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Parisian promenade

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Paris Architecture 1900-2000 By Jean-Louis Cohen et al. Norma Editions, 2000. 288pp. £35

'What, then, is the stuff of Parisian architecture?' asks this book's brief introduction. If you want to know the answer then this bilingual glossy is not the place to start, despite the promising credentials of its authors.

Paris Architecture presents an 'architectural promenade' which aims to 'kick off with key innovatory buildings of the early twentieth century' and 'include some nodal points of the spectacular set of grands travaux'. Its thesis seems to be that, while the grands travaux are not necessarily the 'essential pinnacles of achievement' in a continuous march of architectural progress, it is instructive to study them in an evolutionary context.

Somehow this will help to identify just how they contribute to the 'gravitas and frivolity' that make Paris unique.

It is a convoluted argument, which both denies a Modernist overview, and supports the ideal that 'the internal distribution and purpose of a building should be expressed externally and still more important, that its construction should be both rational and logical'. Recent buildings are praised for rationalist use of building techniques and experimental 'flexibility', and the choice of buildings largely follows a Modernist canon with scant insight into anything which does not fit exactly.

Very little 'frivolity' gets a look in: no cinemas, none of the butchers, bakers, cafes or restaurants which dominate the register of 'listed' 20th century Parisian buildings, and there is no space for the Deco schools of the 1930s or oddities such as Paul Bigot's extraordinary historicist Institute d'Art et d'Archeologie.

Paris Architecture features just 33 buildings, but fails to give a clear impression of any of them, allotting only one page of text to each. The lack of plans or drawings doesn't help (and as good plans can be easily understood by a general reader, one wonders who vetoed them).

The text ties itself in knots trying to describe the parallel planes of the Cartier Foundation (which could be easily explained with a diagram or cross-section), and essential concepts, such as the sequence of the architectural promenade at the Maison La Roche, are lost. Nowhere is it pointed out that the 'moving diaphragms' of the Institut du Monde Arabe are light sensitive, which is a pretty major point and not obvious from a photograph.

It is very unclear who the book is aimed at. Its 'promenade' is certainly no Pevsner 'perambulation': its map is a fairly useless diagram giving only the vaguest indication of where each building is, and the book is far too heavy and unwieldy to carry around.

It claims to 'show private residences and public buildings where interiors are often either little-known or difficult to visit', but it is a selection which includes many extremely obvious choices (Castel Beranger, the Pompidou Centre, Le Grand Louvre).

Paris Architecture is also a bad choice if you want a seductive picture book. It is illustrated only with specially commissioned new photographs which have a monotonous quality and are at scales which fail to explain the buildings clearly. In many cases period photographs would have been a valuable addition, if not simply a better option. It is sad to see Koolhaas' Villa Dall'Ava bedecked with plastic sheet fencing (it rather ruins the view from the rooftop swimming pool). Moreover, the Pompidou Centre is shown only after its recent thorough makeover, while Jean Prouve's Maison du Peuple at Clichy-sur-Seine is shown partially restored, still missing its metal cladding at ground floor level.

Paris Architecture should have been a stimulating reassessment but there are much better books on this subject. Anthony Sutcliffe's Paris: An Architectural History (Yale University Press, 1993), for instance, is far more insightful and comprehensive, and Herve Martin's Guide to Modern Architecture in Paris, although 10 years old, remains a better bet if you are planning an itinerary.

Catherine Croft is an architectural historian

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