It may just be the perspective and focus of the website, but it seems to me that the life of Saint Denis, as a town, is both caused and best measured by its architectural advances. It seems to grow as a self-sustaining entity – a small town with a cemetery germinates somehow and multiplies into a walled medieval town.
As the town grows and expands, it seems to continue to add to and build upon the seeds that started it. This makes the town seem more “organic” to me. Things are torn down, yes, but it seems to maintain its identity. There’s a since of permanence to it. In fact, we are able to watch the town grow from the mid-fourth century to present day without interruptions. There are now “Where did they go?” “What happened to it?” periods as there were with Lascaux, Morbihan, and even Lattes. The town itself is continuous through its history. We aren’t faced with a everything-is-replaceable-tear-down-the-old-when-you-want-the-new mentality. Perhaps this is because of the resources needed for construction; perhaps it was the mentality of the people. I’d guess it was a combination of the two.
What struck me about the state of the town’s relationship to its construction process was the correlation between urban development and civil upheaval during la guerre de Cent Ans (the Hundred Years’ War) in the early to mid-fifteenth century. The only architectural work carried out at this time was the religious buildings: L’église Saint-Marcel was enlarged and given an ossuary-crypt. Secular growth, in contrast stagnated at this time. Either as a result or in tandem with this stagnation, the town entered difficult economic times. It’s difficult (well, at least for an undergrad reading about Saint-Denis for the first time on a website) to determine the nature of this relationship – one could have caused the other, or la guerre de Cent Ans could have caused both separately. Either way, Saint-Denis was not a town that thrived in architectural stagnancy.
And now, as historical studies are apt to make us do, let’s turn this lens onto ourselves. What are the seeds of our cities (to be fair and honest: the observation I’m about to make has been made for me by a former professor; I’m just bringing it to the context of Saint-Denis)? What do we build walls, so to speak, to protect? Churches, such as in Saint-Denis? No. The town centers of today center around one of two things, for the most part: businesses and hospitals. What do we value? Extending our lives, making money, and buying things. Does our city-economy suffer when the fringes, the non-centers stagnate? I’m not urban economist, but I think not. The skyscrapers are the life of the cities, it seems. I wonder if we have the cohesion of Saint-Denis. I’ll leave it there, lest I start editorializing. Or worse, preaching.