Monday, 1 April 2013

Paris Day 4 - Axe Historique, Champs Elysee & Arc de Triomphe

A Personal Architectural Analysis of the Historical Axes of Paris.

9°C

Well, nobody could really consider they have visited Paris without taking a stroll down Avenue des Champs-Élysées [1]. This is another sight that warrants a revisit. While I don't look forwards to the luxury shops, I can look forward to the sight of Arc de Triomphe at the end of the walk.

Native American performing in Place de la Concorde, Paris
Native American traditional band performing in Place de la Concorde
Busking is common in Paris, especially in the metro in the less busy hours of the evenings

General Charles de Gaulle statue on Champs Elysee
General Charles de Gaulle statue marching
into Champs Elysee
We begun our walk from Place de la Concorde, which is the start of Champs-Élysées, which in turns is part of the Axe Historique (Historical Axis).

The Axe Historique (Historical Axis) is actually made up of 2 axes of old and new parts of Paris.

The old axis is very familiar to most tourists. It consists of Avenue des Champs-Elysées with Arc de Triomphe as its lynchpin. It starts at the Louvre and finishes at Palais des congrès.

The new axis is made up of Esplanade du Général de Gaulle and L'Avenue Charles-de-Gaulle and ends in Palais des congrès with La Grande Arche as its fulcrum.

Historical Axes of Old and New Paris, France
Historical Axes of the old and new Paris, divided by Bd Peripherique
(click  photo to enlarge)

These 2 axes symbolise the old and new in 3 ways:

1. The old axis is represented by street with ancient Greek name (Champs-Elysées) while the new axis is represented by street with new name (Charles-de-Gaulle ).
2. The old axis locates wholely in the old Paris while the new axis locates just outside the old Paris in the new business district of La Défense. The boundary is marked by aptly named Bd Peripherique.
3. Lastly, the centres of the 2 axes are marked by old and new arches respectively.

While the 2 arches (Grand Arch and Arch of Triumph) represent the 2 centres of the old and new axes, together they form the 2 foci of the combined single Historical Axis.

Palais des congrès is - by default - the centre of the combined Historical Axis of old and new axes, and it locates just right at the boundary of Paris (DB Peripherique), the very edge of old and new Paris.

View towards the Grand Arch from atop of Arc de Triomphe
View of Avenue Charles de Gaulle towards the Grand Arch from atop of Arc de Triomphe.


View towards the Grand Arch from atop of Arc de Triomphe
Close-up view towards the Grand Arch from atop of Arc de Triomphe.
(Telescoping of the left photo)


I visited La Défense in Day 1, thus complete my trip to both axes. You can read my diary of that trip here.

It's interesting to do a little comparison between the Beijing and Paris famous axes. While Paris' Historical Axis runs along SE to NW compass points, The Beijing's (Purple) Forbidden City aligns itself along the North-South axis.

Also, while Beijing NS-Axis is based on celestial or astrological principles, the Paris Historical Axis is very much grounded on historical and geographical milestones. It's designed to provide a continuous vista from one end of the Axis to another. Of course, they both have strong symbolic significance.

The important structures aligns on the N-S Axis
The important structures aligns on the N-S Axis

Also note that the 2 structures - Bird's Nest and Water Cube is also align along the N-S Axis as see in the satellite photo below.

Beijing National Stadium and Water Cube, China
The Water Cube and the Bird's Nest, perfectly aligns with the N-S axis.


The Arc de Triomphe is the geographical centre of the old Axis, which extends from Tuileries Gardens to Palais des congrès. You could say the new Axis had been extended from Palais des Congrès in Porte Maillot to the Grand Arch in La Défense (and beyond) in 1978 to commemorate the Bicentenary of the French Revolution.

Something similar also occurred to Beijing city when the important Olympic venues like the Bird Nest and Water Cube (officially known as Beijing National Stadium and Beijing National Aquatics Centre) were added on either side of the Beijing NS-Axis further north of the Forbidden City as a modern extension of their NS-Axis. Many of the ancient Beijing lanes of hutongs are also mapped onto these NS grids.

The central idea of the Axis in Paris is that the 2 arches, one modern and one old, are standing vis-à-vis across the old Paris, and the new Paris district of La Défense, symbolising the separation of 2 centuries. In order words, the 2 historical time periods are represented by the 2 geographical landmarks.

This use of space to represent time (and vice versa) is common practice. For example, the term 'light years' is used to represent distance; or even more relevant in this case, we also use geographical longitudes to mark time zones as illustrated below.

If time can be represented by space, then history can be represented by geography. And this representation of history with geography is being done via the linking the 2 arches of the 2 time periods at the 2 foci of the Axis.

time zones
Geography of the world is being divided or mapped as Time Zones. Time is being represented using space.

This Axis therefore represents the continuity of the 2 eras. Because they're standing vis-à-vis at the 2 foci of the Axis, it's crucial that the 2 arches has an uninterrupted line of sight to embody this idea of continuity.

In order to achieve the uninterrupted line of sight, one has to make sure that nothing stands between the 2 arches. This is no problem between Arc de Triomphe and Esplanade de la Défense metro station because there's nothing in between but Avenue Charles de Gaulle and subway as seen by the photo below.


View towards Arch de Triomphe from Esplanade de la Defense Metro station
View towards Arc de Triomphe from Esplanade de la Défense Metro station
as the train emerges briefly from below Avenue Charles de Gaulle as it pulls into the station
(where I stood and took this photo)

But from here - the Esplanade de la Défense metro - to the Grand Arch isn't consisting of only road. This means structures and buildings could be placed here that would potentially block the centre line of sight between the 2 arches.

Roof of La defense metro's exit looking towards Grand Arch
Roof of La Defense metro's exit looking towards the Grand Arch
If you look at this photo. The foreground of the photo is a sloping glass and steel structure (click image for a larger view). This is the roof of the exit of La Défense metro. This roof structure has a 'notch', or gap. I thought this is rather odd the first time I came across it. In fact, it started me thinking. I thought to myself that I want to get to the bottom of this, and the result is this article.

To the casual passer-by, there's nothing significant about this gap in the roof structure. It's just a walkway. Only an architect (which I'm not) would pay attention (which I did) to this weird design of the metro roof, and asks "why put a walkway there"?

Looking from this angle, you don't see any association between this gap or walkway in the roof in the foreground and the Grand Arch in the background of the photo.

Instead, if you look at it from the opposite angle, in other words, from 180 degrees angle from the above photo, the truth is revealed. The 'notch' is simply an inverted arch, a gap to provide an uninterrupted line of sight between the 2 arches. Let's call it Gap de la Arch. Without this Gap de la Arch, an observer at this viewpoint would see only the metro roof, and not the Arc de Triomphe.

In other words, the continuity of the metro's roof has to be sacrificed in order to maintain the continuity of the line of sight of the Axis.

Arch de Triomphe as viewed from La Défense
Arc de Triomphe as viewed from La Défense, just above La Défense metro.
Source: ZacharyS, under CC license

Problem solved. The city planner just has to make sure nobody is going to erect anything to block this line of sight. If a structure is to be erected along this Axis, leave a gap. I'm sure the city council would make sure of that.

View of Esplanade du Général de Gaulle towards the Grand Arch
View of Esplanade du Général de Gaulle towards the Grand Arch
Esplanade du Général de Gaulle spans between Esplanade de la Défense and La Défense metro stations. Again this Esplanade runs just above the metro Line 1 ensures there's nothing would be built to block the line of sight.

As a bonus, the Esplanade also reproduces the same visual impact that Champs-Élysées has on the pedestrian as one approaches the Grand Arch. Of course, the Grand Arch is far bigger than the Arc de Triomphe.

La Grande Arche is 110m tall and 108m wide, while Arc de Triomphe is 50m tall and 45m wide. More than double in size, in fact. And while Avenue des Champs-Élysées is lined by designer label retail shops, Esplanade du Général de Gaulle is franked by modern offices.

If you like, this Esplanade du Général de Gaulle is the western Avenue des Champs-Élysées, or the modern Champs-Élysées to complete this mirroring of the old and the new arches/eras/histories.

I'm quite certain that the name of the metro of Esplanade de la Défense is derived from this Esplanade, which locates immediately above the metro station.

The photo below is taken as I stood on the ground floor of the Grand Arch looking westwards (Arc de Triomphe is behind me). This walkway extends from the Grand Arch mirrors the extension of the Avenue from Arc de Triomph to Palais des Congrès. Like that part of the road where few tourists even care to find out, so is this walkway. It's there just to complete the architectural symmetry of the old and new axes.



I'm sure the French architect(s) who created the new axis and more has had all these in mind.




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[1] Avenue des Champs-Élysées is more commonly, but incorrectly shortened to Champs-Élysées, which is name of an area near the Avenue that bears its name. I'll use both names interchangeably in this article.

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