Paris – what’s that certain something?

A team of US and French researchers reckons it has distilled the architectural essence of Paris - that je ne sais quoi. They say the “look and feel” of a city like Paris does

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

What makes Paris look like "Paris"?

A team of US and French researchers reckons it has distilled the architectural essence of Paris – that je ne sais quoi.

They say the “look and feel” of a city like Paris doesn’t come from a few famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. Rather, it derives largely from “a set of stylistic elements” that comprise “the visual minutiae of daily urban life”.

They examined ten cities, including London and Prague. This video (see exhibit) provides a brief and clear explanation of their method and this paper explains it in considerably more detail.

Essentially they “geo-mined” thousands of images of streetscapes looking for clusters of common elements that occur frequently and are “discriminative” i.e. special. The Eiffel Tower doesn’t count because while it’s highly discriminative (there’s only one), it’s not frequent.

They tested the resulting algorithm by running it over an unseen data set made up of images drawn 50% from Paris and 50% from other cities. On average it was accurate 83% of the time. When the same exercise was performed for Prague, the average accuracy was 92%.

What makes Paris “look like Paris”? The researchers say it’s those characteristic doors, balconies, windows with railings, street signs and lampposts. The algorithm also detected significant differences at the neighbourhood level. For example,

balconies with cast-iron railings occur predominantly on the large thoroughfares (bd Saint-Michel, bd Saint-Germain, rue de Rivoli), whereas windows with cast-iron railings appear mostly on smaller streets.

It also detected distinctive “architectural patterns” in certain European cities. For example, while arches are common in cities across Europe, double-arches seem rare in London.

While balcony railings in Paris, Barcelona and Milan are all made of cast iron, they tend to be made of stone in London and Prague….. (Also) the grid-like balcony arrangement of Paris and Barcelona is missing in Milan.

The algorithm doesn’t do so well on US cities. The researchers say this might be due to “the relative lack of stylistic coherence and uniqueness in American cities (with its melting pot of styles and influences)”. It was only able to identify “a few geo-informative elements” (some of which turned out to be different brands of cars).

It’s interesting to ponder how data mining would fare in capturing the architectural differences between Australia’s larger cities. Once more recent development was filtered out, it should make a good fist, say, of differentiating between housing in the older parts of Sydney (or Melbourne) compared to the older parts of Brisbane.

However I don’t know if there are such clear architectural differences between the terraces and bungalows of inner Sydney compared to those of inner Melbourne. Doubtless architectural historians can point to some, but the question would be whether they’re “frequent” enough to be picked up by this sort of technique.

Compared to the periods when much of the characteristic domestic architecture of European cities was built, Australia developed in an age when ideas and people could more readily be imported from abroad. Even the first white settlers in each city shared a common heritage, so there wasn’t a long history of relative isolation that in other places helped to shape a distinctive local character.

When it comes to the outer suburbs of Australian cities I expect even the hardiest of algorithms would burn itself out before it found anything much to distinguish one city from another. If you were dropped randomly into a sample of outer suburbs across Australia multiple times, it’s doubtful you’d do significantly better than chance in picking what city you’re in.

I can’t see much regional distinctiveness in CBD buildings either. Data mining probably wouldn’t be meaningful for heritage buildings because there’re so few left. And modernism and technological improvements like air conditioning and reflective glass have probably eliminated any regional distinctiveness in high-rise offices and hotels (notwithstanding that there’re some individual examples).

The issue of distinctiveness is particularly timely for Melbourne at the moment because one of the nine principles underpinning the Government’s promised Metropolitan Strategy is “Melbourne’s Distinctiveness”. Astonishingly, what’s meant by “distinctiveness” isn’t meaningfully defined, but it’s reasonable to think that it ought to include the distinctiveness of the built environment in the sense discussed here.

Perhaps a city could deliberately and consciously set out to create, over an extended period, a distinctive architectural “look” (one that’s sufficiently idiosyncratic that it would be reliably detected by a data mining algorithm). That’s an interesting possibility with many possible complications. It’ll be worth discussing further in Melbourne in the context of the Metro Strategy (when it finally gets rolling).

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13 thoughts on “Paris – what’s that certain something?

  1. Alan Davies

    Michael r james:

    What’s going on here? “street for people, city for the people” Location: Paris, France

  2. michael r james

    Just FYI posting this here presuming you get alerts to new comments even on old dead stories:

    Rundle in today’s CDM (about Charlotte, a place I haven’t visited even though it is close to Reserach Triangle Park (one of the biggest collections of biomedical research scientists on the planet):

    [But the city itself is pure Jeffrey Smart, a downtown replaced by block-by-block multistorey car parks, malls and faceless hotels. It’s another city to mourn, another urban suicide, barely a row of shops, or a building older than 1982, nothing to say, in stone and brick, that people lived, loved and died here for three centuries. Even the crowds pouring through it today cannot humanise it. On an average Tuesday morning, with its empty whistling streets, it must be like death itself.

    Americans do not realise that, in hollowing out the city, the focus of civilisation since 4000BC, the place of the random embodied encounter, they have hollowed themselves out, their own capacity for sociality. Deprived of a real context, the need for such sociality then takes on ideal forms — nation, religion, the pseudo-community of the sitcom (how much of a clue is it that the most significant example of that genre was called, simply, generically, Friends?).]

    michael r james:

    Michael, I read all comments. My only experience of Charlotte is the airport (it’s a major hub), where I sat with my family for hours a few years ago waiting for a flight to Pittsburgh. If he thinks Charlotte is bad, I can only imagine how horrified Rundle would be by the downtowns of some other Sunbelt cities. I think he over-reaches though with the proposition that “hollowing out the city” has directly led to hollowing out “their own capacity for sociality.” Reads awfully well though. AD

  3. michael r james

    AD, you took the bait!

    But actually I would also contest that SunBelt cities “cheap housing” is a Faustian bargain and an unsustainable one. Though unfortunately one which all of us will pay for, one way or another. But as you say–and the entire basis of anything I write about urban planning–it certainly doesn’t have to be one or the other, like it is in those SunBelt cities. The other thing is that even the most flaneur-friendly city like Paris has vast lower-density suburbs that are much more affordable, but which have the crucial benefit–compared to those SunBelt cities–of easy access to the heart of the old city (via one of the best city PTs in the world, simply impossible in a car-based city). Have you been to Dallas or Houston downtowns recently? Or Atlanta, or Phoenix. As some would say, there’s no there there. And, you know, those 8 to 9 million people who live outside Paris but inside Ile de France, they too have families, jobs etc. yet access to one of the greatest cities in the world.

    Although I have always said that if I could not live in the centre of Paris (meaning intra muros) then I would instead choose to live in one of the wonderful French provincial cities rather than the dreary banlieus of Paris. (Some are not so dreary but not so cheap either. Usual catch-22.) Though in English the term provincial does an injustice to the likes of Dijon, Lyons, Montpellier or Toulouse. (And Dijon is 1hr, Lyons 2 hr, from Paris on a hi-frequency TGV–less than many Sydneysiders are from their city’s attractions.)

    Now, however, as I contemplate a perhaps semi-permanent return, I am forced into reconsidering my old adamantine pronouncements. That 18 sqm studio would be fine if I was just using it part-time as a secondary residence (though even there one is extremely inflexible w.r.t. visitors), while for anything more desirable (40-50 m2, hah!) it is of course an affordability issue (or more correctly an issue of locked-in-capital versus free cash). And being totally afflicted by the Hemingway disease a provincial city would be fine as a base but one needs one’s fix of Paris…

  4. michael r james

    hk Posted August 24, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    Let us cut out all the pseudo intellectual analysis and become flâneurs…

    Mate, I have been a flâneur before I knew the word!

    It is my first, middle and last test of a city. Which is why I cannot stand a bar of those US SunBelt cities AD loves so much 🙂

    As to Paris, it was an incredible piece of perfect timing: at just the right time, technologically speaking, for them to demolish & rebuild a significant fraction of the, as you say, 17th century city (as it happens I lived in the one refuge that escaped: Ile St Louis, pretty much exactly as it was in the 17th or even 16th century, except perhaps for the bridges including the only Parisian road bridge that does not cross the river at right angles, Pont de Sully, so as to align with the Bv Henri IV leading up to Bastille).

    Wide boulevardes & avenues–ready for cars on top and sewers under, and only a few decades before Metro under (almost all their metro consists of cut-and-cover tunnels just under those broad boulevards; London’s are deep bored tunnels). And at almost the last possible moment in history to be able do it in an authoritarian manner before mercantilism and strong property rights made such things impossible (such things happened a lot earlier in London and stymied any opportunity to remake the city, and it shows).

    michael r james:

    Now you know that’s not true Michael. Low density (Sunbelt-type) cities are horrible but offer cheap housing. Dense cities are delightful for flâneurs but housing is dreadfully expensive. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We should learn lessons from both. AD

  5. hk

    Let us cut out all the pseudo intellectual analysis and become flâneurs…

    The character of central Paris still reflects 17C development opportunism allowed by the monarchy at the time. Haussmann was a Johnny-Come-Lately. The Regency period in particular in London allowed for similar levels of opportunism. There are many more delightful examples of “rip off mercants” permitting the establishment of a city style at a time, including the post gold rush opportunism seen in the wide healthy Victorian streets of inner Melbourne. The ruling classes who allowed their friends and others to express their excessive wealth in urban living have arguably left the greatest stamp of uniqueness in sections of most of the world’s major and great cities.

  6. michael r james

    AD. Another pointer to Brisbane’s own lack of appreciating its own heritage: The over-development of South Bank Parklands continues. At the upstream end there was a little restaurant precinct of a genuine boardwalk (ie. timber walkway instead of the concrete that infests everywhere) with timber houses/restaurants, admittedly faux Queenslanders built for the Expo88. The walkway overhung the river and had mangroves all around it. It was a great place to grab a meal, sit on the river and have a beer etc. It was a haven relative to the rest of drab-modern concretized Southbank, but the developers wanted it and eventually they got it.

    There was a succession of plans that generated hostility. The first was an overblown attempt to privatize the entire area by building a “boutique” hotel right on the water–obviously this was blatant privatizing the public commons and the bloody river! It was so bad that public reaction killed it (I wrote a letter and then emailed to a dozen colleagues at my institute to get them to send their own version; we used to take international visiting scientists to the River Canteen there–best spot in town.)

    Next plan was little better and then the Southbank Corporation (a bunch of development-mad bureaucrats who have paved over much of the “Parklands” they are supposed to protect!) hit upon the trickery of defining broad (and vague) development goals then getting a private developer to “develop” them; by this mechanism the whole thing went underground and protected from public scrutiny via a dubious “commercial in confidence” b.s.

    But look at it today. Nobody won. The wonderful sympa boardwalk precinct has been replaced by concrete (and their promise to retain the mangroves was not kept), and a useless and barely-used expanse of lawn and artificial beach (a developer’s idea of public amenity), with one of those fancy pretentious restaurants on the waterfront (no public boardwalk at all, this section exclusively for restaurant patrons). Oh, and they awarded the developers a 120 year lease. But they didn’t really get what they wanted either, not their boutique hotel (the new site for which is underneath the Story Bridge!) and everything has been kept very low. Only Queenslanders and developers could consider this shiny pseudo-modern piece of bland-on-bland as an improvement over the original (but they do, and a big part of the ostensible justification was that the old site was not serving the public!) It is the same Australian developer instinct as manifest in Darling Harbour. Also part of the relentless aim of the Sthbank Corp was indeed to corporatise everything–partly just because it is the accepted thing to do–and a lot of it was to maximize income thru commercial rents (which naturally means all those restaurants and bars become expensive, increasingly corporatised rather than individual owner-operator).

    My own suggestions–if acceding to the compulsion to constantly “improve” over the existing–was to expand the timber boardwalk all the way to the Maritime museum & Goodwill Bridge and, ok remove the faux Queenslanders and replace them with a whole clutch or real Queenslanders. In other words create a reconstructed piece of timber-and-tin restaurant quarter with the genuine item.

    I never go there anymore because it is heartbreaking what the powers, and what the people accede to, consider worthy of some of the most valuable public riverfront in the city.

  7. michael r james

    AD, it needs the residents to properly value them first. In the time-warp era of Bjelke-Petersen there was a truly awful cultural cringe. Even as he and his country hicks (remember they never had a single seat in SEQ, hence the need for an electoral gerry-mander), while being Luddites of the highest order and disdainful of the original city and any notion of there being a culture to protect or cherish, embraced the most awful and shallow aspects of what they perceived to be “modern”. The most awful outstanding example of that–which, true, infected a lot of the post-war world (even Paris to a certain extent, do you see that they are finally attempting to reverse the terrible dreariness and cultural failure of the 70s emblem Forum des Halles)–is the “new Parliamentary Annex, that hideous, stained-pebbledash concrete 25 floor building next to the QUT. (Speaking of the demolition/remodelling of Les Halles, the Parliamentary Annex is now about 40+ years old and surely could be considered for demolition? I guess no chance with Campbell Newmann and let’s face it, he would build a monstrosity anyway.)

    Even today I think there is a strong cultural cringe because afterall most Brisbanites don’t live in those suburbs and of course cannot afford them, which is almost reason enough for them to be careless about their loss. Newmann and Quirk unilaterally relaxed the height limit up to 12 floors on the painstakingly negotiated development plan for the West End/South Briz.

    You may well support such a thing but next time you stroll around you should try to imagine clusters of 12 floor drab apartment blocks–it is all the difference between the lower liimit (6 or 7 I think) versus a height that imposes its bulk and dominance over its whole perimeter. This may mostly affect the old industrial areas along the river (facing Coro drive on Leftbank) but take a look at it too: max height is 6-8 floors and it still appears ok (even if some of those apartment buildings are less than stellar) but it won’t with higher ones. Worse, it is just the prelude–as always–for developers who, once they get planning consent for their 12 floor building, immediately put in a modification for (15, 20, 30 floors).

    And of course for the moment, perhaps another decade, they are satiated with the development zone, but once sites start becoming rare, they will exert pressure on the adjoining residential zones. (And part of the argument will be that since there are 12 storey buildings–and no doubt higher–already next to them, what do the Nimbyists think they are protecting, it is already lost!)

    So, we are back to the familiar and all-pervasive Australian situation of where it is developers who drive almost everything. For almost 2 decades, post-Joh, we had 3 Premiers (Goss, Beattie, Bligh) and most mayors, who appreciated the unique Brisbane heritage, but then 7 years of Newmann as mayor and now at least two terms with him as Premier, and it could all go down the toilet. Incidentally, that stuff about corruption with Newmann and his wife’s family, the 7 donations by the developer buddies who got relaxation for their outsized W’gabba development, it may have gone quiet but it was certainly true.

  8. Alan Davies

    michael r james #3,4,5:

    Is there anywhere in the world that’s quite like inner Brisbane? Every time I visit (I was there again two weeks ago) I’m knocked out by the inner city/suburbs e.g the tour from Highgate Hill down to West End/Hill End. It’s not just the houses and vegetation it’s also the hills and vistas. I’m mystified why Brisbane doesn’t fully appreciate the value of what its got and why it isn’t recognised world-wide for its inner neighbourhoods (I half wrote a piece on this theme a year or so ago – maybe I’ll finish it off).

  9. michael r james

    Incidentally, FYI, there is an exhibition of Atget’s celebrated photos of Paris at the Art Gallery of NSW until 4 November. He is often acclaimed as the first modern city photographer and documented the pre-modern city (mostly pre-WWII and much pre-WWI) with a unique melancholy air and always with either people or the artefact of people in his compositions.

  10. michael r james

    It is interesting–and something I only appreciated after returning from a few decades self-exile–that the old inner-fringe suburbs of Brisbane remain the most instantly identifiable streetscapes in Australia. Luckily, enough remain (partly the accident of retarded development in this banana republic) and the elite ruling class (including the most recent three premiers) lived in them (and the previous fed PM & current treasurer), that they are relatively safe from redevelopment. (There is more than enough space, including lots of brownfield sites, in the inner region for redevelopment though with the council’s collusion with the developers it is to be seen whether they will avoid creating dull hi-rise ghettos.)

  11. michael r james

    [balconies with cast-iron railings occur predominantly on the large thoroughfares (bd Saint-Michel, bd Saint-Germain, rue de Rivoli), whereas windows with cast-iron railings appear mostly on smaller streets.]

    That is called “Haussmannian” and of course it is exactly what was mandated on the newly created grand boulevardes which Haussmann drove through the city. Some other cities, notably the 19th century expansion of Barcelona, the Eixample, but also parts of NYC, copied it and so sometimes–though with narrow focus–one can be momentarily fooled.

    It is a curious thing, that such detailed state-mandated building regs could be so aesthetically successful. On paper one might have predicted that mandating exact street alignment, uniformity of frontage (such as ground level floor height, second level (piano nobile) appearance including the “balcon filant” (continuous narrow balcony, ie. across entire façade) etc. would have given an uninteresting, perhaps stultifying-conformist look. Instead it created the most beautiful streetscapes in the world.

    Incidentally, it is absolutely correct to ignore monuments like the Eiffel Tower because when you live in such cities those things either are invisible (you can’t see it from most ground level positions) or become invisible through habituation. The streetscape is much more important for the “look and feel” everyday. This is a common misconception by non-residents who often sneer that Paris is just an empty pretty “supermodel”–monuments everyone can rattle off and see in one or two days. Not so. It’s the basic fine-scale (and human scale) fabric and the walkability and separate “villages” or quartiers that creates the real Paris and the Hemingwayism that “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

  12. Wiz Aus

    Heh, just tried a few random suburbs from Melbourne and Sydney on Google street view to see if I could easily spot the difference, and the most obvious thing I noticed was the condition of the roads…sure there are places in Melbourne where the roads aren’t great, but man, why do Sydneysiders put up with consistently under-repaired roads?

  13. Wiz Aus

    “If you were dropped randomly into a sample of outer suburbs across Australia multiple times, it’s doubtful you’d do significantly better than chance in picking what city you’re in.”

    I wouldn’t go by the buildings – but there’s other differences (weather, fauna, street signs etc.) that would probably give sufficient clues. But someone enterprising could set up a test using screen captures from Google street view 🙂

    In fact I think I’d have a better chance with that than being dropped into a random street with no giveaway features in a town or city in Europe and being asked to guess which one it was!

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