Wednesday 1 April 2009

Houses of Gold, Glass and Straw

The original Domus Aurea or Golden House was Nero’s party villa in ancient Rome, but in terms of exuberance and extravagance it was nearly rivalled by the 19th century Maison Dorée in Paris. Parts of both constructions still exist today, standing simply as pillaged shells. In Rome, the walls are fenced off to tourists whilst in Paris the interior has been fenced in by a bank.

Nero’s Domus Aurea was a party villa, famously containing 300 rooms but not a single sleeping area. It was clearly an inspiration to the similarly named establishment in Paris, a building which itself was a rabbit warren of rooms. Nero’s house survived only for a decade after his death and was quickly stripped of its luxurious marble, jewel and ivory interiors, before eventually being buried under tonnes of earth. The surviving walls didn’t see daylight again until the 16th century, but the spirit of the villa slept a while longer, until the middle of the 19th century when the Restaurant de la Maison d’Or opened in Paris, suitably enough on the Boulevard des Italiens.

To describe the establishment as just a restaurant would not do it justice, and soon it became known simply as the Maison Dorée. The name came from the gold plated sculpted exterior, but it also described the stench of money that lay stagnant in the air. It was a place with two faces. Looking out towards the Boulevard was the terrace of the restaurant, a venue that was open to everybody so long as they could afford the extortionate prices. It was the second entrance on the Rue Laffite though that would be the source of the myths, giving access to only a select few who ate in private ‘cabinets’. The most popular was the number 6, where Princes and Counts would entertain friends and ‘grisettes’ and take their choice from amongst the 80,000 bottles of wine that were stored in the cellars.

The Maison Dorée and Boulevard des Italiens in the 19th century

When the Domus Aurea was rediscovered in the 16th century the first people to visit were the artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo. The Maison Dorée would also become the haunt of choice for artists, with Zola, Gaugin, Proust, Balzac and Verdi being regular visitors. It was linked to the Impressionist movement as well, with the 8th and final Salon des Impressionists being organised here in 1886. Perhaps being linked with a movement in decline did not help the establishment, and with the Grands Boulevards also declining in popularity amongst the wealthy it would not be long before the restaurant itself would shut down forever.

It seems almost appropriate that a building so connected to money should eventually become the offices of a bank. For most of the 20th century though it was a simple Post Office, and it wasn’t until 1975, after a complete redesign and an incorporation of modern elements by the architect Pierre Dufau that it would be incorporated into the BNP banking empire. BNP have taken the name and the cultural heritage but today the building celebrates only wealth.

The façade is one of the only survivors of Pre-Haussmanian Paris on the Grands Boulevards, but today it is just that – a façade. Behind the showy, golden exterior the more recent building is more typical of the banking environment. Until very recently this has been an opaque world that needed to remain secretive to function, and the reflective glass windows that throw our regards back out towards the street are the perfect metaphor. The general public has also recently discovered that banks, like the Maison Dorée, have two faces. A familiar one on the High Street and the more shady profile where individuals made fortunes but also almost brought down the world’s economy. Joining the two worlds, the friendly façade and the secretive windows is a stretch of solid stone. It may have represented the solidity of banks when built, but seems superfluous today now we know that banking establishments are simply more extravagant versions of the youngest pig’s house of straw.

The BNP empire has survived relatively unscathed for the moment, but the name ‘Maison Dorée’ is surely an embarassment in today’s climate. Hopefully it will stay though, and serve as a reminder that the love and celebration of wealth is always destined to end in shame and decay.


Paris-Insider said...

This is so excellently written and informative! I did not know the BNP building in Paris had such an extensive and rich history. Your metaphors are fantastic. I simply love Paris history and culture! Thank you, thank you for posting!

Ken Mac said...

love the yesterday and today shots

Starman said...

BNP Paribas is Robb's bank in Paris. In fact, that very building is the office at which he opened his account. There has been speculation recently that BNP Paribas was an integral part of the Madoff scam.

nathalie in avignon said...

A very moral ending to your post today.

I just discovered a blog wich you might find of interest: Paris 1900


Ken Mac said...

amazing history

Cergie said...

Je suis toujours éberluée par tes enquêtes sur le passé et l'évolution des buildings sur lesquels tu te penches et tes références, ici les similitudes avec la villa romaine de Néron.
Cette semaine je suis allée au musée André Jacquemart voir une expo sur les primitifs italiens ; il y avaient des oeuvre datant de l'an 1200 toujours aussi fraîches. L'hôtel où est le musée a évolué. On le visite.
C'est curieux d'imaginer que des peintres et leurs modèles sont morts il y a tant de siècles alors que les oeuvres sont toujours aussi belles.
C'est curieux d'imaginer comme un couple vivait dans ce beau cadre en plein Paris.

ArtSparker said...

Just passed legislation here in the states to let bankers value their own assets...oh, I'd hoped we were getting more oversight, not less...

Squirrel said...

Love the title of the post, and the reflection of i=old in the new. Adam, you make me want to visit Paris--you need to put your blog into guidebook form so i can carry it with me.

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