The building is situated on the otherwise non-descript Place du Colonel Fabien. This place, which in reality is little more than a large roundabout, was previously known as the Place du Combat, and was named after the organized animal fights that used to take place here. It was renamed after the second world war in honour, rather aptly, of a communist militant and resistant who was killed in 1944.
The building is set back from the road, a design decision that Niemeyer took for two reasons. Firstly he wanted to hide a rather unattractive structure situated in a plot behind, and secondly for reasons of secrecy and security. It is almost impossible to see the somewhat sunken entrance from the street, and this coupled with the reflective glass windows of the façade makes it very difficult for observers to see who is entering or who is inside the building. This may seem excessive today, but this is a building that has undoubtedly been regularly under surveillance from secretive governmental organisations.
Beyond these aspects, this is in many ways a typical Niemeyer structure. Modernist in form, with its concrete body raised up on a series of pilotis, it manages to escape the block-like rigidity of other similar structures due to Niemeyer’s insistence on curves. Originally designed in 1965, the building was not fully completed and inaugurated until 1980, and it is perhaps this which has given it a slightly timeless feel. It is undoubtedly elegant from the exterior, but it is the interior which is truly worth seeing. The white dome pushing through the garden courtyard is a clue, but few would imagine the fascinating ‘space-age’ central committee auditorium that lays beneath. Visits are organised in September during the ‘journees de la patrimoine’, but only very exceptionally at other times of the year.
The interior of the Espace Niemeyer (photo taken from www.orserie.fr)
With changing political situations, the Communist party influence has waned in France, and this building has become something of a heavy weight for the party. Too expensive to run, it is nevertheless much in demand (fashion shoots, conferences etc), but how could the party profit from this without renouncing on their fundamental principles? The solution has been to rename the building the ‘Espace Niemeyer’ and to rent out two of the floors to other organisations, one of which is a company producing animation films. This is not as improbable as it sounds as there is something rather graphic and cinematographic about the whole structure. For my son, who only sees the white dome, it is the ‘Tellytubby house’, but who knows where the producers of that programme got their inspiration. Could that also be a clue as to the political sympathies of Tinky-Winky and friends?