Jean Schopfer

Architectural Record 12 (November 1902):573-583; (December 1902):693-703; and 13 (January 1903):42-48.

In three articles for The Architectural Record in 1902-03 an urbane European critic told the readers of this American professional journal how cities should be planned and embellished. Jean Schopfer was born in Switzerland in 1868 and educated at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre in Paris. In addition to his talents as a writer, Schopfer in 1892 won the tennis championship of France. He wrote the first of his many books in 1899. For most of his travel books and novels he used the pen name, Claude Anet. During the first World War a Paris journal sent him to Russia, and that trip resulted in his four-volume work, La Révolution Russe. A playwright as well, his Mayerling is perhaps his best known work of that type. Schopfer died in 1931. His three articles on civic design reflect the background of a sophisticated and well- traveled observer of urban life in Europe and America. The photographs Schopfer mentions have not been included in this transcription.
Streets and Monuments.

People are beginning to recognize that it is almost as necessary that man be surrounded by beautiful objects as that he have bread to eat. Once his daily bread assured, he feels the need of a little art to brighten his life. He wants to have it in his house, and in the city where he dwells. Strange as it may seem to mercenary, utilitarian individuals, men take great delight in seeing their city rich, renowned, beautiful, and outshining its neighbors by the splendor of its monuments. The Italian tyrants of the Renaissance period, knowing the human heart, obtained forgiveness for their tyranny by erecting palaces and churches, the beauty of which lattered the local pride.

We want beautiful cities.

We propose to show, in the present article, what are the things which help to make a city beautiful. A concourse of circumstances are necessary: we will try to indicate the principal ones. Nature can do a great deal in this direction, but art, which is man's work, can do still more. The subject is a wide one, but so many useful lessons are to be learned from its study--lessons which our city councils can profit by--that it deserves to be dealt with at some' length.

Natural Beauties.
We do not think that, as a general rule, the founders of cities have been influenced in their choice by the beauty of the landscape. The suitability of the spot has been the only point considered. Thus we see cities variously endowed in this respect. For instance, Naples, built in terraces on the shores of a magnificent bay, cannot be compared with Berlin, which stands on the flat, sandy banks of the Spree.

Broadly speaking, it can be said that the proximity of the sea, the fact that a river flows through the place, or that the ground has differences of level, are all natural features which contribute to the beauty of a city.

It is not essential that a city be built on seven hills, like Rome; but it is certain that monuments appear to greater advantage when placed on high ground. Such will be the case with the cathedral on Morningside Heights, New York City, and it is likewise so with the Church of the Sacred Heart, Paris. This is an edifice mediocre in itself, but from the fact that, dominating the city, it can be seen from afar and is sometimes bathed in sunshine when the roofs at the foot of the hill are covered with smoke or mist, it acquires additional importance, for which, however, no credit is due to the architect. In the same way, a river running through a city is a source of beauty. But these natural beauties are of no account if man is unable to take advantage of them. It is here that human action--taste, in short, Art--comes into play.

How a City Utilizes the Natural Beauties of the Spot.
We will cite three well-known examples showing how certain cities have neglected the natural beauties of the place and how others have turned those beauties to account. Let us take three cities which are either traversed or bordered by rivers: New York, London and Paris.

At New York, the Hudson, an admirable stream, does not contribute in any way to the city's beauty, from the Battery to 72d Street. Throughout this length it is without quays or promenades; one does not perceive it; it is merely an instrument of commerce, invaded by docks, stages, warehouses and depots. Above 72d Street, however, its banks have been adorned with a superb promenade--Riverside, which brings into relief its incomparable beauty. The campaign for the preservation of the Palisades betokens determination, tardily aroused, to preserve the natural beauties of suburban New York.

As for London, in the East End the Thames is a trading center, but higher up it would have lent itself to embellishment in the shape of quays and promenades. Very little, however, has been done in this direction. Some embankments have been constructed; in recent years, but throughout the greater part of the river's course it is disfigured by villainous buildings, the walls which come down to the very edge of the water. Besides, the authorities have permitted the railroad companies to build their sidings over the Thames itself, and hundreds of freight wagons passenger cars are always to be seen overhanging the river. Certainly London has not known how to utilize the natural beauties of the spot.

In Paris, on the contrary, the utmost has been made of the River Seine. The river traffic is considerable, yet the construction of docks and warehouses alongside the water has not been allowed. Throughout the length of the Seine within the city limits there is a broad quay on either bank. In many parts there is a double quay, the lower one serving for the loading and unloading of merchandise, and the upper one for street traffic. Along each bank of the Seine run two rows of trees. What the municipal authorities wanted was a tree-lined river from one end of the capital to the other. The designs for all the bridges have also been decided upon by them, and the railroad companies, before carrying their lines across the river, have had to submit their plans to the city engineers. This is why the Auteuil Viaduct, viewed from a distance, recalls to mind the aqueducts of the Roman Campagna. In the same manner the city authorities have the last word in regard to the bridges which the Metropolitan Railroad Company is going to throw across the Seine. In Paris, no influences in favor of private interests can intervene to mar what belongs to everybody--the beauty of the city.

The treatment of the Seine in Paris affords a typical example of what can be done by wise and persistent action on the part of the city government towards preserving and developing natural beauties. The first photographs which we reproduce here give various views of the Seine: the arrangement of the quays and, in particular, the unbroken lines of trees extending along the river banks from one side of the city to the other. The photograph of the celebrated panorama of the City shows a monster advertisement of a newspaper, placed on one of the houses standing on the island. Since this photograph was taken, a vigorous press campaign has had the effect of causing the removal of that advertisement, and it no longer disfigures one of the finest panoramas of Paris.

This leads us to note an important point, namely, that while a city cannot change its topographical position, it can, and should, make the most of that position. This is man's work, a work requiring Art, and hence the title of these articles: "Art in the City." A work of art calls for a persistent determination to carry out, patiently and in its minutest details, a pre-arranged plan; a work of art implies the exercise of taste; a work of art involves sacrifices. We will now see how a city can be a work of art. We will take Paris as an example, because, although everything there may not be absolutely complete and perfect, it is at any rate the place where the will to sacrifice much to beauty has been most persistent. And, if we compare New York with Paris, and the comparison should turn to the disadvantage of the former, let it not be looked upon as prejudiced criticism, but rather as an effort to stir up in American cities that same desire for embellishment which is so strongly characteristic of the French capital.

The Plan of a City.
We know that, as a rule, a city grows and extends in a haphazard way, according to the needs of its trade, the wealth of its inhabitants, the configuration of the ground, and so forth. New York is a sad example of a city that had a pre-conceived plan. Washington, on the contrary, to which city Mr. Montgomery Schuyler has devoted an excellent article in the May number of the Architectural Record, was favored by having a great artist as its godfather. In most cases it is not so, and the city develops in a happy-go-lucky sort of way. Later on, the authorities intervene to straighten the streets, open up wide thoroughfares, provide squares and parks and erect monuments. This is where it is necessary to have sound and artistic ideas as to the manner of embellishing a city. Much money has to be spent, but money alone is not sufficient: taste is needed, and it is necessary to decide upon the proper measures at the proper time. London has not had this wisdom. Until very recently, it has kept those narrow streets which lead to the city, the heart of the capital, and now a great deal of money has to be spent beyond what would have been required a scheme of improvements been worked out and put into operation forty or fifty years ago. As regards Paris, everybody knows what a great work was done by Napoleon III, assisted by Baron Haussmann, in the way of opening up broad avenues, so as to enable air and light to penetrate into every district. But they did no more than continue a task commenced before their day, as will be seen by the accompanying examples.

The Place of the Monuments in a Well-Designed City.
It is essential, in a tastefully arranged city, that the principal streets lead to monuments, which terminate them. This is a matter well understood in Paris for centuries past, but which is not yet grasped in New York. We have an instance of this dating as far back as the time of Louis the Fourteenth, namely, the statue of that monarch which stands on the Place des Victoires, which was so placed as to be visible along all the streets converging on that Place. The most celebrated instance, however, of a number of avenues all converging towards a monument, which terminates them, is undoubtedly that of the Arc de Triomphe of Napoleon I., leading to which are twelve magnificent avenues. In this way the monument, placed as it is on the summit of a small hill, is visible, at different angles, from twelve different avenues, for which it forms a splendid crowning. This is an excellent example of the arrangement of an entire district around a monument. But examples of the same kind abound in Paris, and illustrations of them will be found in the present article. We hardly need cite the Avenue de l'Opéra, terminated by the Opera House; the Rue Soufflot and the Pantheon; the Rue Laffitte and the Church of Notre Dame de Lorette; the Rue de la Chaussee d'Antin and the Eglise de la Trinite, and the Rue Royale, having the Madeleine at one end and the Palais Bourbon at the other. The fact is that almost all the monuments of Paris are seen, as they ought to be, at the end of a street or an avenue. We beg the reader to examine, from this point of view, the illustrations accompanying this article. They show monuments which are extremely well known, but what we wish to lay stress upon is the manner in which these monuments are placed and the general effect they produce, together with the streets designed to display them.

In New York it is not so. In the modern city there is not a single monument that can be said to be suitably located--that is at the end of, and terminating, a street or an avenue. This is one of the most serious faults of the rectangular plan on which New York is built. Saving Grace Church, so admirably placed at a bend in Broadway--which bend must have vexed the souls of the engineers who planned New York and who worshipped right angles-- saving Grace Church we say, all New York's monuments are located in the interior of blocks. For them there is no perspective: one only sees them when they are within a yard of one's nose. The result is that instead of embellishing the whole district surrounding them they simply ornament one block; and instead of seeing them from a distance, one discovers them suddenly, right before one. A more unfortunate arrangement could not be imagined....

The Rectangular Plan.
As everybody knows, the City of New York--with the exception of the downtown districts, which already existed--was planned out by commissioners appointed in the beginning of the nineteenth century to determine the lines which the city should follow in its growth. The New York of to-day is their workmanship to the very letter. It is the triumph of the straight lines. The sight of that endless series of straight streets has inspired a literary friend of ours to compose a ballad in prose which we take the liberty to quote:

"In straight New York, Broadway runs riot."

On a chess-board, imagine a line cutting the squares it traverses, into obtuse and sharp angles, all equal geometrically to two right angles, doubtless, but in reality, so different: this is Broadway crossing New York.

New York's birth was a natural one: a settlement of houses placed right and left on the extremity of a narrow tongue of land; houses upon houses, streets upon streets, churches upon churches, that had grown according to the increasing necessities of life, in picturesque irregularity. Each street received a name. New York: was formed like every city in the world, and it did not lack charm.,

When, on a sombre day, the councils of the city reunited, councils composed of grave men with shaved upper lip and round beard covering the chin. The eldest member arose and spoke: "

"Brother citizens, complaints of the disorder and irregularity of our town multiply; the license of our streets is extreme; they cross at all manners of angles, stretch out or stop, according to their good pleasure, and assume fantastic names difficult to remember, whose origin is often obscure and even vulgar. This is contrary to propriety and good policy; There are, moreover; graver faults: wasted grounds, little fields that some call parks, oval and strange shaped places. This scandalous state of affairs must not be allowed to continue.

"I propose that we decide upon a general plan, by which our dearly beloved city may be properly developed, and which should bring order and correction to the scattered flock of our houses.

"Let us divide the land of the peninsula of Manhattan in equal rectangular lots, where the streets will reach from the Hudson to the East River; perpendicularly, throughout the entire length of the city, may be traced avenues. Let us make away with the use of sonorous names; let us number them from south to north; let the avenues be counted from one to ten, the fifth serving to divide the east and the west of the city. In this manner all will become clear and arithmetical, and our children going to school in the morning can measure, by the number of the blocks passed, the number of miles-accomplished; twenty blocks being equal to one mile, or to sixteen hundred and nine of those metres which the French people, who love change, have adopted as measurement."

Having spoken in such wise, he spat on the floor, and held his peace.

Everything was done according to these proposals. Old New York was left as it stood, and lots for the new town were traced on paper up to two hundred and I know not what number. And young New York, from that time on, grew like a child in an orthopaedic corset. There were no places set apart in the plan for sparkling fountains under shady trees; no edifice to interrupt the monotony of eternally straight and parallel lines; and the streets, each with its number like a convict in a prison; and the avenues, all the avenues, stretched onward, onward indefinitely, with the sky for background; and not an inch of land lost: all is geometrically correct and convenient for the little children, who, going to school, measure, by the number of blocks they pass, the number of miles accomplished.

But, in the general regularity, one street emancipates itself[.] Broadway, from the south to the north of the city, traces its diagonal line, makes even a bend--impossible as it may seem--at Grace Church, and, maintains its name and individuality, runs in adventurous manner across the chess-board, making merry upon meeting her little sisters, so well balanced and keeping straight file, saluting such proper ladies as are the avenues; here leaving a strip of-land so narrow that it cannot be built upon--a lost space; there mingling tumultuously with the life of another artery, destroying all frightful symmetries and creating all along its course picturesque fantasy.

"In straight New York, Broadway runs riot."

The commissioners who committed New York to the rectangular plan incurred a grave responsibility. They mortgaged the future. Modern New York is their handiwork ne varietur. For a task of that sort men of genius' were needed--men able to foresee the city's immense growth, and imbued with a strong sense of the beauty which cities ought to have. Unhappily, they were simply engineers --men devoid of all imagination. Their work proves only too clearly that they also lacked intelligence.

Nothing is more tiresome than an infinite number of perfectly straight streets and avenues running on and on until they lose themselves in the sky. One goes along them without ever seeing an edifice closing the vista. There is a terrible monotony about a city each street of which is the counterpart of its neighbors. The ideal for a city to aim at is not that the newly arrived stranger shall be able to dispense with a map and find his road unaided.

The commissioners of 1812(1)-- whose names ought to be execucrated by every inhabitant of New York--left little space for parks. Let us quote their report:

"It may be a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and consequent preservation of health. Certainly, if the City of New York was destined to stand on the side of a small stream, such as the Seine or Thames, a great number of ample spaces might be needful. But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure, as well as to convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous. When, therefore, from the same causes, the prices of land are so uncommonly great, it seems proper to admit the principles of economy to greater influence than might, under circumstances of a different kind, have consisted with the dictates of prudence and the sense of duty."

What wise commissioners, and what well-placed economy! In the middle of the century Central Park was opened, and at the end of the century Riverside was planned; but all the rest of the city, as far as One Hundred and Fifty-sixth Street, is practically without parks or gardens, as those wise commissioners wished it to be.

The commissioners, after choosing the abominable rectangular plan, had not even sufficient intelligence to foresee that certain districts of the city would be centers of luxury. Having traced the long avenues and decided that Fifth Avenue should divide the city, they ought to have foreseen that that thoroughfare would, some day or other, become the main avenue of New York--that all the luxury of the city would gravitate thereto, and, in view of this, they should have planned it two or three times as wide as the other avenues. They did nothing of the kind, and now Fifth Avenue is a narrow, treeless, congested avenue, the like of which would not be tolerated by a provincial town at any price.

Suppose, on the contrary, that there existed, between Madison Square and Central Park, an avenue three hundred feet in width, planted with trees on either side of a spacious roadway, with broad sidewalks, and a continuous series of flower beds, clumps of shrubs and patches of well-kept grass--in fact, something similar to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris; and suppose, further, that this avenue was bordered by the palaces of American millionaires--Silver Kings, Petroleum Kings, and other monarchs. In that case New York would possess a central artery worthy of the city and the renown of which would be world wide.

Let the new cities of the United States profit by New York's experience and take care not to follow her example.

Leaving now the question of plan, which, as far as New York is concerned, is one which cannot be reopened, let us see what are the rules observed by the City of Paris in the embellishment of that capital. We shall find that heavy sacrifices have been made to the shrine of aesthetics.

Height of the Houses.
In Paris, the height of the houses is limited, the limit varying according to the width of the street on which the house is located. Nothing could be better. Hygiene requires that the sunshine find its way into the narrow streets as well as into the broad thoroughfares; while, speaking from an aesthetic point of view, what can be expected of a street where a house of two stories is flanked by a sky-scraper of twenty ? Hence, there is a certain harmonious symmetry about Paris streets. One cannot imagine a house of twenty-five stories on the Place de l'Etoile, facing the Arc de Triomphe. Millions are going to be spent in New York upon the construction of a superb library. The architects are highly cultivated men, and men of taste They will put up an edifice which will do honor to the city. This edifice is going to stand in a small garden bordered on its four sides by streets, the houses of which are still, at the present time, of a reasonable height; but once the library is built, the neighboring ground will rise in value, and it is probable that before ten years have passed the existing houses will have given place to immense sky-scrapers. Surrounded by these monsters, the library will appear insignificant, and the architectural effect will be destroyed.

The Paris municipal regulations are also very strict in regard to the fronts. In certain streets uniform fronts are insisted upon: such is the case, for instance, with the Rue de Rivoli, which is bordered by arcades; and so, too, is it with the Place Vendome. We like the picturesque, but it must be admitted that very fine effects can be produced with symmetry and uniformity.

Rules, however, can only be restrictive: they prescribe height, alignment and relief. Therefore, the municipal council, desirous of exciting a desire for embellishment, has instituted an annual house-front competition. The winning houses are exempted from certain city taxes. Landlords thus have a monetary interest in trying to give their houses a handsome appearance. Competitions of this kind--which can be organized by private associations if the city council proves indifferent--maintain a certain standard of art. They might, in the long run, exercise a very salutary influence, especially if the terms of the competition were sensible ones--that is, if the prizes were to be awarded, not for luxury, but for taste, and could be competed for by the well-built workman's cottage, as well as by the sumptuous palace of the millionaire.

Amongst other excellent rules laid down by the City of Paris, we will cite the one which forbids trolley tram lines inside the city. Within a few years' time, the metropolitan system of electric railroads (chiefly underground) will be complete. It will comprise half a score of lines running through every district of Paris, which will then be the city which will have best solved the knotty problem of rapid transit. Nobody can deny that the New York elevated railroad, commodious as it may be, is a standing eyesore, just as the noise of the trains, running at the height of one's first floor windows, is a permanent offense to the ears.

In Paris, wide tree-lined avenues have been made in every district. Nothing of the kind exists either in London or New York. Foreigners, who only know the luxurious quarters, imagine that the boulevards and avenues of the western part of the city are the only ones that have trees. They would be surprised to see that in the east and south--working-class districts--there are similar broad roadways, the same roomy sidewalks, the same lines of trees--and that the Place de la Nation, the Place d'Italie, the Place de la République and the Place de la Bastille have no need to be jealous in this respect of their more aristocratic sisters, the Place du Trocadéro and the Place de l'Etoile.

For the most part, the tree employed--especially in the center of Paris--is the ailanthus. There are, however, also many plane- trees and, in the wider avenues, chestnut-trees. In 1899, the trees lining the public thoroughfares numbered 84,936, besides those growing in the public squares, gardens and parks.

But the art of making a city beautiful must be practiced down to its minutest detail, and therefore do not let us be afraid to go down on the street and see how it is ornamented, lighted and rendered pleasant and commodious; in a word, how it is furnished. A promenade through Paris will teach us much, and in this respect American cities, New York first of all, can profit by the object lesson which Paris is going to give them.

How ought a city to be furnished? In the first place, there are a number of things regarding which utility comes before beauty. These necessary and useful things must, however, be treated in an intelligent manner. For instance, all the name- plates of the streets ought to be of one uniform pattern, and placed in the same way and at the same height, one at every corner. No fanciful variations should be permitted. A street name-plate has only one purpose to fulfill--that is, to enlighten the public; and in order to do this properly it should be very legible and conspicuous. The Paris street name-plates, a specimen of which is shown in one of our illustrations, bear, in addition to the name of the street, the number of the arrondissement or ward. So great is the care taken to assist people in finding their way about the city that in the large avenues, such as the Champs Elysées and the Avenue Henri Martin, posts are placed on the edge of the sidewalks, bearing name-plates so fixed as to be easily read by drivers of vehicles.

It is the same in regard to the numbering of the houses. A uniform model of number-plate ought to be insisted upon by the municipal authority. Landlords ought not to be at liberty to put up plates of their own choosing; uniformity is necessary. On the broad avenues the street lamps should bear the numbers of the houses before which they stand, as it is impossible at night for a cabman to make out the number of a house across an intervening sidewalk forty yards in width. This plan has been adopted as far as the Avenue des Champs Elysées is concerned, and it ought to be made general.

Further, the street lamps themselves should contribute to the ornamentation of the city. In Paris a uniform type of lamp has been fixed upon for the entire capital. We reproduce a photograph of it. On the luxurious avenues a richer model is placed. On the Place de la Concorde the ornamentation of this fine square is completed by a number of posts, each having two lamps, fixed to a ship's prow, which latter is copied from the arms of the City of Paris. On the Grands Boulevards and the Place de l'Etoile the electric light standards are a conspicuous feature, being of tasteful and carefully-studied design. All these things are indispensable items in the furnishing of a city.

It is also necessary to provide well made sidewalks which, while being commodious for people on foot, for whom they are primarily intended, shall at the same time allow vehicles to reach the very doors of the houses. In Paris most of the houses have a wide doorway, through which carriages can pass, thus enabling people to be conveyed to the very foot of the inner stairs. It is curious that no effort has been made in New York to improve the present state of things in this respect. Not only is there no carriage entrance to New York houses--a few excepted--on account of the unfortunate division of the ground into long and narrow strips, but carriages are not even allowed to come to the foot of the external staircase. This is a very defective arrangement.

Again, in Paris there are refuges in the middle of the busy streets, to enable people to cross without danger. The various photographs illustrating these articles show two lines of such refuges in the Champs Elysées. On the boulevards and the avenues a single line of these refuges is sufficient.

Drinking fountains are to be found in all parts of Paris, thanks to the generosity of an English nobleman, the late Sir Richard Wallace. These fountains are largely resorted to by the busy population of Paris. It is a great boon to them to be able to quench their thirst with wholesome water for nothing. The "Fontaines Wallace" have prevented the absorption of many glasses of alcoholic drinks by poor people parched with thirst after long tramps through the city on a hot summer's day.

Other photographs show the little kiosks alongside the cab stands, sheltering those policemen who constitute the court of first instance for disputes between cabmen and their hirers. Special advertisement boards of circular form are erected at intervals along the main streets, to hold theatrical announcements. These "columns" as they are called, are indispensable to the Parisians. By this means the playbills are centralized, kept within proper dimensions, and placed before the very eyes of the public.

We also give illustrations of a model of letter-box and of a bench on the Grands Boulevards. The benches and the trees are perhaps the most striking features of the City of Paris. Paris has 84,936 trees lining its streets and avenues, and beneath the shade of these trees there are no fewer than 7,954 benches. It will thus be seen that the people of Paris are well provided with shade and resting places....

1. The Legislature, on April 3, 1807, appointed Governor[sic] Morris, Simeon de Witt and John Rutherford, Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York with--"exclusive power to lay out streets, roads and public squares...." The city plan established by the Commissioners is substantially that which exists to-day between Houston 155 streets. (A History of Real Estate" etc., in New York City.-Record and Guide.). 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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