographs, we glimpse the peripheries of Paris as Haussmann confronted them, the quarries and shantytowns in the northeast and the provincial villages in the south. One shot shows the carrières d’Amérique, where the gypsum and millstone rocks that were used to build central Paris were mined. The neighbourhood was a ‘stronghold of the political left and a site of fierce resistance during the Commune’, according to the Met catalogue, while ‘the quarry itself had an unsavoury reputation for harbouring thieves, vagrants, and other shady characters in its subterranean depths.’ Napoleon III transformed a large part of the quarries into the Buttes-Chaumont park; the rest were closed in the 1880s.

One curatorial note suggests that references to Paris's limits in the art and literature of the late 19th century were a way of working through the feelings of exile that Parisians experienced in their new city. The metaphor of the quarry is a strong one: the borders of the city are excavated to build up the interior, and what’s not wanted from the interior is expelled back to the borders. Now with the Grand Paris plan, the limits of the city are being brought into the fold once again, and what will happen to places where rioting was strong in 2005, such as Saint-Denis, Clichy-sous-Bois and Aubervilliers, isn’t hard to guess: in Aubervilliers, gentrification has already begun.