Historic Architecture and Philosphy - Geneva's Old Town

Geneva Journals Day 3
Friday, February 17th, 2012
hotel de ville

The Hôtel-de-Ville, with its 15th Century Renaissance facade, was the locale for the first Geneva Convention and assembly of the League of Nations

Embedded between Alpine peaks and the hilly terrain of the Jura, is the French-speaking city of Geneva. With is humanitarian tradition and cosmopolitan flair, it is the European headquarters to the United Nations and the International Red Cross and known as the "capital of peace." When John Calvin began to preach at St. Peter's in Geneva in 1536, the city became a stronghold for the Reformation. Known as the "Protestant Rome," it attracted wealthy Protestant refugees from all over Europe who further increased the city's wealth and boosted its cosmopolitan character. It was briefly an independent republic.

Set on elevated ground on the south bank of the Rhone River, the Old Town (Vieille Ville) clusters around the cathedral and Place du Bourg-de-Four. This atmospheric district, whose main thoroughfare is the pedestrian Grand Rue, has narrow cobbled streets lined with historic limestone houses. The southern limit of the Old town is marked by the Promenade des Bastions, laid out along the course of the old city walls. Its north side slopes down to the quay, which is lined with wide boulevards and the attractive Jardins Anglais. Not far from St. Peter's in Old Town is the gilted onion-domed Cathedrale Orthodoxe Russe, a 19th century Russian Orthodox Church with rich Byzantine interior, funded by Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna.

russian church

Built on the plan of a Greek cross, the Russian Orthodox Church is located in Les Tranchees near Geneva's Old Town

On the Grand Rue is the birthplace of Rousseau, and parallel to it Rue des Granges, named "Street of Barns" but in fact is graced by huge mansions built in the eighteenth century in French style to house Geneva's wealthiest residents. Looming over the junction is the Hôtel-de-Ville with an internal arcaded courtyard, from where it's easy to spot the different styles of the building - going counterclockwise, the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ahead is the Alabama Room, where the Geneva Convention on the humanitarian rules of war was signed by sixteen countries in 1864. The League of Nations also assembled here for the first time in 1920.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva and was a Franco-Swiss philosopher of the Enlightenment whose political ideas influenced the French Revolution and the development of both socialist and democratic theories. His legacy as a radical and revolutionary is perhaps best described by the most famous line in his book, The Social Contract: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Rousseau's social contract theory, based on Thomas Hobbes and John Locke would serve as one of the bases of modern democracy, while his Emile would heavily influence modern education, and his Confessions would serve as a model for modern autobiography.

St. Peter's

Begun in 1160, with later additions, St. Peter's is a mixture of Gothic, Early Romanesque, and Neo-Classical architecture

Among the most precious birthrights that Rousseau espouses is patriotism. Yet he denounces blind patriotism to society's organization. He proposes that humanity is good, happy, and free in its original state in nature. Vice, misery and servitude are the results of civilization. This line of reasoning places him in direct conflict with Voltaire, who feels that science and art advance society toward perfection. Without doubt, his thinking is idealistic and difficult, even for Rousseau to follow. Yet, his rejection of inherited absolute power, is the basis for our modern democracy and a social contract where all citizens respect the freedom of every individual by unanimous consent. Geneva is the standard-bearer of fair play and humanitarianism. A walk through its Old Town reminds us of its contribution to our understanding of the rights of each individual in society and the principles upon which our own country is founded.

Photography credit: Stephanie Chambers. For a larger gallery of photos of Geneva's Vieille Ville (Old Town) and historic architecture, click this link: chambersarchitects.com

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