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BOOK

REVIEW

Parisian Architecture of the Belle Epoque By Roy Johnston.Wiley, 2007.216pp. £39.99

Salvador Dalí drooled over edible buildings; had he hungered for historic periods, the Belle Epoque would surely have been his favoured amusegueule - an excellent choice to judge by Roy Johnston's hugely enjoyable book.

The Belle Epoque spanned the decades either side of 1900, which were pivotal in the architectural transition from Beaux Arts Classicism to a freer inventiveness. Johnston, an architect, relates this shift in architectural styles to changes in Parisian society, drawing references from literature and the arts: Zola provides textbook depictions of life in the atelier, the attic and the salon; Proust pinpoints the most fashionable time for dining.

Johnston's central topic is the apartment block, or immeuble. He uses oor plans as historical documentation: the layout of a 1906 apartment shows the rising importance of family life, with folding doors between salon and dining room and children's bedrooms next to that of their parents. Of Auguste Perret's 25 bis rue Benjamin Franklin (1903-4), he writes: 'The external appearance of this building is well known, but it is the refined plan that excites most admiration.'

Johnston regards Paris as 'an object lesson to city builders everywhere'. Haussmann's boulevards, never used as intended for riot control, provided space for café life and strollers. In 1897, with a demand for taller buildings unsuited to the prevailing Classical template, a concours de façades was instituted, with tax breaks for winning designs. In one chapter, Johnston describes over 30 innovative immeubles built post-1900.

We associate the Belle Epoque with Art Nouveau, but the whiplash was 'only one approach to the problem of adaptation and changing economic and cultural needs'.

Hector Guimard's style was not popular at first: Parisians referred to Castel Béranger as 'Castel Dérangé'.

The English scene is an unvoiced subtext throughout.

The French embraced iron in a way we never did - Paris was a Ruskin-free zone. England has railway stations and the ghost of the Crystal Palace, but nothing so establishment as Labrouste's marvels: the reading rooms at the Bibliothèque National and Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Paris even has an iron church (Astruc's Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Travail), immeubles and grands magasins - Samaritaine, Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. It's no wonder the English ocked to Paris to shop.

The International Exhibitions of 1889 and 1900 anchor the Belle Epoque. That of 1889 heralded a new world with its innovative ironwork pavilions and the Eiffel Tower.

The 1900 Exhibition harked back with its two late-Classical showpieces, the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais.

Johnston writes evocatively and succinctly about a city he knows intimately. Some of the more academic sections sparkle less than others, but this is a fine account of an entrancing epoch and Steve Gorton's photographs are the icing on the cake.

Deborah Singmaster is co-director of Footnotes Audio Walks

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