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How the Marais Became What It Is
Today’s episode tells the story of how the Marais neighborhood was almost razed to make room for a monstrosity called Le Plan Voisin by Le Corbusier. Le Marais is a Paris neighborhood that goes over the 3rd and 4th arrondissements of Paris. It’s on the right bank of the Seine River.
The Marais used to be a swamp area, hence the name, which means swamp in French. There have been people living there since the 1100s that we know of. Many of the streets and houses are medieval in the Marais because they were built in the 1400s and 1500s. But, as historical research proceeds, some are realizing that some of these houses only look like they were built in the 1400s. A good example of that is on 3 rue Volta in the 3rd arrondissement. Historians are now saying that it was built in 1644 as a copy of 1400s home. It’s still worth seeing!
The famous Place des Vosges was built in the early 1600s and that’s when the Nobles of Paris moved to the Marais in large numbers. By then the Middle Ages were over, various Kings, their children, and siblings moved to the Marais. They commissioned many Hôtel Particuliers in the area. The Hôtel Particuliers are stunningly beautiful and cost a fortune to build, but that never stopped rich people. What’s a Hôtel Particulier? It’s a very VERY fancy, very large single family home. Not a hotel at all.
You Can Visit Many of those Gorgeous Hôtel Particuliers in the Marais
- Hôtel de Sully.
- Hôtel Carnavalet which houses the Musée Carnavalet.
- Hôtel de Sens, it was built in the late Middle Ages, I love the look of that one personally. It’s actual name is Hôtel des archevêques de Sens and today is the home of the Forney Library which specializes in posters and advertising.
- Hôtel de Lamoignon. This one houses the Paris Historical Library.
- Hôtel de Soubise. Houses National Archive.
By the 1700s the Marais area fell out of favor with the rich and noble who all moved to the Faubourg Saint-Germain and Faubourg Saint Honoré where they had more room for bigger and better homes and gardens. Many of them also moved to Versailles, right along with the French court.
By the French Revolution (1789 thru 1799) all rich people have moved out of the Marais, making room for artisans and workers who use the gorgeous courtyards as workshops and have a convenient location in Paris to call their own.
Then from the end of the 1800s until the Second World War, many Ashkenazi Jews move in (around 110,000 of them), fleeing persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe. They congregate around rue des Rosiers in a neighborhood called Pletzl.
In the 1800s, Paris went through extensive renovations known as the Haussmanian era, but those mostly bypassed the Marais which kept its narrow streets and old infrastructure. Some dilapidated houses were torn down here and there, but, for the most part, there are no Haussmanian-style buildings in the Marais.
So that’s the Marais area in a nutshell: grand in the 1600s for 100 years, still has many mansions, but mostly medieval houses, narrow streets, old infrastructure, sprinkled with a few renovated houses, but largely a place for immigrants and blue collar workers where nobody invested a lot of cash for a long time. In other words, the neighborhood started to look a little disheveled.
It bears to remember too that during WWI and WWII the construction sector went dormant in France and particularly in occupied France. The country fell behind in terms of housing and it became really difficult to find a place to live for young families. Never mind affordable, there wasn’t ‘t much to be had to begin with!
During WWI France had such shortages in the workforce that they asked the Chinese government to send laborers and China did! Many of those men settled in the northwest section of the Marais. Many of them stayed and still live in the area.
Today the Marais is also known as the “Gay” area in Paris. In the 80s the area gentrified through the efforts of the numerous gay couples who moved in and invested there. Gay couples opened fashion boutiques, cafés, restaurants, hotels, B&B, businesses of all sorts. They poured money into it and made it look nice again. It worked so well that by now the Marais is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Paris.
Why Did Paris Consider Building Such a Monstrosity?
There were a lot of cultural changes taking place in the 50s in France After the horrors of WWI and again of WWII the ideals of modernism took hold in France at all levels of society. From the most modest French working class to the intellectuals, people had a thirst for everything new. French people wanted a future with modern housing, an automobile, appliances, and a more equitable society. This is the era of big societal changes like the establishment of the “sécurité
This is the era of big societal changes like the establishment of the “sécurité sociale” which in France is not about retirement but health insurance for everyone. Somehow everyone agreed that health insurance should be run by the government for the betterment of all. I’m not sure that would pass so easily today at a time of much greater individualism, but it worked post-war.
The Need for Urban Renewal in Paris
In the 50s, France had a serious housing problem AND a thirst for modernity. French people wanted to move to the cities and there weren’t enough homes to house them all. Also, housing in the cities had not been improved on very much. What do you do to provide lots of housing in a hurry? Apartment buildings. Lots of them.
The prophet of such a message was Le Corbusier. He was a Franco-Swiss architect and urban planner who had a great love for all things hyper-planned, rectangular, with great big thick highways making life easy for cars, and preferably made of reinforced concrete that he wanted to look like concrete. He made proposals for such developments all over the world. He worked on the Plan Voisin proposal for Paris starting in 1922, finishing it in 1925 and then making changes to it all the way until 1940.
Le Corbusier, a Controversial Figure
Le Corbusier is a controversial figure. He was a control freak who thought it was up to the architect to decide how people would live in his buildings. He was intransigent and single-minded. Many people say he was an authoritarian and an anti-Semite. I don’t know about that, but seeing that he did a lot of his work in the 20s and 30s at a time when Hitler was spreading his ideology and people were buying it, it’s not so surprising.
Lots of ideas we find unsettling today were in full bloom at the time, all over Europe and the US. For example, eugenics were gaining popular, the KKK was vibrant with activity, people were obsessed “pure races” (in dogs and horses, but also in people). So keep that in mind.
Le Corbusier’s proposals for Paris were to raze most of the old buildings in the Marais and a lot of the right bank of the Seine to build a whole complex of freeways and skyscrapers that I will not hesitate to qualify as a monstrosity. 18 cross-shaped sky-scrapers of 60 stories each. A massive freeway running through it. When you see the pictures you may ask yourself, aren’t those somewhat swastika-shaped? Even if you don’t go that far, they look like something out of a dystopian novel complete with totalitarian dictator etc.
These towers could house 700,000 people. The total population of Paris proper today is 2.2 million, so that 700,000 is 30% of Paris’ population today! It would have been huge!
He called it “le plan Voisin” after Gabriel Voisin another visionary in the area of aeronautics. I suspect that he also like that fact that “voisin” means neighbor and gave a warm feeling to an otherwise horrible cold place.
Does that mean I think Le Corbusier never did anything nice? Not at all, as a matter of fact his ideas are pervasive today in the kind of cube houses that I’ve mentioned before on the podcast which are thankfully losing steam quickly in France.
As you can probably tell, I don’t love them, but lots of people love them and I respect that. Le Corbusier designed nice individual homes. He also pushed for large balconies and large windows. That’s positive. But when it came to large scale projects I don’t understand how he didn’t see how inhumane and cold it all seems.
But razing the Marais, that would have been a terrible crime. A crime against charming old houses that are such a pain to renovate but worth it all the same.
People were nuts about modernism. This started in 1945 and didn’t stop until the 90s really. Anything old and in poor repair was at risk. Any old housing occupied by poor people in a prime location was also at risk. People wanted to move forward and didn’t question what it would do to their heritage.
When they looked back at proposals to raze much of the Marais and Temple (saving a few churches and Hôtels Particuliers only) to make room for a grand freeway project, so long as there was a promise of modern housing for a good price, they were all for it.
In the 50s there were some grumblings about using Le Corbusier’s plan. It might have worked but for the lack of funds.
But what really stopped it, surprisingly, a young engineer with a hobby. His name was Michel Raude. He didn’t set out to go on a crusade against anything in particular. He liked history and music and decided to create an association that would put on a music festival in the Marais.
This was a wonderfully original idea at the time! Such music festivals are common in France by now, but his started in 1961 and brought a lot of people to a realization of the gem Le Marais is.