I don’t claim to be the sharpest knife it the drawer and there are plenty of people who will attest to that. This was never more evident than during our first couple of days enjoying the streets of Paris. We didn’t follow-up our tiring transatlantic flight by crashing upon arrival at our hotel in Paris’ 7th arrondissement. Instead we hit the streets not wanting to waste a second of our short time in the city. As we strolled I was instantly struck by the beauty of the buildings that lined the streets, each stamped with large wooden doors with their own unique design. I became enamoured by these doors – stand alone works of art and gateways to who knows what kind of wonderful secrets. Actually, they just turned out to be simple entrances to courtyards that led to the coveted apartments above. Like I said, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
It’s common knowledge that Paris is the home of some of the world’s greatest monuments, cathedrals, and museums. It’s the capital of French cuisine and culture and we most certainly indulged ourselves in every facet of it. But as we walked around the city I remained drawn to the striking architecture of these buildings. Cafes and shops line the street level occasionally separated by one of these beautifully crafted wooden doors. Little electronic keypads are next to these ornate entrances which lead to the apartments on the floors above the cafes and storefronts. I watched countless people walk up to those keypads, punch in a code, and pull open those huge doors before disappearing inside. My curious eyes gazing inside allowed me to see a variety of cool courtyard designs within the small time frame of the door being opened until the door closed behind them. I never passed up an opportunity to look inside. This was Paris’ architecture and I loved it.
Most of the look of modern-day Paris can be traced back to Baron Haussmann’s massive renovation of the city during the second half of the 19th century. The project was commissioned by Napoleon III and Haussmann was put in charge of cleaning up and modernizing Paris. Not only did Haussmann renovate the boulevards, gardens, and sewer systems, but he also imposed strict regulations on the construction, height, and design of buildings. The stone facades of many adjoining buildings share the exact same measurements and their floors and windows are required to line up to create a consistent and uniformed appearance. These buildings weren’t constructed with individuality in mind. Instead they were matching components joined together to create a harmonious block. Haussmann’s project started in central Paris but soon found its way to the surrounding arrondissements and across the city.
At first many Parisians were critical of the Haussmann Plan. In order to widen some of the streets and create some of modern Paris’ most renowned long straight boulevards, Haussmann demolished a number of buildings. He then rebuilt them, meeting the new required specifications, and in essence giving the city an intense make-over. The reasons for the renovations weren’t strictly cosmetic. The Paris population had grown astronomically yet, for the most part, the city had maintained its medieval style and infrastructure. The narrow braided streets cramped by hovering buildings made transportation through the city more and more difficult. There was also a growing concern over the sanitary conditions of the city.
That old medieval style was one of the main casualties of the mammoth project but yet there are still tastes of it to be found particularly in the Latin Quarter and the Marais districts. Over time the criticism of Haussmann’s aggressive makeover gave way to praise as the city took on the identity that you see today. And while I loved the glimpses back to old Paris with its one-lane streets and crowding buildings, I equally adored the Haussmannian architecture with its soothing and almost poetic congruency. The same aesthetic coats most city and the large wooden doors are a key part of it.
Several times during our trip I found myself thinking about those doors. I imagined being the proud owner of a set of those secret keypad numbers – numbers only given to the fortunate and the privileged. I imagined what it would be like to punch in those numbers which unlock the large wooden door, pulling it open while leaving the busy Paris day behind, entering into a cozy courtyard, and then making my way up to my fourth floor apartment which overlooked the street below from a much calmer and more therapeutic perspective. I can see myself, there at my own little spot in Paris, opening the windows to let the sounds of city rush in. Laying down and closing my eyes while listening to the clinging of cafe cups and dishes, the French chatter of passers-by, and the sound of a child’s scooter rattling across the cobblestone.
If that’s Parisian living, I love it. I admire it. I could live it. And while I don’t live under the delusion that living in Paris frees you from every struggle and trial of ordinary daily life, I can see where living in one of Haussmann’s works of residential art combined with the culture that lives right outside the windows could be a true treasure. I think about living there. I think about the neighborhood cafes. I think about arriving home from work. I think about our kids playing in the hidden courtyard. Is this obtainable? Is it all just a fantasy? If only I had the numbers to one of those big wooden doors.