Ignore Montmartre and head to the libraries: an alternative guide to Paris

If you resist Paris, wrote the English topographer Ian Nairn in 1968, "it will kick you back". Give in to its charms, though, and you'll find "the whole city is urging you to greater depth of feeling, the opposite effect of a Birmingham". This is from Nairn's Paris, the second of two remarkably original city guides he published in the 1960s, which combined informed, precise architectural criticism with robust, sometimes oblique prose, a vitriolic humour and an eye for the bizarre.

Nairn made his name in Britain between the 1950s and 1970s first with journalism and books, and then from TV programmes where he explored unlikely destinations – power stations, derelict railway stations, motorway services, as well as stately homes and castles – in an attempt both to awaken readers and viewers to the qualities of what was around them and to denounce the reduction of place to "a uniform and mediocre pattern", which he called "Subtopia".

After decades of neglect since he drank himself to death in the early 1980s, Nairn has become a minor cult, and is once again in print, with an updated edition of his 1965 Britain's Changing Towns (as Nairn's Towns), a new anthology, Nairn's County Durham, a book of appreciations, Words in Place, and earlier this year, a Penguin reprint of his classic Nairn's London. Still out of print, however – and going for crazy amounts of money on Amazon – is its companion volume, Nairn's Paris. I followed Nairn's paths around the UK to edit and update Nairn's Towns, and found his critiques sometimes vindicated, sometimes puzzling, and often making suggestions that had been applied with very mixed results. So how does Nairn's Paris shape up as a guide to the French capital today?

Unlike Nairn's London, which tackles a city with obvious borders, first the Greater London Council and then the M25, Nairn's Paris goes far beyond the Boulevard Périphérique into the banlieue and beyond, taking "Paris" to mean the entire Ile de France region, and even nearby towns like Chartres and Reims. Historic Paris makes up less than half the book.

His depiction of Paris proper is admiring, but distant compared with the enclaves and hiding places he finds in London. Like that book, Nairn's Paris features his wonderful amateur photographs, picking up on details, not vistas – pylons, signs, park benches, railings. The difference is that "Paris is a collective masterpiece, perhaps the greatest in the world", and planned as such. London is a haphazard tie-up of towns and villages into a vaguely coherent metropolis; so it is a challenge for Nairn's approach to describe a city dominated by masterpieces and ensembles, not by eccentricities.

As an Englishman abroad, he registers the contrasts, noting the way Paris uses the Seine properly compared with London's "apology for an embankment", spots the poetry of the Paris Métro's station names compared with the impersonality of the London Underground – "what administrator could invent a poetic conjunction as rich as Sèvres-Babylone?" – and offers tips on purchasing sex (in Pigalle, we're told, you'll find "the specifically Parisian and very attractive attributes of sex – light-hearted, expert, guilt-free"). I can't report whether those attributes still exist but Nairn's disappointment at Pigalle as another Haussmann district with somewhat seedier adverts still describes it well.

He has obviously tramped miles and miles of Paris, and warns that "of all the famous attractions only the Eiffel Tower, the Opéra and the Louvre Colonnade live up to their reputation". There are harsh words on everything from Montmartre ("the Hampstead of Paris, equally phoney") to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, "an endless office of worship, like the Gregorian chant that always seems to be going on inside".

Similarly denounced is the grandest of the formal ensembles, the Place de la Concorde – "everyone has said that it was marvellous for so long that mankind has taken itself in by its own flattery". However, the view of the Champs-Elysées from here is worth a visit in itself – sloping away from the square, it's "a-swarm with car roofs: a lake of metal ants that suddenly disperse in front of the huge scale of the arch". That startling vision is still what you see if you look westwards here.

Characteristically, Nairn guides you to the strange spaces in the interstices of the squares and boulevards – the Passage du Caire, a "slice of the city under glass", or the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève, a university library near the Pantheon, where an austere classical exterior conceals a pioneering iron-and-glass reading hall. This is his "perfect French building" – "intelligent, adaptable, concise and well ahead of its time". He notes that the library staff will let you in to have a look, and we join a small group of tourists to boggle at the warm, sublime vaults. Visiting today, you aren't allowed beyond the entrance to the hall but it's enough to get a full view of the vaults, beautifully preserved and still much in use by students.

Most of all, Nairn recommends the east end, where Ménilmontant and Belleville are his "personal Champs-Elysées", a messy mix contrasting with the boulevards of Haussmann. You enter this world through the Place de la République, the Parisian planner's most obviously militaristic square, designed as "a shrewd bit of 'stop-it' planning, preventing the growth of free thought in undisciplined warrens of streets and providing a clear line of fire". You finish up at La Villette, where Ledoux's classical gateway is caught between canals and Métro viaducts, "a brilliant set of geometrical jokes".

Appropriately for a book on Paris published in 1968, Nairn captures the tensions that would explode that May, raging at the way that the Gare d'Orsay lies derelict, waiting to be turned into "some wall-eyed exposition of l'urbanisme"; preserved as the Musée d'Orsay, its great arched roof now shelters a wall-eyed exposition of gesturing academic sculpture.

Beyond the Périphérique, Nairn ventures into the terrains vagues ("vague indeed") like the new town of Sarcelles, where the rectilinear blocks create "a bewildering experience halfway through dream and vertigo". As in a lot of Nairn's critiques, he makes it sound fascinating. Nearby, he stops at one of the shanty towns, bidonvilles, and finds a "basic sense of identity" lacking in the new towns. The bidonvilles have disappeared, but the planned satellite towns of the banlieue remain – erupting into huge riots 10 years ago this summer. Nairn finds the banlieue's centrepiece, La Defense, promising '"all sorts of goodies" but half-finished. It's now a set of glass skyscrapers with overhead walkways weaving between, which lead westwards to Nanterre and a huge housing estate by architect Eric Aillaud, built in the 1970s.

Nairn commended Aillaud's earlier estates in Pantin and Bobigny as "piquant" attempts to create "identity and community" against Alphavilles like Sarcelles. Here at Nanterre was the culmination of that project, its 18 towers shaped into strange tubular forms, dressed in multicoloured, patterned mosaics around snaking, multi-level paths. Perhaps Nairn would have found this as "bewildering" as Sarcelles or as "phoney" as Montmartre.

But on a spring day, with the towers shaded by lush trees and children playing on its artificial hills, the banlieue has its own collective masterpieces.


Field Guide

The book Nairn's Paris is presently out of print. Second-hand copies are being offered on Amazon, with prices ranging from around €40 to around €250.

What to watch: Perhaps Nairn's best-known intellectual descendant, Jonathan Meades, whose idiosyncratic, hyper-articulate architecture programs can be found on YouTube.

While you're there: See the archeological crypt preserving Roman Paris, or Lutetia, as visited by Asterix