Paris: Ordinary houses - 1650-1790

The ordinary house was a familiar structure in Ancien Régime Paris that the city administration tried to supervise through building restructions and regulations for both aesthetic but also safety reasons,[1] controlled by the sworn master masons. The written and sometimes illustrated reports of the sworn master masons responsible for enforcing these codes give detailed descriptions of Parisian buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Archival research[2] of more than 600 ordinary houses during a key period in the urban development of Paris[3] offers realistic insights into this architecture that included not only new constructions but also of sometimes very old composite structures. Even if the printed models influences are difficult to decipher, a study alongside the associated treatises[4] is revealing as together they summarize contemporary building traditions and technics. 
While many treatises discuss foremost the importance of the choice of the site and the orientation of the building; ordinary houses, intended to be rental and not a sign of social status, were built in narrow, noisy and dirty streets with a lack of light and air. As our study puts in to light a broad diversity of scale (surface and height), it is more appropriate to define Parisian ordinary houses through their quality, function and interior composition. Often rental properties, three quarters of these buildings combined professional activities[5] with dwellings for the bourgeois as well as for the “people”[6]. Some were partially occupied and/or rented out directly by the owner, though many were leased by a principal tenant. Descriptive documents having to do with the owners or principal tenants residing in the house confirm that these people rarely occupied the first floor (as it is ordinaryly assumed) but more often rented it out. A systematical classification of the information about the interior spaces reveals a repetition of rooms and it is mainly the vocabulary of the secondary spaces that changes: cabinet, garde-robe, bouge, etc. Our documents also report not or very spartan or minimally ornate interiors: white washed walls, red ocre tile floors, wood and some black iron works. The staircase was an essential but costly element often installed in a wing to serve two or more buildings.



An analysis of the street facade is insufficient in estimating the size of a ordinary house or in determining its layout. In order to clarify this issue we gathered 65 houses for which an iconographical or accurate measurement data had been catalogued, and classified them into 42 groups according to the width of their street facades that ranged from 3,3 m to 34 m. While some floor plans show broad facades hiding quite narrow plots of land others suggest the presence of larger plots behind relatively narrower façades. For example, among five houses with 5,3 m wide street façades, parcel size varies from 33 m² to 546 m². Another urban characteristic evidenced through this cataloguing is the irregularity of the land parcels: upper floors wider than the lower levels whose overhangings extended over courtyards, streets or even into neighbouring houses. Curiously, only some theoricians mention this aspect.
According to Le Muet (1623) the smallest surface that can be built measures about 26,5 m², contrasting the smallest proposal in l’Architecture Moderne (1728) of 47,5 m², thus suggesting that the size of ordinary house increased over the course of the 18th century. This hypothesis has been supported by several studies of “newly built” Parisian houses[7]. Though it is difficult to follow the chronology of this development through our study, because most of the houses are not datable, more than 60 % of the buildings for which the surface is known measure less than 190 m². Blueprints of the smallest houses (24,5 to 38 m²) date from the second half of the 17th century[8],  two thirds of the houses measuring between 38 and 114 m² correspond to documents from the 18th century; we identified about the same number of structures measuring between 114 and 190 m² for both centuries. Those houses having a surface area of less than than 380 m² are mainly described in documents from the 18th century, whilst the largest compositions (up to 2 791,5 m²) are equal in number for both centuries.
Often displaying only two buildings for one house, the printed models of the ordinary house are more consistent than the corresponding reports by the sworn master masons that included anywhere between one to eight buildings. One-unit houses account for 44%[9] of our sources, a third of our corpus counts two buildings[10] and 12,5 % three buildings. The more buildings there are on a plot of land, the more complicated its organization will be as courtyards and gardens will be duplicated. In our corpus 6 % of the houses count four buildings and about 3 % five to eight buildings of different sizes; two thirds of these reports date from the 17th century. 
The sworn master masons systematically report the number of floors but rarely their height. If our study does reveal a notable increase of the height on the street line, we can also state that over 40 % of the building patterns are rarely, if ever, represented in the printed models. Buildings with only a ground level and those with more than five floors are extremely rare. Houses with one or five floors are somewhat more ordinary while those with four floors increasingly so acccounting for 20 % of ordinary house construction from the second half of the 17th century through the 18th century[11]. Meanwhile buildings with two or three floors decrease in number over this same period. The increase in height is illustrated through reconstructions of houses from the middle of the 18th century, with two floor houses replaced by four floor houses.
The architectural grammar of Parisian ordinary houses is a contrast of openings and walls, as evidenced by the size and spacing of the doors and windows whose height progressively increased in the upper levels. The reports often specify the number of the bays facing the street but rarely their dimensions (a bay is not a mesure). In the mid 18th century, a new generation of houses was characterised by more openings and fewer walls. Four-bay façades gradually replaced the two-bay ones often without any increase in size. This developement corresponds to the advances in glass production from the second half of the 17th century, with the introduction of wooden framed square glass panels. Recent and uniform models are thus reported in the street façades, as is the re-use of old and often mixed windows for the secondary façades (filled with paper, textile, glass in lead pannels and/or modern square glass pannels in wood). Our study counts houses with between one and seven street-facing bays, of which about a third were two-bay façades measuring 5 to 9,6 m. Other houses with a façade of similar dimensions were divided into three, four or even six bays; the broader façades, measuring 10 to 34 m, were divided into three to seven bays. According to our written sources single bay façades seem to have been more ordinary inside the plots of land. 
Although the design of the façades largely followed a tripartite formula comprised of a ground level, “floors” and a roof, the balance of the composition often depended upon the organization of the ground level that was distinguished by the door, shop/s and often an entresol (a half-floor). The entrance door was traditionally placed on one side of the façade and opened onto a corridor leading to the stairs and a courtyard. Several drawings reveal an attempt to hide this asymmetry. The entrance door, frequently maintained when the house was reconstructed, was a prestigious element of the structure and its size or category allows for classification of the house: piétonne, bâtarde or bourgeoise, charretière or carriage door. The central space consisted of two to four floors, divided into regular, sometimes false bays that were often contrasted by horizontal mouldings. Since additional ornamentation increased the price of construction and any overhanging required explicit, administrative authorisation and thus an extra cost for the builder[12], only some newly built houses from the second half of the 18th century reveal the use of more elaborate doric ornaments. Black iron works, brackets, keys, masks and mouldings were more ordinary. For the upper level our period corresponds to the progressive abandon of the gable for the gutterwall on the street line, through which the broken Mansart roof became a classical feature of Parisian ordinary houses. Adorned with dormer windows these roofs enhance the overall aesthetical design of the ordinary house. The slope of the roof facing the street was sometimes covered with slate and the dormer windows either crowned the bays or were placed intermittently between them should there be fewer windows than bays. They could be supported by the entablature or sunk into the roof and their framing, in stone or wood, could be more or less elaborate (rounded, square, with a pediment or doubled).





The materials also added to the aestetical aspect of a composition. Most of the houses were covered with yellow-ocre plaster and the roof line with red tile roofs. Less frequently were they built with limestone and/or black slate. The secondary façades inside the plots of land seem to have been even more plain in their design.

The architecture of Parisian Ancien Régime ordinary houses thus demonstrated a simplified yet wider array of designs and scales than the printed models suggest. Though the typology is far from being consistent, we can distinguish two main groups according to scale and interior organisation, as suggested by François Loyer[13]: shared houses, buildings with a superposition and a juxtaposition of unspecialized rooms that might also be defined as primitive houses; and bigger rental houses including a succession of horizontal “apartments” opening on a ordinary staircase. The development of the latter was recently studied by J.-F. Cabestan.
Oriented on a rectangular plot of land with the shorter side facing the street and one or more somewhat identical buildings inside, the simple primitive house was the basic feature of the Parisian ordinary house. The ground floor was divided into an entrance corridor with one or two rooms on either side that opened onto a court-yard with a stair-case leading to a superposition of rooms. The juxtaposition of two primitive houses behind one façade created a twin house that was ordinary in Paris throughout modern times. This model was regularly used in larger urban programs and corresponds to the floor plan of many houses built during the 18th century. A third feature, not represented among the printed models, was the double-twin house. This category of house, for which we can establish three manners of use, evolved over time: those clearly divided on all the height of the house, those with a single appartment on each floor and those with open planning possibilites. Those houses built on a larger scale could otherwise be classified as a “pre-apartment house”. A fourth feature of the primitive house was a split layout with a succession of composite primitive houses on a bigger plot of land. The first, larger-scale ordinary houses present a juxtaposition of primitive house plans behind a uniform façade. Other structures include mansion houses that had been divided into bigger rental houses.
Economical, flexible and consistent, were the main characteristics of the Ancien Régime Parisan ordinary house. Under these unifying characteristics we can establish how, much like a puzzle, this architecture could be adapted easily through a juxtaposition of dwelling units or rooms and thereby establish a clear connexion between the different layouts of collective housings. In fact the primary difference between a primitive ordinary house and a pre-apartment house is one of scale: going from a vertical to a horizontal composition. We can also state that the primitive house was not replaced by the apartment-house, but rather that their coexistence is obvious all through the Ancien Régime.



[1] Us et Coutumes de Paris and ordinances.
[2] French National Archives sous série Z1j 256 to Z1j 1222. Our analysis is based upon a systematical examination of the documents for 15 years during a period of 150 years (every ten years: 420 houses in between 1650 and 1700 and 215 houses from 1710 to 1790).
[3] The city is then growing from about 500 000 inhabitants on  1 100 hectars to about  600 000 - 700 000 inhabitants on 3 350 hectars.
[4] Le Muet, Pierre - Manière de bâtir pour toutes sortes de personnes, Paris : 1623, reprinted  in 1647, 1663, 1666 and 1681. L’Architecture Moderne ou l'art de bien bâtir pour toutes sortes de personnes tant pour les maisons des particuliers que pour les palais. The first edition from 1728 is often attributed to Briseaux but the autor was Gilles Tiercelet  (see Hermann « The Author of the Architecture Moderne of 1728 », Journal of the society of architectural historians, vol. 18, no. 2, mai 1959, pp. 60-62). It was republished by the editor Ch.A. Jombert in 1764, this edition is reorganised and includes a supplementary chapter about stairs and 50 added illustrations. Neufforges, Recueil Elémentaire d’Architecture, vol. 3, 1757-80. Bullet, Pierre - Architecture pratique, 1691, republished in 1741, 1755, 1762, 1768, 1774, 1780. Le Camus de Mezières, Le guide de ceux qui veulent bâtir, 1781 republished in 1786.
[5] 74 % in our study: 69 % of the analysed houses includes one or several shops, 1 % a notary office, 0,5 % a craft-shop and 3,5 % a warehouse.
[6] According to J.P. Babelon in the mid 17th century the only obligation was to live in Paris for one year an one day, that the personne did pay taxes and a rent of a least 200 livres (Babelon, Jean Pierre - Demeures parisiennes sous Henri IV et Louis XIII, Paris: Hazan, 1991). See studies by L. Croq  and R. Descimon. The meaning of the French word “peuple” is even more vast and unprecise, and can be summarized as all those that were not bourgeois.
[7] Lorrain, Anne - Les immeubles de rapport à Paris 1700-1750, master degree, Université de Paris IV Sorbonne, directed by J. Thuillier, 1978. Changeux, Françoise, La maison parisienne au XVIIIe siècle, master degree, Paris-VII, UER géographie et sciences de la société, 1978, directed by D. Roche. Boudriot, Pierre Denis - La construction locative parisienne sous Louis XV, de l’inerte à l’animé, doctors degree thesis directed by Pierre Chaunu, Université de Paris IV, 1981.
[8] Two houses on the bridge Marie built before 1635, with 3 and 4 m broad and 6,5 m deep plots of land (Arch. Nat., Z1j 346, August 1679). In the market district the average size of the plots of land was 50 to 100 m², with some on only 10 to 12 m² (Boudon, Chastel, Couzy, Hamon 1977, p. 75 ).
[9] A percentage that can be compared to the result of Y. Carbonniers analysis of houses in the center of the city in the last decades of the 18th century with 60 % one unit houses  (p. 184).
[10] 36 % in Carbonniers analysis op. cit. p. 184.
[11] Through a comparision of archive sources from the thirty last years of Ancient Regime and the Bretez or Turgot map (second half of the 1730’s) Y. Carbonnier also states this “raising to the skyline”, in fact he deduces that the number of two floor houses decrease from 21,4 % to 15,8 %,  three floor houses from 47 % to 38,1 %, as four floor houses increase from 24,2 % to 33,4 % (p. 152-153).
[12] See Harouel, Jean-Louis - « De l’influence des règles d’urbanisme sur l’architecture des édifices privés », Cahiers du CREPIF, no. 18, mars 1987, p. 24. and Gallet-Guerne & Gerbaud - Les alignements d'encoignures à Paris. Permis délivrés par le Châtelet de 1668 à 1789 (Y 9505 A à 9507 B), inventaire, Paris : Archives Nationales, 1979.
[13] Loyer François - Paris XIXe siècle, l’immeuble et la rue, Paris : Hazan 1987.

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