On opposite corners of the Rue de la Victoire two unlikely neighbours stand facing each other. Rejected, forgotten and closed to casual visitors, these two very different structures pass the time exchanging tales of former glories. As they see pedestrians scuttle past their locked and guarded entrances, they can only wonder when times and fashions will enable them to open their doors wide once more.
At number 37 Rue de la Victoire, a teal-blue refurbished cruise liner sits waiting for passengers and a chance to set sail again. Created in 1958 by the architects Jean Balladur and Benjamin Lebeigle, this lightweight, elegantly curved creation was a revolution when it arrived in the city. This was the first entirely moduble building in Paris with no internal structural posts. Built around a steel skeleton, with a flexible skin of glass and steel stretched across the frame, it was nevertheless inside that the difference could truly be appreciated. The Caisse Centrale de Réassurance, who moved into the structure, were able to appropriate the space as they wished, throwing up temporary non-supporting dividing walls wherever they were needed.
Reflected in the glass façade of this building is the far more imposing structure of the Grande Synagogue de Paris. Built between 1867 and 1874 by the architect Alfred-Philibert Aldrophe in Romanesque/Byzantine style, this is a building that had a slightly more troubled beginning. As part of Haussmann’s 19th century regeneration of Paris, it was planned that the city’s 20,000 strong Jewish community would have a building of their own to be proud of. Paid for by both the city of Paris and the Rothschild family, it was to have its entrance on the new, wider Rue de Chateaudun, but the Empress Eugénie judged it to be inappropriate to place a Jewish place of worship between the Trinité and Notre Dame de Lorette churches. The original plan was therefore turned around 180°, and the entrance was finally situated on the quiet Rue de la Victoire backstreet.
A common expression in Paris at the time of the Synagogue’s construction was “triste comme la Victoire” (as sad as la Victoire), emphasising the quiet and unfashionable aspect of this district. It was also to brighten up this area that Balladur and Lebeigle chose an unusual and colourful shiplike structure for their creation. Balladur had been taught by Sartre at the Lycée Condorcet and was influenced by both Le Corbusier and the German king of minimal, Mies Van Der Rohe. The theories of both architects found their way into this construction. From Van Der Rohe, the skin and bones, the lightness and the clarity. From Le Corbusier, the usage of his modulor system. All of the measurements in this building, from the staircase in the entrance to the balconies on the higher levels were calculated according to Le Corbusier’s theory. This openness and minimalism is certainly not reflected in the heavy stone temple opposite.
Across the façade of the building is an inscription in Hebrew taken from Genesis; “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven”. Missing is the phrase which comes just before this which reads ‘how dreadful (awe inspiring) is this place’. The Grande Synagogue de Paris has become the centre of the Jewish faith in Paris, but its impenitrability has also turned it into a kind of fortress. It is the second biggest such structure in Europe, with space for over 5,000 people, but whilst the outside is solid and well protected, the insides are supposedly light and simply decorated. Unfortunately, although it is possible to visit the building today, you will need an official invitation to enter if you are not a member of the local Jewish community. It is not clear whether this is to protect the integrity of the building and the strict rules of the faith or simply for more mundane security reasons, although the permenant police guards around the building point towards the latter.
Turning back towards number 37, the rather sad, empty state of this building is due to the vagaries of fashion rather than questions of security. Following a recent renovation it is in as perfect condition today as it was when inaugurated 50 years ago, but it is now struggling to find new residents. Such buildings have become commonplace, and what was innovative has slowly become charmingly retro. It is though still a remarkable building, with stacked balconies on the higher levels leading up towards a rooftop terrace that gives wonderful views across the city as well as the impression of standing on the bow of a ship.
When describing his buildings, Van Der Rohe said that God was in the details. For Le Corbusier, the details were natural and mathematical. Following Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man theories, he stated that buildings should have a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale”. But what about the human mind? Balladur may have looked across at the Synagogue opposite his building when it was finished and remembered that Sartre had only become his teacher because the wartime Vichy government had made it impossible for his school to continue employing the Jewish teacher he replaced. When we look carefully today at his building we can see that many details are reflected in the windows. Some of them are tiny, and some unimaginably large.