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Tour de France

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! Doesn’t 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 century—the 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 XIV’s 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 Fouquet’s rivals, had Fouquet arrested and imprisoned, then promptly hired the same trio to mastermind his own creation at Versailles.

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 Notre’s 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 two-fold.

Après moi le deluge. Fouquet died in prison, a victim of overweening pride and a king’s 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.