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  • Paris in Architecture, Literature, and Art by May Spangler
  • Gavin Bowd
Paris in Architecture, Literature, and Art. By May Spangler. New York: Peter Lang, 2018. xx + 409 pp., ill.

This textbook responds to the burgeoning popularity of Paris studies and is aimed at American liberal arts students. It takes us through the various phases of the development of the French capital, from Gallo-Roman Lutetia to the Beaubourg and postmodern Paris. Students deepen their knowledge through the study of architecture and art, as well as literary extracts and films concerning each period, for example the Wars of Religion as evoked in Agrippa d’Aubigné’s Les Tragiques and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot (1994). The study of texts and images is complemented by classroom interaction and internet searches. For example, in order to understand the Gothic experience of light, students are asked to form groups of two and reflect on times they were touched by light. They then share the results with the class and classify them in Kantian categories. Another example of interaction is a virtual visit to the Eiffel Tower, where students look online for images that may embody Impressionist principles. In general, the course is useful, engaging, and uncontroversial, and May Spangler displays her considerable knowledge of architecture and art. But inevitably such a book will fall foul of some Paris aficionados. Despite (or because of?) her long-time residence in Paris (we do not know which arrondissement), Spangler gives no sense of the social and geographical diversity of the city intra muros that resisted Haussmannization. The Paris Commune, a historic example of [End Page 659] spatial class struggle, is hardly mentioned. If Louis Chevalier and Jean-François Lyotard make the postmodern section, there is no place for Henri Lefebvre or the Situationists. The ‘Underprivileged Banlieue’ is tacked on at the end like some afterthought of a liberal guilty conscience and predictably portrayed through the film La Haine (dir. by Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995). This merely reinforces a caricatural view of the so-called quartiers difficiles and, again, erases the diversity of the Parisian suburbs, especially as the construction of le Grand Paris, a new, sustainable city for the twenty-first century that aims to break down the inequalities of wealth and power in the Paris region (and which, contrary to what the author asserts, is not dogmatically opposed by the left), proceeds apace. For all its richness, this book reinforces a reified relationship between students and a Paris reduced to great buildings and the great men (and occasionally women) associated with them, a sense of distance aggravated by the use of English as medium. However steeped in Parisian architecture, art, and literature, you have the impression that, upon finally crossing the Pond, students will explore the City of Light very much as tourists.

Gavin Bowd
University of St Andrews


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pp. 659-660
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