Sunday 26 October 2008

The Prince and the Pauper

In the Flunch restaurant at the Place de Clichy there is a photographic shrine to a structure that is no longer standing. The building was the Gaumont Palace and it was situated where the Flunch itself stands today. The site overlooks the Montmartre cemetery, and if buildings can be ghosts and leave their spectral forms behind, this edifice will qualify as an eternal spirit.

I have already written of cinemas that have fallen into ruin, but one story deserves a topic to itself. On the eastern side of the Place de Clichy stood a truly stupendous structure, at one time the biggest cinema in the world. Named the Gaumont Palace in its later form, it really was a building fit for royalty. Although this castle has been now raised to the ground, like a modern day Temple of Artemis it has become an almost mythological structure.

Taking over the footprint today is a micro-shopping centre and a mega-hotel. A branch of the low-cost Flunch restaurant chain forms the heart of this 1970s structure, but do the coachloads of Slovakian tourists, groups of exchange students, busy office workers and penniless pensioners know what previously stood where they are sitting today? A wall is given over to archive photos of the building, old film posters and a memorial plaque, but does anybody stop to look or read?

If they did, the plaque would inform them that they are sitting where a building called the Hippodrome was inaugurated in 1900. A glance at the photographs would show them that the structure was somewhat reminiscent of the Petit-Palais, opened in the same year. The Hippodrome was designed, rather logically, for equestrian spectacles, but it did not last long in this form. Leon Gaumont took over the establishment in 1911, and following public demand for the new moving picture artform, he rapidly transformed it into a cinema and renamed it the Palace. Its immense size though still made it suitable for other performances, most famously the first cubist inspired ballet, Parade by Erik Satie, which featured text by Jean Cocteau and costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso.

Its true golden era began though in 1930 when the architect Henri Belloc transformed the building into a fantastic art-deco structure. It became a true cinematic giant, the largest such structure in the world, with over 6000 people regularly attending film screenings. The Gaumont Palace, survived in this form for over 40 years, with the major attraction being not only the elegant curved balconies and the tremendous screen (over 1000²ft!) but also live organ playing as the curtains opened. Only this organ survived when the Palace finally expired in 1972. Like the mammoth in prehistoric times, the building became a victim of its own size and inability to adapt to changing times.

As people today take advantage of the ‘eat as much as you like’ vegetable bar at the Flunch, or purchase DIY goods at the Castorama store, they may conclude that you can have too much of a good thing or that construction projects are simpler if kept small-scale. The Gaumont Palace was a folie de grandeur, an empire to itself that had became a monolith in the modern era of television. Could it have been saved and restored, and could we have been spared from the horror film that has replaced it today? In truth, palaces are always the first to tumble when revolution comes, and us paupers have decided that what we prefer is to eat, drink and be busy.


Anonymous said...

The destruction of Gaumont Palace, to be replaced by the present non-descript building, is one of those Parisian tragedies.

After it was gone, they realized that a large capacity auditorium was finally missing in the city and built the 6000-seat Zenith !

Adam said...

Ah yes, that giant tent at La Villette with the terrible acoustics.
It could have made a successful concert hall, particularly as many of the current crop in Paris (such La Cigalle and Le Bataclan I believe) were originally cinemas.

PeterParis said...

You "stole" on of my future posts! :-)

I agree completely with the statements above by alain and yourself!

(I made other comparative "sutides" on my post today.)

Gaëlle said...

This story is very interesting. Yes it's a bit of a shame when buildings like this one are being replaced by those horrible constructions with no soul wathsoever.

I've got a little surprise for you in my last two posts if you want to have a look...

Adam said...

It is sad, but do you know what's even sadder? Secretly I really like going to Flunch restaurants!

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