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March 2003 - Nairn's Paris

"Paris is a collective masterpiece, perhaps the greatest in the world." These are the words of Ian Nairn (1930-83), a journalist with a sharp pen who traveled to and wrote about Paris in the late 1960s.

Nairn was a writer for several British publications. He worked for Architectural Review in the 1950s before moving to the Observer, and then to the Sunday Times. He wrote about town planning and the responsibility that planners have in making cities decent places to live. His position as an outsider to the architectural profession (he was a graduate of mathematics and a Royal Air Force flyer), and his observational skills gave him a sensibility to landscape and town planning that was appreciated in the profession that is now called urban design.

Around 1968 he traveled to France and made observations about the landscape and architecture of the cities he visited, notably Paris. He gathered the material into a book called Nairn's Paris (now out of print). The book contains witty and opinionated comments that contemporary travelers to Paris will readily appreciate for their fresh points of view. Many of the buildings and structures that he comments on have not changed in the thirty-five years since his book was published.

Nairn's Paris is not a guide book, because it does not tell the reader how to get from one point to another. Instead, it is an invitation to discover the best things in the city. We present below a few excerpts from his book to convey an idea of the influence that the city exerted on Mr. Nairn. Perhaps, for you too, during your next visit to Paris, "the magic will begin to work..."

[Opéra]L'Opéra - "...a declamatory roulade of allegory that would pump a sense of occasion into the limpest libretto. The outside gives clear warning of what is about to happen, but it is only tuning up; overture, grand march, love duet, and final chorus are all inside..."


[Passage du Caire]Passage du Caire - "'Passage' is an understatement: this is a whole slice of the city under glass, with cross avenues, side turnings and half a dozen separate exits."


[Avenue des Champs-Elysées]Champs-Elysées - "...has one outstanding virtue: it is a splendid place to sit - at a price - and watch the world go by."


[Pont Alexandre III]Pont Alexandre III - "...unflawed delight from end to end. It is one of the world's truly civilized structures: sophisticated, self-mocking, humorous, yet never for a moment abandoning true feeling."

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Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2003