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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter XI. — On the Continent.—Paris and Vienna.—The Creation of Modern Cities,—Transformation and Beauty

page 69

Chapter XI.

On the Continent.—Paris and Vienna.—The Creation of Modern Cities,—Transformation and Beauty.

There lived in Paris in the last century an impressionist painter who was such a genius, the people thought him mad. He had painted a wonderful vista of the Seine, reaching from bridge to bridge, far into the distance and marshalling between limpid river and sky, an immense composition of towers and spires. It was a scene at sunset—a sunset that burst in splendour far beyond the distant towers of Notre Dame, pointing to an ocean of cloud rack dipped in fire, and stretching out to infinity. The radiance of the west that held the city spellbound with beauty, transfigured the floating images in the flood below. With daring imagination and wild, vivid masses of colour, the painter had laid the soul of Paris bare. Genius had come to him in the hour of his need and misery. His friends and fellow-artists crowded round his studio, and called it his masterpiece, but he was not satisfied. He wanted it to be more than a painting, to be an apotheosis of the most beautiful city in the world. His only conception was to paint, with all the purity of aspiration his art engendered, floating above the river against the glory of the sunset, the nude figure of a girl with arms outstretched. To him, that was the spirit of the city, the highest incarnation of its beauty. But his friends filled his studio with laughter at the idea, and when he argued they only jeered. The painter fled from them in anger and grief. He brooded far into the night alone in his studio before his canvas, where the flesh tints glowed still wet and daring. At length, in a fit of renewed anguish, he flung his palette to the floor, ripped the canvas from corner to corner with a knife, and hung himself in despair.

One has not to be deeply concerned with the art that has made modern Paris, or spend many hours by the classic banks of the Seine, to know that poor "Claude Lantier" was far from erring. His art had produced for him the highest conception with which he could personify the city he loved. His friends were blind to any other belief than it represented Paris as they had found it, just as many find it to-day. That aspect of the gay city, the realities of which can but present so much human wreckage and social disaster, is but a phase. The true beauty of Paris lies in its splendid gardens and thoroughfares, its buildings and monuments, its priceless art collections, and the romance of its emancipation from the black, bitter days that culminated scarcely a generation ago. Whether it is by the river gliding away like a shining strip in the dusk, by its classic bridges and tree-hung banks, or through the woodland sweetness and grace of the Champs Elysees, there is that pure spirit of beauty which was personified in a nation's lost masterpiece.

Paris is the pioneer of a transforming and modernising influence which has set all European cities in search of beauty and pure environment. What has been done in the brilliant French capital has found a reflex in the development of Berlin, St. Petersburg, Budapest, Milan, Rome, Dresden, Munich, Brussels, and more particularly Vienna. Paris is the fountain head of European municipal page 70 progress, although, in later years, its advanced methods have been surpassed by the German cities. The effect of its example is felt least of all in Britain, whilst America and Australasia, for different reasons may be, have lagged behind.

The example of Paris has even penetrated Eastern Europe. Sofla, the capital of the Balkans, from which one mostly hears mutterings of war and lawlessness, has, since the eighties, been transformed from a dirty, overcrowded village into a pretentious city, complete with modern shops, boulevards, electric lighting, cars, and other modern municipal appointments. Modern Athens can be considered quite up-to-date in these respects, whilst in the Italian cities, from Rome North, particularly Milan, there are vivid evidences of municipal development.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century Paris was mainly a maze of dark, narrow tangled streets, sprawling around historic palaces, churches, and monastic structures. What to-day is the finest square in Europe, the Place de la Concorde, was the site of the guillotine and some of the most terrible episodes of the revolution. It was on the smoking ruins of palaces and churches that wider thoroughfares and gardens sprang up. That fanatic spirit of revolt which had overturned an empire and drained a nation of its blood, became embodied in the creative spirit of the new era. Paris had no mercy for the architecture of past generations. Buildings and churches were torn down ruthlessly to make broad, straight avenues through the hopeless muddle of medieval congestion. Everything was sacrificed to secure to the city symmetry of design, spaciousness of thoroughfares, squares, parks, embodiment of order and beauty. The revolution that had culminated in blood and horror, continued long after it had spent its fury on the hapless aristocrat. In its inarch to municipal consciousness it swept away what Mr. Frederic Harrison, has described as [unclear: a] chaos of competing authorities, a tangle of obsolete privileges, and a nest of scandalous abuses." Since 1855 something like 144,000.000 francs of indebted ness have been spent—a prodigious cost truly—but of which some 50,000,000 remains unpaid to-day. The result is that Paris was planned into a series of encire ling boulevards, and wide tree-lined thoroughfares radiating out from the centres in such a way as to make it one of the most convenient cities in the world. Nowhere is its geometrical symmetry more evident than from the summit of the great Arc de Triomphe—the Charing Cross of Paris. On all sides twelve magnificent thoroughfares radiate out the which the finest, and one of the most remarkable avenues in Europe, is the Champs de Elysecs, sloping with its hundreds of trees, its cafe chantants, ant beautiful buildings down to the Place de la Concorde, the Tuileries Gardens, and the crowning pile of the Louvre itself Beyond the Arc de Triomphe, through at avenue of surpassing loveliness, is the Bois de Boulogne, a wooded park that covers 2200 acres. It is there one comes upon another evidence of that passion for beauty, which was lost with the Greeks only to be recovered by the French, the passion for landscape gardening, statuary, classic fountains, and cascades. The placing of these things for effect, the making of charming perspectives by inclining rows of trees, are high arts with the Parisians. Nowhere in the wide world, unless it is in the grounds of the Royal Palace, Sehonbrunn, at Vienna, are there such picturesque and artistic public gardens as in or about Paris. The grounds of the Royal Palace at Versailles or the classic terraces and flower beds that line the gardens of Saint Cloud, by the Seine page 71 are notable examples. The city, in fact, is the most varied in its beauty of any of the European capitals, unless it is Vienna.

The transformation of Vienna is even more remarkable and dramatic than that of the French capital. In 1848, when the Emperor Francis Joseph came to the throne as a boy of eighteen summers, the capital was one of the most crowded, inconvenient and insignificant in Europe. It was hemmed in by a ring of military fortifications, moat and glacis ground. Within this encircling belt lay the city, about a mile in extent, huddled together, palaces, churches, business premises, and residential areas in a congestion that was as intolerable as it was insanitary. Beyond the walls were nearly forty villages commencing to grow together in an ill-regulated and unimposing mass. Population was spreading fast, and commerce had long demanded reform. It was Vienna's great opportunity, and everybody, from the Emperor downwards, rose to the occasion. By a Royal decree in 1857 it was decided that the girdle of fortifications must go. The project was so vast that it was managed by the Imperial authorities with the co-operation of the municipal bodies. In the place of the medieval fortifications rose a magnificent thoroughfare two hundred feet in width—the famous Ring Strasse. In its wealth of architectural grandeur it has no parallel in Europe. The Champs Elysees is remarkable for its wooded and park-like splendour, its public monuments and matchless perspective; but for spaciousness, dignify, and composition of architecture, and grandeur of structure, the broad tree-lined encircling belt of the Ring Strasse is the most imposing in the world. Comparison between the two can but accentuate the beauties of both. Vienna summoned all the finest talent in Europe to her aid. There was no waste or undue extravagance. Structure after structure was raised, each distinct for monumental grandeur and dignity. The most careful consideration was given to placing them in generous garden spaces and to secure the finest effects in composition and perspective. It resolved itself into a great artistic achievement. Practically all the public buildings requisite to a great capital were marshalled there, the structures including the Rathus (City Hall), a superb example of Gothic architecture. Houses of Parliament, a Greek building adorned with magnificent sculpture, the Royal Opera House, the finest in Europe, the University of Vienna. Imperial Museums of Art and Science. Palace of Justice, the Royal Theatre and Imperial Palace, and various other beautiful structures, all conforming to the symmetry and magnificence of the whole. They soar above one another amid gardens and wooded splendour, harmonising with the tree-lined spaciousness and immensity of the street itself. One of the remarkable things about the project was that it was practically self-sustaining. When the fortifications were razed and the moat filled up, one fifth of the total area was set aside to be sold as private building sites, which in all realised £15,000,000.

Once the retaining walls were burst asunder, the city spread like magic. Magnificent new suburbs sprang up over the squalor of the outlying villages. New arterial thoroughfares were constructed, radiating out from the broad Ring Strasse. In the city itself old thoroughfares were broadened and straightened, new sewerage and pavements laid down, until, what had been a tangle of antiquated crowded courts and streets emerged into a splendid scheme of convenient thoroughfares and new buildings. The liberating of so much land as was held by the old fortifications, and the wise policy of the page 72 Imperial authorities, led to an era of re-building and commercial activity. There was from both public and private effort almost an entire reconstruction of the capital. The expansion and rebuilding was governed by the most exacting regulations prescribing solid and durable construction throughout. The height of buildings, the street lines, balconies and other considerations were all subject to the most rigid supervision. Nowhere probably were such drastic conditions imposed, they being, of course, the effect of revulsion in the public mind against the squalor and overcrowding of the past. Later years have seen the dangers of imposing a castiron set of regulations upon a community, but Vienna has little to repent in this respect. In the vicinity of the Ring Strasse itself, the designs of all private buildings were subject to the strictest scrutiny so that harmony and beauty would be secured throughout its splendid length. It was a wonderful example to Europe what unity of purpose and collective action could do in a community.

From the wooded height of the Kahlenberg, high above the capital, the city is spread out in the dusk like a white mosaic glittering with jewels. Beyond it the historic Danube flows in silver reaches to dim foreign lands and distant seas. It is a magnificent panorama of a thoroughly modern city evolved from medieval chaos to grandeur and beauty. Great arterial thoroughfares radiate out from the dominant centre to garden suburbs, parks and beautiful palaces. On the fringe of the suburbs another wide belt, enriched with gar dens and trees encircling practically the whole city. This outer circle is the logical complement of the Ring Strasse, A wide space on either side is preserved to ensure a pure supply of air to the capital held within its far-reaching sweep.

The virtues of this particular cult of beauty, which has seized so strongly upon European imagination in recent years may not be regarded as of much importance in young countries where natural splendour abounds. Unfortunately, neither the influence of Nature nor art can be said to have had recognition in our colonial cities and towns in the face of what one finds on the Continent. The modern conception does not exist under the Southern Cross, except in the case of isolated parks and gardens, a stray thoroughfare, or a few public buildings placed without much regard to surroundings. Sooner or later it must be identified with our public and municipal life as the influence of environment on national character and temperament becomes possible of practical recognition.