Culture and Innovation
The cityscape of Paris has been a powerful source of inspiration for French and foreign artists and writers since the fifteenth century. In particular, its captivating architectural horizon is recognized as one of the most beautiful in the world. And yet Parisian roofs, difficult to see from the sidewalks below, are themselves often overlooked, overshadowed by the imposing façades and famous buildings they sit upon. The Roofs of Paris makes visible these little-known and vital Parisian architectural features, presenting their histories, styles, and meanings and revealing their crucial role as carriers of French cultural heritage.
With objects ranging from three-dimensional architectural models, French oil paintings, and prints to films, photos, and multi-media installations, the exhibition celebrates the urban panorama of Paris as it metamorphosed from a dark and ornate medieval city into the “city of light”. Nineteenth-century writers such as Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Charles Baudelaire evoked Paris’s remaining medieval, labyrinthine streets, while Impressionist painters such as Manet, Pissaro, and Van Gogh depicted Paris’s more modern urban landscape, especially the vast new boulevards built by Haussmann that carved through the city’s urban fabric.
Then as now, Paris changes as light and shadow play across the rapidly moving Seine, Gothic spires, golden domes, zinc mansards and slate roofs. At times welcoming and at others unsettling, Paris becomes grey and dark under clouds and rain only to reemerge sparkling in the sun. At night, the regular facades of Haussmann’s Paris offer a somber and imposing presence, broken by the rhythmically-placed streetlamps and the blazing lights of cafes and restaurants. Paris’s changeable façade, seemingly composed of light and air, continues to captivate photographers, writers, architects, filmmakers, and painters to this day. As a setting for movies, novels, even advertisements, Paris offers a permanently beguiling nature: romantic, urbane, bejeweled, dark, ancient, and modern.
The roofs of Paris were recently submitted for inclusion to the UNESCO World Heritage List by Mayor Delphine Bürkli of Paris’ 9th district. The roofs have never ceased to be a powerful source of inspiration for artists, from architects, to painters, photographers, moviemakers as well as writers both in France and all around the world. The gaze of the flâneur is washing over the ever-renewed shapes throughout centuries. The subtleness of the swatch, the softness of the pale grey zinc, blue-grey slates, grand golden domes, are all an invitation to enchantment, secrecy, and voyage. The Parisian roofs which shape the city’s landscape, continue to offer new spaces, both close and in the horizon, tucked in between the city and the sky. They evoke the inaccessible dreamlands of the novels. The ambition of this exhibition is to show the richness of the Paris’ roofs urban landscape with all its diversity, the history and innovations.
Painting and vision of the rooftops
In the pictorial art, the revelation of the Parisian roofs is carried on thanks to illuminated manuscripts of the XVth century (The Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry). Then come the commemorative visions of the XVIIth century (Van-der-Meulen), the rich vedute of the XVIII’s century (Hubert Robert). Afterwards, the impressionists’ fascination for sky fragments crowning the Parisian roofs (Caillebotte, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Braque, Jongkind…), up to the modernity of Nicolas de Staël. So many visions elevating and carrying us to the highest parts of the city, to the architectural ornaments, within the lights and shadows of the suspended city.
Music, literature and horizon line
The literature voting Paris and the fascination of the roofs is immense and will widely be the topic of exchanges and public readings (Sébastien Mercier, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Zola, Gaston Leroux, Hemingway, Mondiano…) Music, opera, romances and popular songs are another counterpoint to the evocation of the Parisian roofs and will be the occasion of brief and unexpected performances.
Architecture and crafts of the roofs
The architecture of Parisian roofs reflects the royal momentum of ancient works, adorned with arrows, bell towers and domes. Notre-Dame, the Val-de-Grace, the college of the Quatre-Nations, the Invalides… But it is in the nineteenth century, through the creation of Hausmannian buildings, that Paris finally has its almost timeless and universally recognizable tonality (flowing lines of the roofs, zinc lofts).
Among the Parisian roofs, the Pompidou Center downtown, the historical center, the Museum of the Arab World, the Cartier Foundation constitute the most emblematic ones. Technical innovations also contribute to modeling the Parisian sky: The Ballard Halls, Saint-Augustin, Opera, the Eiffel Tower… Then at dawn of the twentieth century, the Grand Palais. The last century records an essential change: the appearance of rooftop terraces unfolds a new way of looking at the city. Later on, Paris became the nexus of a vast array of architectural experimentations which changes the scale and the perception.
The craftsmen and restoration of the roofs of Paris
The craftsmen and companions, servicing the historical monuments, have been perpetuating for long decades the rehabilitation of traditional Parisian buildings and restaurants. Specialists of old and modern materials, the slaters are specialized in slate, plumbing, copper, art zinc, and in steel and glass. These worldly renowned craftsmen preserve and perpetuate the historic memory of Paris and the urban vision of the landscape of the roofs of the capital. They receive orders from the State and the city of Paris and operate under the control of the chief architects of the Historical Monuments.
Interview of Emmanuel Bréon, Curator of the Exhibition
Can you tell us who are you and what your contribution is to Le French May 2017?
My name is Emmanuel Bréon, Chief Curator of the Cité de l’Architecture and I am the academic curator of the exhibition “The Roofs of Paris.” My role, and that of my team, has been to identify interesting works of art that best represent the theme of the exhibition; in this way we can produce a well-deserved homage to the “Roofs of Paris” as a “monument” in and of itself.
How did you choose the theme of the exhibition? And why?
There is a committee, established by the Mayor of the IXth arrondissement of Paris, Dephine Bürkli, to support the candidacy of the Roofs of Paris as a UNESCO intangible culture heritage site (Comité de Soutien à la Candidature des Toits de Paris au Patrimoine de l’UNESCO). As part of the Le French May in Hong Kong’s celebration of its 25th Anniversay, the General Secretary of that committee, Olivier Boileau Descamps, proposed an accompanying exhibition and suggested (along with and Nikolas Patrynski, the audiovisual designer) that I be the curator. I admit that I was greatly attracted by this theme, given the important role the roofs of Paris has played as a source of artistic inspiration.
What kind objects will be displayed in « The Roofs of Paris » ?
The roofs of Paris have remained a well-hidden national treasure. Though difficult to see and to access, they have nonetheless inspired countless works of art, such as photographs, novels, films, paintings and even three-dimensional models and archtiectural drawings, all represented in this exhibition. The wonderful variety of works shown here demonstrates to what extent Parisian skyline has been a source for artistic creativity. Just as important, the exhibition also wishes to celebrate the Master Craftsmen who have constructed these roofs and maintain them today: the « couvreurs » as they are called in French. This is why we there are architectural models and examples of different materials and techniques that make Parisian roofs an Unique World Heritage Site.
Which object do you personally like the most among the ones showcased here, and why?
It is deeply moving to find oneself in front of the original mid-19t –century watercolor drawings and the model of the spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral done by the architect Viollet-le-Duc and which, as their favorite architect, he presented to the Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. These pieces rarely leave France and it is therefore a rare and fortunate event to have them displayed here.
Could you tell us the history of one of the art works displayed in this exhibition?
Let me return to Viollet-le-Duc’s wooden model for the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral. One must imagine the imperial couple, just like the visitors at the exhibition, admiring these original drawings and the model, perhaps in one of the Salons of the Tuileries Palace (no longer extent) and deciding to approve its construction.
There are also admirable examples of zinc decoration, which was once so characteristic of Parisian roofs and which requires particular skill. The official « Artisans of the Roofs of Paris » are the only craftsmen in the world who have fully mastered this particular technique, and already did so several centuries ago. It is truly moving to be confronted with the fruit of their labors ! They are true Master Artists !