Paris Street Stories: Rue Laffitte

Paris Street Stories: Rue Laffitte
“Looking towards the Sacré Coeur from any point along the Rue Laffitte on a day like this, an hour like this, would be sufficient to put me in ecstasy,” wrote Henry Miller in Quiet Days in Clichy. The view is indeed a spectacular one, perhaps because of the narrowness of the street which is “just wide enough to frame the little temple at the end…and above it the Sacré Cœur,” noted Miller again, this time in Tropic of Cancer. For the moment though, let’s keep our eyes on the ground. Let’s begin at the beginning, with Le Boulevard des Italiens. Today the Rue Laffitte runs away from the boulevard, making a straight line up towards the Notre-Dame de Lorette church—Miller’s little temple—but it has not always been this way. Although it has been an artery on the city map since at least 1771, Rue Laffitte was a originally just a short pathway between two fields. At the time, the street was called the Rue d’Artois—named after the Comte d’Artois, one of King Louis XVI’s brothers, and a man destined later to reign himself. In revolutionary times, however, nothing is permanent, and when la terreur arrived to cut off the heads of the aristocracy, it also chopped and changed street names too. D’Artois became Cérutti in 1792. By the time the Comte d’Artois reached the throne (in 1824, under the title of Charles X), the street had grown longer and reached all the way up to the construction works of the Notre-Dame de Lorette church. Now it would have a destination and forever be focused on neoclassical columns. By this time, houses had sprung up along the street where fields once were. In one of these (number 27) lived a man named Jacques Laffitte, governor of the Banque de France and a shrewd politician, who helped Louis-Philippe plot against Charles X and overthrow him in the 1830 July revolution. One of the tasks Laffitte assumed in the new government was to rename the street on which he lived—after himself. As a kingmaker, he may have felt that he deserved such an honour, but he remains—with Victor Hugo—one of only two people to have lived in a street in the city that was named after them. His name has stayed on the maps ever since, but Laffitte’s luck in other matters soon changed. Drunk on power and ambition, he overreached and was nearly ruined. He became so deeply indebted that his nickname became  “Jacques La Faillite”, (Jacques the bankrupt) and even his wife was obliged to sell her diamonds. A Birth and a Death Laffitte died in 1844. Despite his ignoble final years, Laffitte’s funeral attracted 20,000 people. However, four years earlier, the street had seen a happier occasion: on November 14, 1840, Oscar Claude Monet was born on the 5th floor of number 45, rue Laffitte. The child was known as Oscar to his family, but would later become world famous as the painter Claude. As a baby, he was taken along the Rue Laffitte and baptised at the Notre-Dame de Lorette church. In the 1800s, a walk down Rue Laffitte would perhaps have been a muddy one, but there was little risk of accidents and collisions. Today the same walk is a succession of leaps across busy main roads. This current configuration dates from the beginning of the 20th century when the Boulevard Haussmann and the Rue La Fayette smashed their way through its length, cutting the street into separate, individual portions. It was also at this point that work was finally finished on the Sacré Coeur. The vista that so enchanted Miller was completed. The origins of Sacré Coeur are not as romantic as Miller may have imagined, however. The Sacré Coeur was built to be seen, and designed to dominate over Paris. It was the city fathers’ answer to a failed popular revolt in Paris—la Commune—and an edifice created “pour le pardon de toutes les révolutions françaises”. In essence, it had been installed as a giant security camera, spying on the city residents, making sure that they were not plotting further popular revolutions, crushing them with reminders of the power of religion. It is perhaps comforting then that the further you advance down the street, the less visible the Sacré Coeur becomes to you (and you to it). Today the street itself may seem to be a succession of somewhat austere buildings, but there is one notable exception—the building at number 21. Narrow and claustrophobic, Rue Laffitte needs air, and this building provides it. You can actually see the sky here and take a deep breath. This building’s architecture is opposite that of traditional Parisian construction. Classically, buildings in Paris have a solid and impressive frontage, with the space and greenery hidden away inside in the courtyard. Here, the building takes the place of the courtyard, and the exterior—the area that would typically constitute the building—is a succession of terraces, gardens and sculptured walls. Built in 1969, initially to provide a headquarters to the Banque Rothschild, the building is today the headquarters of a large French insurance and pension organisation. If it seems vaguely familiar, it may be because co-designer Max Abramovitz also designed the United Nations building in New York. When you arrive at the end of the street, you may find that the view is a lot less impressive looking back. The viewpoints become the offices of banks and a corner of the Figaro newspaper headquarters. Rue Laffitte is in many ways a typical Right-Bank street, hard-working, solid and serious. Miller’s vista may be poetic, but this viewpoint is probably more relevant to the Parisian worker today. Mr Laffitte would have approved of that. About the writer: Adam Roberts has lived in Paris for so long that he has…

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