The best books on what makes a city great – and in particular on what makes Paris a great city

Joan DeJean Author Of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
By Joan DeJean

Who am I?

I’ve lived in cities all my adult life and currently divide my time between Paris and Philadelphia. And while those two cities are strikingly different places, they have in common the fact that they are both great walking cities –- urban centers that can be explored on foot and easily enjoyed by pedestrians. Walking cities, I believe, provide not only an ideal context for today’s tourists but also a model for a future in which urban dwellers become less reliant on automobiles and urban centers more open to foot traffic than to vehicular pollution and congestion. The books I’ll recommend deal in various ways with the building and rebuilding of visionary cities, and of Paris in particular.

I wrote...

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

By Joan DeJean,

Book cover of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

What is my book about?

What makes a city great?

To answer this, I explored the decades in the seventeenth century when French kings put visionary architects in charge of one of the most spectacular projects in the history of urban planning. These architects reimagined such basic urban building blocks as the street and the bridge. They also invented new ones – the boulevard in particular. As a result, they redefined the urban experience for both Paris’s inhabitants and visitors alike. Paris became a new kind of city, a blueprint for great cities to come. I believe that great architects and great architecture are essential to the making of any great city. 

The Books I Picked & Why

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Court and Garden

By Michael Dennis,

Book cover of Court and Garden: From the French Hôtel to the City of Modern Architecture

Why this book?

This book focuses on the role of modern architecture in Paris, and by “modern,” Dennis has in mind the architecture created during the reinvention of Paris in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dennis provides the best introduction to a crucial factor in Paris’s essence: the particular kind of residential architecture that became characteristic of the cityscape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the hôtel or townhouse. Great architecture helps make a city great, and in Paris in particular, much of the greatest modern architecture was originally residential – grand townhouses built for the wealthiest Parisians.

Today, most of these townhouses have become museums, government ministries, foreign embassies. With its focus on the relation between public and private space in the city and the ways in which residential architecture can and should function in relation to the streets and the public space in which it is embedded, Dennis’s work is essential for understanding how Parisian townhouses have been able to play such strikingly different roles in the city’s history.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs,

Book cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Why this book?

My second pick is a title so well-known that it hardly needs to be singled out. Jacobs’s study remains required reading for anyone interested in how cities become, and remain, or fail to remain, great. Her basic premise – that “cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design” – as well as the ways in which she explores this process of trial and error can illuminate the history of all cities. Her analyses of how and why some city parks become beloved centers of activity and help the neighborhood that surrounds them remain dynamic centers of urban life, at the same time as other parks not only fail to contribute to the life of the city but instead are little used and seem to generate only urban decay can be used to examine any park or square in any city.

The Seduction of Place

By Joseph Rykwert,

Book cover of The Seduction of Place: The History and Future of Cities

Why this book?

I recommend Joseph Rykwert’s The Seduction of Place for Rykwert’s wonderful reflections on the relation between people and their cities, and on the essential questions of why cities succeed – or why they fail to work successfully for their inhabitants.

The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris

By Anna-Louise Milne,

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris

Why this book?

Beginning in the seventeenth century at the moment when Paris was redesigned, it became a great literary city and the center of the French literary tradition. For anyone interested in how the most important French writers have celebrated their city and depicted the ways in which Paris has changed over the centuries and the impact such changes have had on its inhabitants this is the perfect book.

The Painting of Modern Life

By T.J. Clark,

Book cover of The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers

Why this book?

After the literature of Paris, the painting of Paris. T. J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life studies the ways in which the artists he calls “painters of modern life” created canvases that attempted to focus attention on a subsequent transformation of Paris, in the nineteenth century. Clark considers the depictions by painters such as Manet, Degas, and Seurat of Paris as it evolved and of Parisians interacting with their changing city. The depictions of Parisians experiencing the boulevards, cafés, and parks of Paris that Clark analyzes are perhaps the greatest tradition ever of city painting. No one has ever attempted such a study of the many paintings of Paris as it was transformed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When they do so, Clark’s book can provide a model.

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