You may know Paris for its cathedral Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, its café culture and its amazing museums and art galleries. The French capital is also famous for its fantastic perspective that runs from the Louvre to La Défense. This is the ‘Voie Triomphale’, aka the Historical Axis of Paris.
This line is one of the most prestigious perspectives in the world. In fact, its design has inspired cities such as Buenos Aires, Washington DC, New Delhi and Canberra. In this article, we’ll learn more about the Historical Axis of Paris. We’ll discover the stunning monuments and I reveal to you some stunning facts.
What is the Historical Axis of Paris?
The Historical Axis, also known in French as “Axe Historique”, “Voie Triomphale” or “Voie Royale” is orientated on a 26° angle.
It follows the course of the Sun from its rising in the East to its setting in the West.
Oddly, 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.
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 de Triomphe du Carrousel
- Les Jardin des Tuileries
- Place de la Concorde and the Egyptian obelisk
- Avenue des Champs-Élysées
- The Arc de Triomphe, standing in the centre of the wide Place de l’Etoile
- Avenue de la Grande Armée leading to Porte Maillot
- Avenue Charles de Gaulle in Neuilly-sur-Seine, leading to Pont de Neuilly
- Esplanade de La Défense
- The Grande Arche de la Fraternité in La Défense
- The Seine-Arche project endeavours to push the axis beyond La Défense, to the Seine.
Let’s move along the Historical Axis of Paris, from East to West, starting from the Louvre.
The Palace of the Louvre
Today 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”.
The controversial glass pyramid of the Louvre
President François Mitterrand left his mark with his pharaonic project of “Le Grand Louvre”. He wished to complete it 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 (and controversial) Glass Pyramid.
But if you look closer, you’ll notice that the glass pyramid is not aligned with the other monuments on the Historical Axis.
That’s why something had to be added in this vast courtyard of the Louvre…
A statue of Louis XIV to correct the axis in the Louvre courtyard
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.
The equestrian statue made in bronze portrays the Sun King as ‘Alexander the Great’.
Looking to the West, the statue of Louis XIV is indeed aligned on the Historical Axis, as you can see in this photo I took on a beautiful Autumn day:
Looking eastwards towards the Louvre, from the Tuileries Garden. It is clearly visible that the equestrian statue of Louis XIV is aligned with the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.
From the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the glass pyramid appeared outside the axis, to the contrary of the equestrian statue:
The same photo shows the East end of the Historical Axis… It shows the exact windows from where you should stand to see the perspective from the Louvre!
The view from the windows of the Sully Pavilion (South Side) is stunning:
On the above photo, you can clearly see the succession of Parisian landmarks:
- the equestrian statue,
- the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel,
- the Tuileries Garden,
- the tip of the Luxor obelisk on place de la Concorde,
- the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile,
- and the business district of La Défense.
The inverted pyramid
Between the equestrian statue of Louis XIV and the Arc du Carrousel, a contemporary landmark is not visible from the ground. It is the glass structure of the Inverted Pyramid (“Pyramide Inversée”).
You can actually see it from the underground “Galerie Carrousel du Louvre”. The pyramid brings a well of light to the centre of the visitor complex.
It is much smaller than its counterpart at the entrance of the Louvre museum. It is therefore another Egyptian-style landmark added to the Historical Axis of Paris.
The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel
After the destruction of the Tuileries Palace, the Arc du Carrousel has become the oldest monument aligned with the Historical Axis (besides the ancient obelisk on place de la Concorde).
This is a triumphal arch built by Napoleon from 1807 to 1808 to celebrate the victory of the French imperial army in Austerlitz.
However, originally the view of the Great Perspective from Arc du Carrousel was blocked westwards by the Tuileries Palace.
The Tuileries Palace and Gardens
Prior to its destruction in 1871 during the Paris Commune, the Palace of the Tuileries played a full role along the Historical Axis as it was its real starting point.
The absence of the monument moved the visual start of the axis back to the Cour Napoléon. In doing so, it reveals a deviation of the axis to visitors. The garden architect, Le Nôtre did plan the axis to run from the Tuileries Palace in the 17th century.
From the Place du Carrousel, the Jardin des Tuileries offers an unbroken vista along the centreline of the Historical Axis towards the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe and the Grande Arche.
The view across the Tuileries Garden towards the Louvre:
Find out more about the Tuileries Palace and the Tuileries Garden.
Place de la Concorde
Place de la Concorde is one of my favourite squares in Paris. It is a grand, monumental and open square that offers spectacular views on the perspective of the Champs-Elysées and the Eiffel Tower.
The majestic Place de la Concorde takes the form of an octagon measuring 359 by 212 metres. The River Seine borders its South side and classical-style buildings close its North front.
In the middle of the square stands an Egyptian Obelisk, raised there in 1836. The monument is part of the strange geometrical layouts and alignments along the Historical Axis, referring to the symbols of Ancient Egypt.
In 1988, another pharaoh-related structure joined this great Egyptian landmark along the Historical: the Glass Pyramid in the Louvre. This modern monument unmistakably refers to the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Place de la Concorde is also the centre of a much-shorter North-South perspective, perpendicular to the Historical Axis.
On the South side, beyond the Pont de la Concorde, it features the Palais Bourbon. On the North side, at the end of Rue Royale, the Madeleine Church closes the perspective. Both monuments match each other across the Place de la Concorde. Their grand Classical-style porticos refer to the design of Roman temples.
Read more about the position of the Place de la Concorde along the Historical Axis of Paris.
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
The urban architect Le Nôtre had the Champs-Élysées in mind when he 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 hillock of Chaillot (Butte de Chaillot) where the majestic Arc de Triomphe now stands.
As a famous landmark along the Historical Axis, the wide processional avenue plays a major role in opening the outlook from the Louvre towards the West. Towards the setting sun.
The Republican Axis
From the Place Clemenceau is another ‘Grand Perspective’.
It opens towards the Hôtel des Invalides, passes through the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, the Pont Alexandre III and the Esplanade des Invalides.
Because it was completed during the Third Republic, it was commonly known as the “Republican Axis”. Therefore it echoes 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 de l’Etoile
At the end of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées stands the mighty Arc de Triomphe.
The triumphal arch rises at the centre of a huge square in the shape of a ‘star’, accurately named the “Place de l’Étoile”.
The huge monument dates back to the 19th century. It commands a strategic point on the centreline of the Historical Axis of Paris. It lies some 2.2km from the Luxor Obelisk on 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.
When the sun setting under the arches
In fact, its alignment along the Historical Axis of Paris has been meticulously calculated to have the sun setting under the arches on some particular days.
The sun sets on the Historical Axis several times in a year:
- It sets towards the West under the arch on 6 occasions: on the 7th, 8th and 9th May and on the 3rd, 4th and 5th August (from place de la Concorde)
- The sun rises towards the East under the arch 4 times each year: on the 4th, 5th and 6th February and on the 7th November (from Porte Maillot).
The panoramic view from the platform of the Arc de Triomphe reveals the twelve avenues departing from the Place de l’Étoile.
You also get a fine view over the whole Historical Axis, from the Louvre to the Grande Arche in the CBD of La Défense.
The star of the Arc de Triomphe
Let’s reflect a moment on this.
A triumphal arch as a centre of a round-shape square.
From which 12 avenues form the radiating lines of a perfect star.
Set on a monumental historical axis on which various famous landmarks are aligned…
Well, how amazing is that!
But the Arc de Triomphe does not close the perspective as it used to do until the 1980s. For French leaders, anything is possible! President Mitterrand was ambitious.
He 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 Historical Axis of Paris reaching La Défense
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. The thoroughfare was strictly aligned on the Historical Axis that architect Le Nôtre had worked on from the Tuileries Palace.
In the 1950s, the authorities decided to create a significant business centre outside Paris in the residential and industrial district of La Défense. It is a plethora of skyscrapers whose tallest reach 230 metres.
La Grande Arche de la Défense
In the midst of the skyscrapers bordering the Historical Axis in La Défense, French President Mitterrand wanted to build a strong unifying symbol for the bicentenary of the French Revolution (1989): La Grande Arche.
The gigantic and stunning monument is 110 metres tall by 112 metres deep and could hold the Notre-Dame Cathedral within its arch.
The Grande Arche occupies a ‘place of honour’ on the western extremity of the Historical Axis of Paris.
But the urban planners of the 1980s also positioned it in such a way that it forms another perspective. This is visible from the top of the monument. You’ll see how it stands in perfect alignment with the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse, two of France’s tallest buildings.
Read more about the CBD of La Défense.
Striking facts about the Historical Axis of Paris
Let’s focus on some striking facts about the Historical Axis of Paris, starting with the three arches.
Remember the three arches placed along the axis?
- Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel,
- Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile, and
- Grande Arche.
Well, they all share a striking fact: their sizes approximately double at each stage!
And there is more! Let’s have a look at the distances between the major landmarks along the Historical Axis. They double each time!
- 1 kilometre from the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel to the Luxor Obelisk,
- 2 kilometres from the Obelisk to the Arc de Triomphe, and
- 4 kilometres 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
Today the Historical Axis of Paris does not end at the Grande Arche anymore.
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.
Urban architects are redesigning the landscape through the suburb of Nanterre. The goal is 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.
Eventually, the Historical Axis will be 11.5 km long. It will make a great walk from the Louvre to the Seine River in Nanterre. Who knows… maybe one day the Historical Axis of Paris will reach the forest of Saint-Germain en Laye. This is complete what Louis XIV the Sun King had once wished!
Find out more!
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Thanks Pierre this is a fabulous article, so much history and interesting information. Lots to check out next time we are in Paris. We love your emails.
Thank you very much Helen for letting me know! I’m glad you enjoyed discovering our article! A bientôt !
Thank you for this article. I was pleasantly surprised to hear in your email that the Ferris wheel will probably not be there after May 2018. A commercial monstrosity such as that has no place on the historical axis. When I was in Paris in late May this year, it was not there and I was hopeful that Paris had said “no more.” Alas, I guess I arrived after they took it down for the year. I am celebrating that 2018 will be its last.
Pierre, your articles are very informative and helpful for an American who continues to travel in France. There is so much to discover and your work helps make each trip an experience. Thank You!
Bonjour Jim ! Thank you for your comment, it’s very encouraging! Yesterday the Paris City Councillors voted against renewing Campion’s licence for the Ferris wheel. It won’t be back in 2018… although the current licence ends on the 5th May (maybe early July depending on other sources). A bientôt !
we love your informative emails and articles.
Thank you! Always a pleasure! 🙂
Dear Pierre, The Axis of Paris is, I regret, something totally new to me. While I have been on each of these monuments I didn’t know it was aligned as an axis. So there is much to learn about how Paris was designed.
In fact, reading all the details you described is kind of overwhelming and I wonder what it takes to look at this axis from the best viewing point presumably from a window in the Louvre. Walking the axis is another thing.
Last time I tried to leave a comment about the Tullieri Palace and how it was destroyed all of which was news for me.
I hope to experience what you are teaching us currently. Thank you for your enthusiasm.
Thank you Ernest for your lovely comment. I know, this ‘historical axis’ is quite fascinating! All the best!
Oh Pierre, i look at your photos and they bring me back to different visits to Paris over the last 30 years. What a wonderful diversion as we sit at home waiting for the pandemic to end. I cannot wait to get back to traveling. Thank you
Thank you Joan for your message. I’m glad to hear you’ve found the article interesting. I can’t wait to explore more of France too… once we’re all able to travel again! 🙂
You have given me a whole new view of a city that i have visited twice and look forward to visiting once again after this pandemic and life returns to some sense of normalcy. The magnificent descriptions you give in your articles wit beautiful picture visuals really help me experience the city in a way I never would have expected while sitting at home. Thank you!
Thank you Marilou!! I was so glad to hear that this article inspired you at home! Take care et à bientôt ! ?