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Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

How the top floor came to outrank the ‘bel étage’

Elegant salon with terraceSocial life used to take place within the grand rooms of the first floor, also called the bel étage, for many centuries. These rooms had high ceilings adorned with stucco, featured a balcony or large bay windows, sometimes even a separate entrance and were often lavishly decorated, making the first floor the most popular place of a bourgeoisie home. While no expenses were spared for this level, moving up from the bel étage, both fittings and decoration declined, reaching a low point at the top floor, which if fitted out, was either used as storage room or comprised the staff quarters.

It was only the technical advancement of the elevator that changed this usage pattern completely. With the spread of the invention by the Otis Elevator Company, after 1853, penthouses grew very popular, as did the exclusive views they offered overlooking the city.

While 150 years ago, what spoke for the bel étage was that it was removed from the cold, the dampness and the noise from the street that characterised the ground floor, today the top floors of residential buildings are sought after for the high level of tranquillity and exclusivity they offer. However, there are many other aspects that penthouse apartments have to offer. Not only do they enjoy panoramic views over the urban landscape, but also more often than not, they feature sunlit roof terraces fitted with swimming pools or landscaped gardens, ideal to enjoy the outdoors within a central city location.

The once uninhabited attic level used to be no more than a border between building and the sky, where families stored the remains and memories of the past, while today, thanks to generous glazing, the top floor has come to represent the most exclusive part of urban residential buildings. Even more, the flat roof has been reinterpreted by modern architects to serve as functional recreational areas. Here the salon culture, which evolved in the lavish rooms of the bel étage can continue.

In the district of Berlin-Mitte, a new development on Französische Straße seeks to take this salon culture up again. Renowned British architect David Chipperfield has been commissioned to revive this lifestyle and translate it into the modern day. These contemporary penthouses in the Palais Varnhagen are being built as an homage to the Berlin writer and avid salonnière Rahel Varnhagen von Ense.

Here above the city you can enjoy stunning views, watch the sun go down, while enjoying ample free space. The ideal place to reestablish the jour fixe with its focus on literary, philosophical and socio-political topics.


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