The Historical Axis, on the Right Bank of Paris, is probably one of the most prestigious perspectives in the world to have been designed and has inspired cities such as Buenos Aires, Washington DC and Canberra. The Historical Axis, also known in French as “Axe Historique”, “Voie Triomphale” or “Voie Royale” is orientated on a 26° angle, following the course of the Sun from its rising in the East to its setting in the West. Strangely, this angle of orientation is the same as that of Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, some 1,000 metres away from the Louvre Palace. More than just a series of monuments placed along the axis, it seems that a complex symbolism was at work in the mind of the successive urban planners.
- Arc de Triomphe
- La Défense
- Striking Facts
- In the Future
The monuments aligned on the Historical Axis
The Historical Axis runs through some of Paris’ most celebrated monuments and squares:
❖ The Louvre: the Glass Pyramid and the equestrian statue of Louis XIV portrayed as ‘Alexander the Great’ in the Cour Napoléon.
❖ The Arc du Carrousel
❖ The gardens of the Tuileries
❖ The Place de la Concorde and the Egyptian obelisk
❖ The Champs-Élysées
❖ The Arc de Triomphe, standing in the centre of the wide Place de l’Etoile
❖ The Avenue de la Grande Armée leading to Porte Maillot
❖ The Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Neuilly-sur-Seine, leading to Pont de Neuilly
❖ The Esplanade de La Défense
❖ The Grande Arche de la Fraternité in La Défense
❖ The Seine-Arche project which endeavours to push the axis beyond La Défense, to the Seine.
The Palace of the Louvre
The great perspective starts at the Louvre, immediately beyond the Church of St Germain l’Auxerrois. The crab-shaped Palace was the main residence of the kings of France until 1682, when Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, moved his court to Versailles. It currently houses one of the world’s most wonderful museums in a complex that is known as the “Grand Louvre”.
In the Cour Napoléon, the Historical Axis does not run through the Glass Pyramid and the centreline of the courtyard. This led architect Pei to request that a particular statue of Louis XIV be placed adjacent to the Pyramid and in the direct path of the Historical axis.
President François Mitterrand left his mark with his pharaonic project of “Le Grand Louvre” that had to be completed for the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution in 1989. The titanic project comprised of major renovation works and the construction of a new landmark along the Historical Axis: the celebrated Glass Pyramid.
The first monument to be aligned with the Historical Axis is the Arc du Carrousel, a triumphal arch built by Napoleon from 1807 to 1808 to celebrate the victory of the French imperial army in Austerlitz. However, the view of the Great Perspective from Arc du Carrousel was blocked westwards by the Tuileries Palace.
Read more about the position of the Palace of the Louvre along the Historical Axis of Paris.
The Tuileries Palace and Gardens
Prior to its destruction in 1871 by a fire during the Paris Commune, the Palace of the Tuileries played a full role along the Historical Axis as it was its real starting point. Its absence moved the visual start of the axis back to the Cour Napoléon to reveal a deviation of the axis to visitors. For garden architect Le Nôtre planned the axis to run from the Tuileries and its gardens in the 17th century.
Place de la Concorde
The Obelisk, which have been ideally placed in the middle of the Place de la Concorde since 1836, is part of the strange geometrical layouts and alignments along the Historical Axis, evoking the symbols of Ancient Egypt.
In 1988, this great Egyptian landmark was joined by another pharaoh-related structure along the Historical Axis: the modern Glass Pyramid in the Louvre, evoking the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The Place de la Concorde set the stage for another North-South perspective, much shorter, perpendicular to the Historical Axis. It features, on the South side, beyond the bridge “Pont de la Concorde” across the Seine, the Palais Bourbon and on the North side, at the end of Rue Royale, the Madeleine Church. Both monuments match each other across the Place de la Concorde with their grand Classical-style porticos, evoking the design of Roman temples.
Read more about the position of the Place de la Concorde along the Historical Axis of Paris.
The wide processional Avenue des Champs-Élysées had been in Le Nôtre’s mind when the urban architect designed the Tuileries Garden back in the 17th century. But it was the Duke of Antin who pursued the Grand Cours or ‘Perspective’ up to the mound of Chaillot (Butte de Chaillot) where the Arc de Triomphe now stands majestically.
As a famous landmark along the Historical Axis, the Champs-Elysées plays a major role in opening the outlook from the Louvre towards the West, towards the setting sun.
From the Place Clémenceau, another ‘Grand Perspective’ opens towards the Hôtel des Invalides, passing through the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, the Pont Alexandre III and the Esplanade des Invalides. Because it was completed during the 3rd French Republic, it was commonly known as the “Republican Axis”, echoing the older “Historical Axis” along the Champs-Elysées.
Read more about the position of the Champs-Élysées along the Historical Axis of Paris.
The Arc de Triomphe
At the end of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées stands the mighty Arc de Triomphe, at the centre of a huge square in the shape of a ‘star’, accurately named the “Place de l’Étoile”. The huge arch was raised in the 19th century on the centreline of the Historical Axis of Paris, some 2.2km away from the Luxor Obelisk on the Place de la Concorde. This celebrated monument is the highest triumphal arch in Europe and stands 50 metres high.
The Arc de Triomphe honours those who fought for France, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. The monument is certainly a symbolic monument with a strong historic connotation, and its alignment along the Historical Axis has been meticulously calculated to have the sun setting under the arches on some particular days. Twice a year, around the 10th May and the 1st August, the sun sets on the Historical Axis. The sun rises towards the East under the arch around the 7th February and the 4th November.
The panoramic view from the platform of the Arc de Triomphe shows the twelve avenues departing from the Place de l’Étoile, as well as a fine view over the whole Historical Axis, from the Louvre to the Grande Arche in the CBD of La Défense.
To have a triumphal arch as a centre, from which 12 avenues form the radiating lines of a perfect star, set on a stunning historical axis on which various famous landmarks are aligned… what more could a national capital such as Paris ask for?
The answer is that with Parisian and French leaders, anything is possible! President Mitterrand wished to expand the great perspective beyond the Arc de Triomphe by erecting an even larger, taller and wider monument: the Grande Arche de la Défense.
Read more about the position of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
The idea to link the Louvre to Saint-Germain en Laye with a straight road over the little hill of Chantecoq (the site of the Grande Arche) emerged during the 15th century. During the reign of Louis XIV, the axis became the obligatory route to reach the forest of Saint-Germain and was strictly aligned on the Historical Axis that architect Le Nôtre had worked on from the Tuileries.
In the 1950s, the authorities decided to create a significant business centre outside Paris in the residential and industrial district of La Défense with a plethora of skyscrapers whose tallest reach 230 metres.
In the midst of the skyscrapers bordering the Historical Axis in La Défense, a strong unifying symbol was built in 1989: La Grande Arche.
The gigantic and stunning monument is 110 metres tall by 112 metres deep and could hold the cathedral Notre-Dame in within its arch.
Not only does the Grande Arche occupy the place of honour on the western extremity of the Historical Axis, the urban planners also positioned it in such a way that it forms another perspective, with a perfect alignment towards the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse, two of France’s highest buildings today.
Read more about the CBD of La Défense.
Some striking facts about the Historical Axis
The three arches symbolically placed along the Historical Axis (Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Arc de Triomphe and Grande Arche), all share a striking fact: their size approximately doubles at each stage!
Moreover, the distances between the major landmarks along the Historical Axis double each time: 1km from the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel to the Luxor Obelisk, 2km from the Obelisk to the Arc de Triomphe, and 4km from the Arc de Triomphe to the Grande Arche. Is this out of a coordinated deliberation or just a coincidence?
For some, it follows a careful plan transmitted from generation to generation. There could be a Freemasonry scheme behind it, maybe related to a strong Egyptology intrigue. For others, monuments were just added along the time and even though they do represent a symbolic meaning, there was no obscure mystery in their alignment.
The Historical Axis in the future
The Historical Axis does not end at the Grande Arche and the journey continues beyond it, to the next meander of the Seine. When complete, this large-scale urban planning project will extend the axis by 3.5 km through a series of terraces, although with a slight curve.
The landscape will be redesigned in order to hide away the stretch of land which has, over the years, become a no-man’s land at the feet of the Grande Arche.
By 2015, the Historical Axis will run to 11.5 km, making a great walk from the Louvre to the Seine River in Nanterre. Maybe one day the Axis will reach the forest of Saint-Germain en Laye, Louis XIV the Sun King once wished! http://www.ladefense-seine-arche.fr