As any half-decent magician would be able to tell you, the simplest way to create the illusion of invisibility is to divert people’s attention elsewhere. This phenomenon explains perhaps why the building at n°21 Rue Laffitte is so little known in Paris.
Henry Miller wrote in Quiet Days in Clichy, “Looking towards the Sacré Coeur from any point along the rue Laffitte on a day like this, an hour like this, would be sufficient to put me in ecstasy“. The majority of people in Paris taking a stroll from Boulevard Haussmann down Rue Laffitte would be like Miller, and stare gormlessly up towards Notre Dame de Lorette and the kitsch christmas cake at the top of the hill. To do this though would be to miss an exceptional office development at number 21. To be fair to Miller, this building was not even there when he went on his drunken walks, but there’s no such excuse today.
To be truthful, Miller again was right when he wrote in Tropic of Cancer that “the Rue Laffitte...is just wide enough to frame the little temple at the end of the street and above it the Sacré-Cœur”. This vista, with Notre Dame de Lorette in the foreground and the Sacre Coeur in the background, is indeed impressive, but it is for the wrong reasons. Views such as this one were what was intended when the edifice was built, as it was created “pour le pardon de toutes les révolutions françaises“. In other words, its purpose was to cleanse the souls of the Parisian sinners who had revolted during the Commune of 1871, and the plan was that it should be visible as often as possible to as many as possible. The fact that it was such an architectural flop was just another slap in the face to the lowly Parisian.
This monument to guilt and repression contrasts sharply with the sprit of light and openess that consitutes the building that I’ll call N°21 (Does it have a name? Did it ever have a name?). What strikes you first is a feeling of space and airiness. The centre of Paris can be a claustrophobic experience, with narrow streets being flanked on both sides by uniform buildings that practically touch the road. The intention here though was clearly to take a step back from the street and open the building up to the visitor or passer by. You can actually see the sky here and take a deep breath, something that would probably be a good idea given the amount of greenery that has been incorporated into the design.
In fact, it seems that the intention was to produce the opposite of the traditional Parisian building. A classic French construction is to design a building with a fairly austere or impressive frontage, then create the space and greenery inside in the courtyard. Here, the building sits exactly where we could imagine the courtyard being situated, and the exterior, the area that would typically constitute the building, is a succession of terraces, gardens and sculptured walls. It is such a successful design that it could only have been the work of a renowned architect, and this is indeed the case.
Built in 1969, initially to provide a headquarters to the Banque Rothschild, it is today the HQ of a large French insurance and pension organisation. If it seems vaguely familiar or reminiscent of another construction, it may be because co-designer Max Abramovitz is also the pencil behind the United Nations building in New York.
A 40 year old office block is almost an incongruity today when typically they seem to have a life expectancy of 20 years or so before being torn down and rebuilt. However, this is a building which is only just reaching maturity, and although clearly of its time, it still remains handsome today. The gardens now flank the building impressively, and the terraces, with the splashes of trailing greenery, must be exactly how Abramovitz imagined them.
It is a building which is truly relevant to the Parisian worker today, and far more of a monument to these working classes than the garish blob beyond at the top of the hill.
Additional Information: For those people who are fans of Henry Miller, this site provides an excellent resource for his time spent in the city of Paris.