August 20, 2001
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Photo courtesy of Vaux-le-Vicomte
It was clear and hot as café filtré in France
last weekend. Abandoned by the French, throngs were milling
down the Champs Elysées, the air thick with German
gutturals and American twang, while Japanese tourists lined
up at Louis Vuitton for one more scarf. Kids from Canada and
Kansas manned the bistros and shops. Yikes! Doesnt anyone
speak French here anymore?
The August crowds, a United Nations brew, had descended on
the City of Light, apparently intent on stuffing every bit
of western culture possible into their pocketbooks and ample
stomachs. I swam against the current.
Of course, my sixth sense pulled me toward architecture,
so I wandered up to Parc Monceau to amble, ramble, and sit
among the chestnuts and soak up authentic residential calm.
Surrounded by elaborately chased and chiseled houses of the
nouveaux riches, the park offered serenity and a place apart,
as it had for the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, who lived nearby,
or for the family of Monsieur Nissim de Camando.
His grand house, a hôtel particulier built in the early
days of this century, remains intact, filled with the bibelots
and photographs, museum quality Sèvres china and silver
of an extremely wealthy family of bankers, Sephardic Jews
who emigrated to France in the early 19th Century. For architects,
their house is like stopped time, frozen in place: the pieces
remain intact, from the private elevator to the working accoutrements
of the kitchen, set below grade, yet flooded with light. Reminiscent
of 18th Century grandeur yet clearly made of and for the 20th
century, it crystallized the differences between our attraction
to history and how our ability to recreate the authentic is
tempered by contemporary taste and methods.
A greater house lies an hour outside the city, near Melun.
Perhaps the grandest private house in France, though not the
largest, may be the house built by Nicolas Fouquet, another
financier, in the 17th centurythe chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte.
As a student of the history of architecture, you remember
the images of the domed house set like a wedding cake in an
idealized park. The trio that planned and executed the elaborate
chateau for Louis XIVs minister of finance included
the architect Le Vau, the painter/decorator Le Brun, and the
landscape architect, Le Notre, who engaged up to 18,000 laborers
in the construction of a masterpiece. The Sun King, overwhelmed
at its magnificence, stung with jealousy and the intrigues
of Fouquets rivals, had Fouquet arrested and imprisoned,
then promptly hired the same trio to mastermind his own creation
The lasting impression the chateau makes is one of measure
and design. Here scale and perception are called into play
by the creators: at first sight, the chateau appears larger
than its actual size, the gardens smaller. Yet in touring
the house, you are struck by its residential quality. Despite
Louis fit of pique, Vaux is a grand house for a man
and his family, not a palace for a king. Proportion, however,
elevates the spaces into works of greater power. A room in
the shape of a perfect cube bears the spatial weight of a
larger place; the exterior footprint looms with greater emphasis
with its inflated dome and angular turrets.
The gardens stretch out like rationalized tapestry from the
loom of René Descartes, culminating in a grotto at
the base of a hill. All is horizontals and verticals, with
Le Notres elaborate swirling patterns as an overlay.
While the length of the walkways appears manageable, a sign
indicates that the overall length of the park, from entrance
gate to hilltop is a mile and a half. Foreshortened perspective
deceives the eye. As you promenade down the generous gravel
walks, sniffing the old roses along the way and admiring the
fountains, suddenly a hillside drops to a grand canal, almost
completely hidden from view, and the distance to the hillside
broadens: the distance we thought we could gauge just increased
Après moi le deluge. Fouquet died in prison, a victim
of overweening pride and a kings wrath. A century and
a half later, the Bastille had been stormed; Marie Antoinette
had given her life. Last weekend, we were common folk, the
stuff of contemporary life, who rested in the shade of the
plane trees soaking up the heat, French men and women, Americans,
Russians and the Japanese. The progeny of the democratic experiment,
which hatched on this continent and that in the ideas of the
Enlightenment, all in response to the ambition, control, and
power demonstrated by men like Louis and Fouquet, in places
like the sublime Vaux.