‘Anglo-Gallic salutations in London — or Practice makes perfect’ (1822) by George Cruikshank, showing two Frenchmen chatting on a London street © Heritage Images/Getty Images

“Sous les pavés, la plage!” Beneath the paving, the beach. This graffitied slogan of 1968 became a rallying call of the protesting students who took up the Paris cobbles to build them into barricades and hurl them at the police — and found the sand they were bedded in below.

The pavements of Paris have been the world’s most dug up, not by the utility companies (that’s London) but by successive generations of protesters, communards and students. 1968 became the year the authorities finally had enough. After the protests that shut Paris down, the cobbles were replaced by tarmac, robbing the city of the texture and complexity that made its streets an Impressionist’s delight and making them the smoothest in Europe. Which had its own effect. It made the streets perfect for rollerblading and groups would gather, gliding through the city in a contemporary version of the dérive, or the famous flâneur’s walk — a way of subverting the patterns of power inscribed in the city’s streets through aimless wandering.

The pavement is the skin of the city, a membrane that separates the veneer of civilisation from the darkness of the earth. Below it lies the viscera, the tubes and pipes, the gas, sewage, water, drains and electric cables, the arteries, veins and guts that keep the city alive. But for a thin surface it can have a hugely powerful effect on how the city feels, how it looks and how it behaves.

The story of the modern pavement starts not in Paris but in London. The Westminster Paving Act of 1762 led to the provision of pavements on either side of the road as a safe and clean place for pedestrians. Georgian London became an exemplar of civilised streets in which walkers could avoid the mud, filth, butchered guts, blood and manure, which covered the 18th-century road surface. Voltaire — visiting London in the 1720s, before the Paving Act — had been so impressed that he argued that the pavement was a method of democratising the city.

Cobblestone streets in Montmartre, Paris © Nicola Viglanti/Gammi-Rapho/ Getty Images

The argument was that the wealthy could avoid the ordure in their carriages or Sedan cars but the poor were destined to walk in muck. Pavements would allow the masses to enjoy a civilised city in purity and parity with the aristocratic elite. In the wake of the French Revolution pavements were laid in Paris and became seen as an urban symbol of the Republic. In Britain, however, they were understood not as the pavements of power to the people but as a mechanism for hygiene, for protecting people not from exploitation by the wealthy, but from filth.

The introduction of pavements transformed the streets, not only in practical terms — by making them places where it was possible or acceptable to wander — but in the way streets evolved. Where shopping arcades had once been necessary to engender a sense of security and cleanliness, places protected against the rain from above and the mud and filth from below, now shops spread along the streets. These streets increasingly became spectacles in their own right as shops began displaying their wares in windows, illuminating the sidewalks and making them places of fashion, food and longing. What was once a utilitarian thoroughfare became an avenue of consumption — streets of desire.

A barricade made of paving stones during protests in Paris’s Latin Quarter in May 1968 © Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

So when the revolting Parisians ripped up successive surfaces of cobbles and paving stones they were using the material of capital against itself. The fabric of the street became the material manifestation of protest.

The pavement is a paradoxical thing. It begins as a symbol of civilisation and liberation but also becomes a kind of final resort, the domain of the homeless, of beggars and of defecating dogs. A city’s attitude to its street surface reveals much about its ideas of civic space, of ownership and generosity.

Black and white tiles on a street in Lisbon, Portugal © Alamy

The streets and squares of Portuguese cities for instance are often laid not with paving slabs but with fine-grained white and black tiles to remarkable decorative effect. Huge piazzas are animated by swirling patterns and playfully geometric tessellations which foreshadowed Op Art. The success of this most urban of crafts spread to the colonies and the streets of Macau, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx used the undulating patterns to create a sense of movement and offer a connection to the sea in the seductive promenade along Copacabana. The inlaid waves echo the dunes in the sand and the motion of the sea and create a connection with the colonial capital across the huge expanse of the Atlantic.

The promenade at Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, designed by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx

Yet if pavements can produce a sense of public cohesion, they can also indicate the presence of something darker. The coal holes and manholes suggest an underworld, a buried realm beneath the civilising veneer of the sidewalk, while New York’s steam vents release a viscerally dark energy from below. The sense is of a literal underworld — the realm of Fagin and the myths of giant alligators and rats in the sewers. Is this why children play at avoiding the cracks in the pavement? The fear of falling through into the darkness? The pavement is the only surface through which we really engage with the city, we touch it through the soles of our shoes. And, like that membrane of the sole, we are reminded that it is only the thinnest of layers.

Steam erupting from a vent in New York © Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

“I think that our bodies are in truth naked,” wrote Virginia Woolf in The Waves. “We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence.” The beach or the cemetery, the pavement separates us from a fantasy of life and a dream of death and it is the surface on which we walk and on which we fear we might end up sleeping. It embodies the life and death of the city.

Asphalt paves the way

While the paving stone may have the edge on style and character, when it comes to a greener, more sustainable road surface asphalt concrete is the winner, reports Maud Goodhart.

A street in Paris © Joel Saget/Getty Images

The British refer to asphalt as “tarmac” — even though it contains no tar. Americans call it pavement — which bears little relation to what the British understand as pavement. Less confusing is asphalt’s ability to be recycled.

In the US, less than 1 per cent of the stuff is thrown into landfills. The rest is returned to an asphalt plant to be melted and reused. This makes asphalt the US’s most recycled material — about 70m tonnes are recycled each year, according to the National Asphalt Pavement Association, more than aluminium cans, papers and plastic.

There are other benefits, too: a smooth road surface can decrease car emissions by 4.5 per cent. It also reduces noise pollution and the Asphalt Pavement Alliance claims it never wears out, unlike stone.

However, it is by no means indestructible. Frost will crack it, and excess heat and heavy buses might remould a flat surface. Yet, the solution is straightforward: lay down another layer of asphalt cement — which is swifter than digging up a concrete pavement.

Although asphalt may be uglier than ancient cobbles, it is not a new material. Asphalt was used by the Romans to prevent water leaking from out of their baths. These days, it can be waterproof or porous, containing or draining water.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic

Photographs: Heritage Images/Getty Images; Nicola Viglanti/Gammi-Rapho/ Getty Images; Dominique Berretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images; Alamy; Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images; Joel Saget/Getty Images

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