'Paris From the Ground Up': The Story of a Great City, Stone by Stone

Somewhere between armchair travel guide and a history text, this presents a picture of Paris told from the point of view of its buildings, walls, and streets, resulting in a kind of architectural biography.

Paris from the Ground Up

Publisher: Belknap
Length: 352 pages
Author: James H. S. McGregor
Price: $17.95
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-11

There’s no shortage in the world of books about Paris. From gigantic, $100 tomes filled with color plates to pocket-sized travel guides, anyone looking to learn about the City of Light is spoiled for choice. Likewise, any author sitting down to write about this famous city has at his or her disposal a rich history and beautiful city from which to draw their own special blend of literary ingredients. Somewhere between armchair travel guide and a history text, Paris From the Ground Up presents a picture of Paris told from the point of view of its buildings, walls, and streets, resulting in a kind of architectural biography.

Starting from its origins as the Roman city of Lutetia and tracking its growth and development up to the modern metropolis of the day, McGregor’s book tells the story of Paris through a combination of sweeping historical narrative with sometimes magnifying-glass level detail about the city’s most famous landmarks. The result can occasionally be overwhelming in its thoroughness while other times a little confusing in the rapid glossing through history, but for the most part Paris From the Ground Up strikes a nice balance between the two, aided by plentiful and useful photos, illustrations, and maps.

Although there are many sections about historical personages throughout Paris From the Ground Up, it's first and foremost a book about things. Paintings, sculpture, and most especially architecture take pride of place in this book. For the most part, when people do enter the story, it’s in the context of rulers commissioning buildings and architects executing them. There are exceptions, like several pages devoted to telling Joan of Arc’s fascinating tale, very little of which takes place in Paris but makes for a great read. The real character development in McGregor’s book is the ever-changing and expanding city of Paris, and while the book unfolds in mostly chronological order, he’s not afraid to jump forward or back in time when he needs to focus on the complete tale of some important landmark.

Several of the most famous structures in Paris get entire chapters of their own. It might break up the book’s historical narrative, but the trade-off is that readers get a definitive analyses of buildings like Notre Dame and The Louvre. That famous cathedral, for example, gets 30 pages all to itself, taking us from its origins in the 12th century to the structure you’ll see in Paris today, all illustrated by color photographs and reproductions of historical prints. The pictures are especially nice, and I wish McGregor had let the images speak for themselves rather than giving us detailed descriptions that can come so dense as to verge on being catalog-like than prose. For example, “Above the doorway are two lintels, and above the two lintels is an area shaped like half an almond, called a tympanum. Rippling out from the tympanum are successive decorative bands (archivolts). The verticals beneath each archivolt that parallel the door’s edges are the jambs.” It goes on and on like that for pages, and I found myself skipping text and just looking at the pictures.

These forays into mind-numbing detail are the exception rather than the rule in Paris From the Ground Up, and most of the time it’s a lively mixture of architectural history and historical anecdote. If buildings are your thing (as they are in part mine), then this book is a lovely way to learn more about Paris. Someone planning a trip there (like me) will get a lot of much-appreciated context and background for your journey. On the other hand, someone looking for a sweeping, engaging account of French history might be better served by a book focused more on people and less on stone and mortar.


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