The Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine located in the east wing of the Palais de Chaillot houses an exhibition with the appealing title of “L’Hotel Particulier: une Ambition Parisienne”. Frankly, if the title had been drier I would still have jumped at the occasion. As it is, it conjures up enough drama to remind me of one of the most solid pillars of the artistic and urban history of Paris. One of the quiet pleasures of this city is to walk along many of its streets and be suddenly astonished by the magnificence of a porte-cochere or some long wall with an elaborate entrance flanked by carved stone. The hotel particulier is both witness to and protagonist of the history of the Parisian elites. My love for it is fed as much by literature as by its visual elegance.
Sadly some of the best specimens of its former glory have ben razed by well-intended planners and not so decent speculators with results that are nothing but disastrous. The best documented part of the exhibition traces the doleful demise in the XIX and XX centuries of places like the Hôtel de Thélusson built by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux for the widow of a rich Geneva banker. Or the splendid Palace Rose erected by Boni de Castellane with the help of his American wife Anna Gould’s fortune. Of those still standing, some have not had a much happier ending. Witness the Hôtel de Toulouse, formerly known as Hôtel de la Vrillière built by François Mansard and acquired by the Banque de France in 1811 and since then, amputated, expanded and modified.
Yet the 1913 law enforcing the protection of historic buildings did much to reverse this trend. Today, we can still enjoy exceptional mansions most, if not all, in the hands of the French state from the Hôtel de Cluny to the Hôtel de Soubise-Rohan.
I must confess that the show has not given me more reasons that I already had for my ongoing love with the hotel particulier. The artifacts on show fail to convey any sense of grandeur or significance. They are of domestic rather than palatial scale. The reduced spaces are hardly the ideal setting to illustrate the three dimensional richness of the buildings and the insufficient maquettes, although offering a much needed perspective, do not redeem the overindulgence of academic drawings of the housing plans.