Iron and Lace
So exquisitely plain to see!
Have you ever been subjugated by another’s face, without really knowing why? Is it the curve of lips, the slant of the eyes, or the arc of the brow? So it is with so many who sense the beauty of Paris. I’ve been subjugated for so many years, wanting to understand why. It’s not essential to know, of course, but the seeking leads to greater awareness, and the awareness to an even greater appreciation of beauty.
So it is that after twenty-five years in Paris, more familiar with her than with the whole of my hand, I noticed something for the first time. That something had always been before my eyes, on just about every street, and every building, and in every apartment. It is a part of almost every view, be it from within or without.
What about you? Have you taken notice of the thousands of iron-wrought guardrailings that ornament Parisian façades? Have you observed that from building to building, they are never the same? Have you followed the prolific complexity of their designs? Have you considered how the hardest of all materials has been used to render forms that are exuberant and flowing? Do you wonder why such craft and ornamentation have been employed to perform such a prosaic function: protecting people from accidental falls?
Pondering the omnipresence of this iron grace, I came to realize how the art and craft it had required would ultimately lead to France’s ironwork apotheosis: the Eiffel Tower. What a superbly elegant edifice built both of iron and lace!
What an irony of history that we have monarchs to thank for our most remarkable architecture. There was Louis XIV for Versailles, and Napoleon III for the grandeur of Paris. The latter commissioned Haussman to redesign the city according to a master plan. Winding, narrow streets were replaced with grand, evenly-spaced, tree-lined, boulevards. Buildings were raised to six stories. Building facades were standardized to a certain degree for the sake of architectural unity. Balconies were, in general, reserved for the second and the top floors.
The latter 19th century thus became Paris’ golden age for wrought-iron, ornamenting balconies, windows, and staircases. The ornamentation, for all its fantasy, remains subdued on buildings whose facades are otherwise classical and stately. From façade to face, the black-laced touch reminds me of mascara on the eyes. It accentuates and entices, without distracting from the structural essentials.
From inside an apartment, looking out upon the city, the ferronnerie offers a double perspective. There is the barrier itself, which is no longer a barrier because of its beauty, and beyond there is a cityscape.
Instead of ornamentation, the builders and the entire society could have chosen standard bars, nice and straight. At a lesser cost, they would have just done the job. Think of the street grids of American cities, and how they make us turn either left or right! Yes, imagine Paris as a street grid, its windows and balconies barred like prison cells. A fine city that would be! A taxpayer’s delight!
Now that you’ve read me, go for a stroll and lift up your eyes. You’ve cracked part of the code that makes Paris beautiful. The exquisite is always in sight.