Place de Vosges

Photo: Barbara Swift

With a small bag of macaroons and chocolates in hand, we walk down the center of Ile St. Louis and turn north onto the Pont Marie crossing the Seine. A soft, fall breeze touches the water’s surface, and the leaves on the allees of Plane trees dance. We are walking though Paris, a city made for walking. We have been wandering all day and are making a slow arch back through the Marais toward the L’Ambassade d’ Auvergne, where the food makes you moan in ecstasy.

We’ve never seen the Place de Vosges, but it has embedded itself in our mental map of the city, and for some unknown reason we walk slowly through back streets, past schools and their walls leaking sounds of children playing, moving constantly toward the square. Vines cover the walls and cobbles cover the streets. Ahead is the Pavilion du Roi, the south gateway to the square we are seeking.

As he brought the French Wars of Religion to a close, King Henry IV of Navarre entered Paris in March 1594 with the conviction that the city would become the new Rome. Thus began his remarkable impact on the city’s planning. With the Place de Vosges, we can experience King Henry’s use of the Roman model of the place royale (“royal square” or piazza). He defined the design and layout and created what is still a stunningly cohesive urban environment, and upon completion, the Place de Vosges quickly transformed into a desired urban square dominated by aristocracy. Co-funded using his own money to spark development, the king dictated the use of the distinctive white stone and red brick, uniform building heights, a consistent building line on the street and building regulations. The result is a remarkable example of urban life four centuries later.

We walk through the two-story Pavilion du Roi and enter the pedestrian colonnade wrapping the remarkably simple open square. We are stunned—this is perfection, this requires a coffee and time to observe. On an almost north-south axis, the square is about 460 square feet, a space that is typically too large to feel personal. Despite its size, the Place de Vosges is intimate, humane and minimal. Its success is due to a careful relationship of scale, materials, layers, use and context.

The surrounding buildings are approximately 70- to 90-feet tall—not too high but tall enough to frame the square. An inhabited public arcade and a 60-foot road with two lanes of parking wraps the central square. On the inside edge of the road is a tall, elegant wrought iron fence wrapping a double allee of small deciduous trees. Inside the double allee, the square is divided into four quadrants with a central grove of immense Beech trees, whose height is equal to the surrounding ring of buildings. The larger square is bisected with wide crushed granite walks. Each quadrant is approximately 1/3 of the larger square and is subdivided by the wrapping allee, a crushed granite promenade and lawn with a fountain. This is a study in thirds—each incrementally subdividing the square in interlocking forms to create a human scale where you can recognize a face and you can understand the larger whole.

The design of the square is extraordinarily simple but well made and used. The ground plane is largely level, quietly lifting 3-4 feet to the central grove—an archetypal move which places the sacred grove on high ground. The ground’s surface is racked gravel or lawn. Vertical elements include trees, seating (lots of it), beautiful, clean trash containers, four fountains and most importantly, people.

Photo: Barbara Swift

Photo: Barbara Swift

The Place de Vosges is without the standard, single-use recreational element we find in American squares or parks. Instead, the area is structured to accommodate multiple groups of people doing various things throughout the day. Everyone owns a little bit of the space and no one dominates. Individuals read, perambulate and people watch. Small groups play and talk. Simple is better.

Here, simple civil cohabitation thrives. To be fair, the Place de Vosges succeeds because of density and a history of urban living; the typical Parisian spends significant parts of his or her day in the public realm. At the square, we count twelve places to stop and linger; we pause and are able to participate in this urban experience.

The afternoon is passing, and with regret, we slowly walk through the square under the canopy of the magnificent, primal, central Beech grove. The autumn sun reflects off the walls. The trees are gold, as is the ground littered with their leaves—spots of light on granite gravel and green lawn. We will return.