Thursday, 11 June 2009

Red's not Dead

It used to be said that France was the largest Communist country in the Western world. Although post-war Presidents of France have almost exclusively been from right-wing parties, whole swathes of the country have long been run by communist groups, notably in coastal cities and in a red line of towns around Paris. At the height of this position of power and influence, the French Communist party (PCF) decided to build a prestigious new headquarters building, choosing the famous Brazilian modernist and party sympathiser Oscar Niemeyer as chief architect. Niemeyer, who was living in exile in France at the time, worked benevolently on the project.

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?

15 comments:

Gina V said...

I love the lyrical modernist style of Niemeyer's buildings...I have biked by this site and wondered about the interiors...good to know that it is possible to visit, even only on just one day in September!

Unseen Rajasthan said...

What a fantastic building...It is amazing !! I will surely visit it one day !! Nice post..Also I Have Started My Own Website And Would Like You To Have A Look At It.I Would Love To Have Your Comments On That Also.Unseen Rajasthan

Starman said...

I would guess that, if anything, the surveillance has increased. Funny, I caught a bus at Place du Colonel Fabien and didn't see this building.

CarolineLD said...

An amazing-looking building, and how fascinating to learn of the very practical reasons for some of its features.

AlpHa Buttonpusher said...

You should add a followers gadget so others can follow you:)

Owen said...

Thanks Adam for helping me discover parts of Paris I've never come across before... never saw this place in all my wandering around. But isn't that what is wonderful about Paris, I don't think a lifetime is enough to really discover everything there is to discover...

chicamom85 said...

Incredible photos and very nice and interesting post.

Anne

vince akuin said...

amazing architecture!

Peter said...

Fantastic building, passed by many times but never discovered how you could get in! Maybe you should just ask at the (discrete) entry?

margaret said...

That dome interior is Pure Niemeyer ... striking, idealizing, ultimately quite dehumanizing. "Tellytubby house"!! Your son has the makings of a top notch architectural critic. Seriously, how wonderful to grow up in a city with such rich architectural expression and diversity. Reminds me of seeing little kids interact with Richard Serra sculptures -- what impression does this make?

ArtSparker said...

And on the other side of the coin, and the Atlantic...someone posted recently that the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, intended as a tech crystal palace when it was built ten years ago, now houses mostly shuttered businesses and hosts a farmer's market once a week. The reverse nautilus effect, where we have grown a bit too small for our shells and are adapting in whatever ways we can.

margaret said...

ArtSparker, your comment reminded me about the work of US photographer Brian Ulrich. He's got a project in progress called "Dark Stores, Ghostboxes and Dead Malls" documenting the transformation of American everyday retail architecture in these times of deep economic recession/depression. It's a critical commentary on American consumerism and a cultural mindset about "unlimitedness". Eloquent and haunting. His blog:

http://www.notifbutwhen.com/XWEB/index.html

designslinger.com said...

As always, you offer another excellent post. Great images! Thanks!

Ken Mac said...

communism is not the wave of the future, but this building is.

Adam said...

Margaret: Thanks - you always give fascinating links.

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