Friday, January 24, 2014

Early History of the Marais

The Marais (marsh or swamp) is one of the oldest quarters in Paris; standing in propinquity to the Île de la Cité.  During the Roman era, the arteries rue St. Martin and St. Antoine were built to cross over the Marais.

A place where "time-worn stones" and "ever-flowing streams beneath the bridges" connect the sprawling northern arc around the edge of the Right Bank wall, the Marais emerged from out of the marsh into the fashionable Marais neighborhood we know today.

The crown played a major role in the development urban housing through the process of lotissement - the parcelling of land into small lots whose entrances faced newly designed streets.  Henry IV 'of Navarre' (r. 1589-1610), is credited with giving the Marais much of its characteristic architecture. 

King Henry was insistent that architects follow building regulations, which kept straighter building lines on the street. Here, as elsewhere at the time, timber-framed buildings were banned, while greater care was taken to make building heights more uniform. 

In the 14th century, the fortress compound of Charles V included all of what is now the Marais - the 3rd and 4th arrondissements of Paris (Pont Royal and the Porte Saint-Denis).

In 1962 de Gaulle's Culture Minister André Malraux passed a law permitting the designation of 'conservation areas' (secteurs sauvegardés) - areas of great historical importance or aesthetic value. The Marais was the first area in Paris to be given this grand treatment.

Malraux's pioneering law turned the Marais, which at the time was one of the unhealthiest and most decaying parts of the old city, into a tourist hotspot - one of the most chic districts in town.

Nurturing the idea of le Vieux Paris, the Fifth Republic presided over the historic patrimony of the city. Under the prescriptions of the 1962 Malraux law on conservation areas (secteurs sauvegardés), the Marais was restored.

Utilizing draconian powers of expropriation (knocking down eyesores), the private-public company, fulfilling the mission of conservation in the Marais, took old buildings and converted them for modern uses - upgrading services along the way.

New economic activities were introduced into the neighborhoods with the intent on retaining the Marais's architectural and cultural historic character.

While the Marais had fallen into inner-city deprivation (60% of homes had no running water and no WC, the amount of green space was approximately half the city average, and some housing blocks had 2,000 individuals per square hectare vs. the Parisian average of 300), the success of the Festival of the Marais in 1961 - a cultural festival held in the old hôtels - convinced Parisians that the Marais was worth saving.

The Marais, a highly heterogeneous locality, socially and ethnically, had long since had an artisanal character and lively air (though at one point that air was considered insalubre (îlot insalubre - an insanitary district designated for improvement).

Restoring the dilapidated Marais back to its former glory after years of neglect and foreign occupation meant the removal of sheds, lean-tos, additions, and workshops from the courtyards and inner spaces of the great aristocratic hôtels. The aim was to restore the Marais back to the approximated state of the neighborhood in the mid-eighteenth century.

This historical cleansing - curetage - hasn't been without its conflicts. The two principles - le Vieux Paris as something worth saving and the support of the historic patrimony of the city - has resulted in distain for work of quality dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This conflict requires a great deal of meticulous care and historical verification to determine which components stay and which components go.

Nevertheless, the restoration process has produced some architectural gems. By the 1980s the Marais had been transformed with its ethnic diversity retained - though there was a clear shift in its social texture. Still today, many of the workers, artisans and small businesses, which have historically given the district its appeal, have been leaving in droves due to rising prices and confining spatial restrictions. Residents, on the other hand, have benefitted with rising property prices, with a new middle-class community arising from the neighborhood's beautification process.

One particular development has been the emergence of a liberal community in the Marais. Still, the Marais remains highly culturally and ethnically diverse even though the population tends toward the better-off. The beautification of the Marais has placed it directly on the main tourist trails.

The restoration and establishment of museums have also played a large part in the Marais' appeal. The Musée Carnavalet in Madame de Sévigne's old haunt, the Musée Picasso in the Hôtel Salé, and the Maison européenne de la photographie on the Rue de Fourcy are must sees while visiting Paris.

The resulting respect for le Vieux Paris with the exigencies of modernization has produced a kind of museumization of the neighborhood (old corner shops are now trendy boutiques; shoe-shops retain old signs - Boulangerie - with their enamelled figures dating back to the nineteenth century).

Located on the right bank of the Seine at the foot of the Belleville and Montmartre hills, there's no doubt as to why the historic Marais quarter is a central component of the heart of Paris. 

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