Friday, 30 January 2009

La Mirabelle

The sight of a closed down restaurant should not be surprise in these economic conditions, but the striking element of the Mirabelle in the Rue Taitbout (75009) is what has been left behind - the poignant 1960s style block lettering and decaying facade. This is an establishment which seems rather to have been a survivor from a much earlier time, not a victim of the recent crisis. Indeed, with the tough trading conditions not yet noticeable in the Paris streetscape, this was surely a banal victim of circumstance, or perhaps simply an establishment that had reached the end of its natural lifespan.

I've passed by this spot many times in recent months and there has never been any change. The unit remains hidden behind breeze blocks, but now even the demolition permit has dropped forlornly down to the ground. I feel moved to compose an ode to a restaurant I never knew;

La Mirabelle, a sweet name for a restaurant that never had a plum position in the city.
La Mirabelle a tree that put down roots, resisting being transformed into a simple branch.

This is a restaurant that left little trace in guides, but did anybody mourn the day the restaurant closed for the last time? Is there still a ghost telephone number that people try to ring to make reservations?

It reminds me of another similar sized venue that I used to frequent, called Chez Danie in the Rue De Louvois in the 2nd arrondissement. Danie beavered away in the kitchen, preparing her daily 8 Euro menus whilst her one employee, a lady called Maria who looked a little like Edith Piaf, eagerly waited on the 5 or 6 tables. Danie spoke to everyone in the room through the kitchen hatch, and often talked of her desire to sell up and retire to 'the islands'. The restaurant was only open 5 days a week and only at lunchtimes, but seemingly generated enough income from the rapid turnover to keep Danie in business. One day though I turned up and the door was locked. It was closed for a long time until it eventually became a Korean restaurant. I guess she made it to La Reunion.

Maria and Danie at the end of a shift, 2004

I am full of admiration for anybody who attempts to open a restaurant. These people need to find a hefty initial investment, to choose a decor that attracts, then have confidence that their cooking will find an appreciative audience. It’s something I could never do as I'm haunted by the ridiculous French themed restaurant called 'The Regret Rien' that Timothy Spall opens in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet. On opening night, not a single customer.

How long will such establishments be able to survive across Paris? Run by passionate individuals with overheads cut down to a maximum, they attempt to offer a decent home-made meal to match the price of the average luncheon voucher. With rents rising and bank loans getting more and more difficult to obtain, will there always be people ready to take the plunge into this industry? We should support such individuals before all that is left are the large multinationals.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Carp Diem

If there is one single feature that unites the majority of cities worldwide it is that they are built on or around impressive bodies of water. Often on fast-flowing rivers, but sometimes great lakes or ports on the seafront, cities have water running through their lifeveins. Historically this water was essential for trade and for providing an abundant source of life-preserving liquid for inhabitants, but its role has become more marginalised today in a world dominated by cars and planes. There is one group in France though who are determined to bring the river back into the focus of city inhabitants – the Street Fishers.

What is Street Fishing? Put simply, it is just angling in an urban environment, but to the creators of the concept, it is much more than that. David Pierron, the coordinator of the Street Fishing tour at the AFCPL sees it as a sporting activity influenced by skate culture, but also a true lifestyle choice. The Street Fishing tour attracted 383 participants to 11 events around the country in 2008 (including one in the centre of Paris), with an average age of participant of 30. Many more events are planned for 2009, and the average age of participant is expected to dip again. The surprise has been the arrival of this new generation to an age-old activity, participants who claim to get an adrenaline rush that can be compared to gaming. In Rennes, a community worker, Manu Airoldi,
has even organised hip-hop related fishing workshops for the youth of the city.

The urban aspect of the activity is something I can personally relate to. 20 years ago my brother and I were already doing something similar on the river Kennet in the centre of our home town of Reading. Our favoured positions were leaned up against railings opposite a giant gasholder, or on a stretch between a brutalist multi-story car park and a creaking bus depot. Near the car park, there was a weeping willow tree that gently trailed into the water, and when we fished near there on warm summer evenings we could listen to the river and watch the reeds pointing their fingers up towards the surface. Kingfishers passed by in a flash of fire and dragonflies drew flame from our fishing rods. The city traffic gave a background hum, but it was the calls of ducks and moorhens that captured our attention.

I’ve never fished in Paris though, and neither can I say that I regularly see people fishing on the Seine or the Canal St Martin. The water of this city is brown and opaque, and seemingly used only as a route for pleasure boat traffic and as a reflective surface for riverside architecture. For Pierron though, it is a growing activity, in an environment which has a lot to teach us. “It is the last truly wild natural environment that exists in cities” he explains. “At first view, street fishers are not in a natural environment, but as soon as they are next to the water, their focus is only on this last territory of wild life”. The environmental aspect to this lifestyle choice is clearly revindicated. As Pierron outlines, “After the dark years of pollution, this is clearly a reappropriation of urban waters. Previously there were just three species of fish in the Seine, but the fishing community today has now counted 32 different species, including Salmon”.

How does street fishing differ from simple fishing though? In many ways, there is no difference, with the fundamental aspects of fishing remain the same no matter what environment. The techniques necessary for the activity are important skills for people to learn at any age, but perhaps particularly the young. Pierron lists observation, self-control and humility as being especially important as well as an awareness of your surroundings and learning the basic gestures of the discipline. It can give individuals a real sense of achievement too. As Pierron explains, “it’s the same as life as a whole – there is good luck and bad luck, but success or failure in fishing are dependant on the choices we make. You need to have a basic understanding of nature and fish, and what we manage to catch is the concretisation of what we have learned and understood”. It also gives people an insight into what is happening underneath a dark surface, and shows that nature does indeed exist in the city environment.

There are however two ways that street fishers do like to differentiate themselves from other members of the fishing community. Firstly, the activity should no longer be seen as sedentary, but one based on mobility. The street fisher uses lightweight material, and moves around to find the best spot at a particular moment. Secondly, street fishers never keep fish out of the water for any significant length of time, and never eat their catch. “We are militants” explains Pierron, “militants for a modern, responsible form of fishing”. He calls the method used ‘catch and release’, but the website displays grafitti style logos for the NoKillGeneration.

Talking to Pierron and listening to his passion for his activity has made me want to get my fishing rod out of the cupboard again. As Pierron points out, street fishing does not need to be an all-day activity, but can just be a quick hour after work. It would be a hypnotic hour of calm, concentration and relaxation, and the chance to disconnect from the city and reconnect with nature. With a little bit of luck too, it would also be the opportunity to see up close the strength and beauty of a Pike, Perch or Chub again.

Note: Many thanks to David Pierron and Jullian Frédéric at the AFCPL for their assistance with this item. All photos and images were provided by them and can only be used with their permission. The photos were both taken in Paris on the Canal St Martin during the Street Fishing Tour.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

An Invisible Building

Like many streets in Paris, the Rue de la Victoire has several numbers missing along its length, mostly due to the construction of newer roads that cut across the footprints of previous buildings. What is unusual in this street though is that it also seems to be missing a building too. The mysterious structure is at N°63 and is only properly visible when you are stood directly in front of it. Don't try to get too close though - it's tucked safely away behind tall, iron bars.

The disappearing trick is due to its position, set back from the street and the surrounding buildings. A courtyard in front of a building is an unusual feature in Paris where most structures are designed to tightly hug the street in which they are situated. Here the courtyard does not seem to be used for any decorative reason though, but rather as an additional layer of defence. Even the building itself offers a fortified perspective, with grey stone blocks colliding with patches of red bricks, and iron bars stretched across the ground floor windows.

Look beyond this rather austere exterior though and you’ll see several theatrical touches. Above the arches of the second floor widows, a trio of carved heads look down upon us. To either side, the walls of the neighbouring buildings have been utilised as a kind of extension of the central structure – a skeleton of what the building perhaps should have been. Finally, a large stone balcony with a pair of wide French windows behind - a veritable stage set for a pining lover. Which architect was responsible for this protective, playful mix of styles? The answer is carved on to one of the stones; P.Auscher, 1892.

Paul Auscher was a talented and eclectic architect, perhaps best known for his long collaboration with the Felix Botin chain of food stores. He created an art-nouveau masterpiece for them on the Rue de Rennes
, but also a more streamlined, almost modernist structure to house members of staff on the Rue de Rambuteau. This building in the Rue de la Victoire preceeded these however. Auscher was born in 1866, meaning that he was only 26 when this building was completed. But who did he design it for, and what were his aims? Was the brief to construct a building of mystery and security? This may well have been the case if the current occupiers were also the original promoters. Number 63 Rue de la Victoire is today home to one of the oldest and most prestigious private banks in the city.

The view along the Rue de la Victoire towards the west.

The various Hottinguer banking branches can trace their origins back to a Swiss ancestor, Jean-Conrad who left Zurich in 1784 to create his empire in Paris. It was the wrong time to attempt to create anything in the city, with revolution breaking out just five years later. Hottinguer left the country, toured the world, married an American, made many contacts, and was finally ready to return in 1796. With the economy relaunched, Hottinguer made rapid advances, integrating the board of Governers of the Banque de France and being made a Baron by Napolean. Later generations of the family would also play integral roles in the creation of many large institutions, such as those which have today become the Caisse d'Epargne, Veolia, the Ottoman Bank and Axa. One such family member, the Baron Rudolph was heavily involved in the creation of the Paris - Lyon railway connection, to such an extent that he is pictured in the giant fresque at the Gare de Lyon alongside Sarah Bernhardt!

It's an interesting story, but where does this building fit into the tale? From what I am able to grasp of the complicated company history, the current inhabitants seem to be a branch that has broken away from the main group, which itself has returned to Switzerland. It would be foolhardy then to assume that they are housed in the family heritage, and yet they make much of the building in their promotional material, proudly displaying the elegant wood-panelled interior with early art-nouveau trimmings. The only way to find out is to attempt to contact them.

As regular visitors to this blog will be aware though, my attempts at communication are never a success. After sending an e-mail requesting information and getting no reply, I decide simply to phone. I explain that I would like to know what they can tell me about the building and its history, but am confronted by a wall as solid as the stones and bricks that make up the facade of their offices. "I'm sorry, but I can't give you this information. We are a private bank and the directors would not like this information to be divulged". Clearly they think I am some kind of industrial spy, trying to discover the location of the vault. Mr Auscher would surely be happy to know that the building’s defences are proving to be sufficiently strong to protect the secrets at its heart.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Leaving a Trace

On the dusty whitewashed walls of a passageway into the Villa Marces, I see something that at first seems to be rather gruesome. On closer inspection, I see that the trail left by the hand is in black paint and not something more sanguine. Who executed this interesting piece of primitive street art? My hand dwarfs this shape on the wall, suggesting that it was the spontaneous gesture of a child who just wanted to leave a mark on the face of the city.

Why do we have such an urge to splash traces of our identities throughout our surroundings? City walls have long been more than just about keeping warmth in and danger out, but even before they existed and we sheltered in caves, we still found the need to decorate our immediate environment. Today though, the subject of wall decorations and just who has the right to make them has become an even more contentious issue.

Basic forms of graffiti were used as far back as early Greek and Roman times, notably in the use of the ichthys figure, otherwise known as the Jesus Fish. Here already, it was used a way to show membership of a group or to express opinion or belief. At some point though, these wall scratchings began to also be used for advertising purposes. Indeed, it is said that the earliest surviving example of 'modern' graffiti, in Turkey, is an advertisement for prostitution.

Over time, these basic forms of expression began to disappear in favour of more detailed and extravagant fresques and murals and the only people who continued to scratch messages on walls were soldiers and prisoners. Once again though, it was the need to sell and to advertise that bought messages back onto the walls of cities. Throughout the 19th century the cityscape was changed radically by the arrival of large, painted displays of produce and services, some of which are of course still visible today.

The city residents now found themselves surrounded by text and slogans. Whether it influenced them or not is an age-old debate, but it could not have left them unaffected. Indeed, when graffiti began to reappear in the city, notably in Paris, it was directly influenced by advertising. Guy Debord and the situationists hoped to provoke thought through the use of witty, pithy phrases that were almost a direct imitation of the kinds of slogans that people in the city had long learned to live with. Whilst these messages only exist in photos and books today (Sous la pavée la plage...), they continue to be influential amongst today's street artists, as can be seen in this example found in the Rue Chaptal.

Another one of the situationist's stock slogans was Ne travaillez jamais (Never work). It's unlikely that this message would be understood by the Russian immigrants in Paris who have taped and stuck a patchwork of work requests on a wall outside the Saint Alexandre Nevsky Cathedral. The wall here provides those who struggle to find the right words with a voice, and again shows how writing on a wall can help an individual in a city of 2 million people simply to exist.

Today, the worlds of advertising and graffiti seem to be far apart and few people see how closely liked they really are. In France, advertising boards and posters are regularly attacked by taggers who then leave tagged publicity messages themselves back to their websites. The irony of their gesture seems to be completely lost on them. Their motivation, a reduction in the number of 'aggressive' commercial messages in city centres, is perhaps worthy, but their inspiration comes clearly from the world of tagging. And is tagging not a step away from acceptable street-art towards self-promoting vandalism?

If many would argue that the distinction between graffiti as an artform and as an act of vandalism is in the choice of targeted support, few would argue that a suitable support would be the façade of a school for infants (the Ecole Maternelle Beslay).

The rather poor design of the establishment which did little more than give the taggers a mounted platform and a wall support should not be used as an excuse. We all struggle to be heard in the cacophony of the city, and such tagging can be seen as a cry from an invisible individual. The popular saying has it that walls have ears, but some walls should be entitled to silence.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Le Cinquante

After four months of posting on this blog, a small personal landmark - a fiftieth post! Where better to go and celebrate than "Le Cinquante", a very friendly bar situated in the Rue de Lancry - at number 50 of course! Sitting with a beer at one of the 1950's style formica tables I can reflect on the blog. In this period of sales and cutbacks, should I now offer a 50% reduction, or should I take the cereal box approach and offer another 50% extra free? It's 50/50, but then I notice the posters and pictures around the bar and decide on another approach - a quick investigation into the decade that inspired this bar and the traces that it has left on the city today.

On Sundays from 6pm, a space is cleared in "Le Cinquante" bar and a guitar appears. Before long, everyone inside is singing along to a selection of French classics from the 1950s. Brel, then Piaf, on to Brassens then Montand and Gainsbourg...soon you can imagine yourself back in this golden age - if it wasn't for the lack of smoke in the establishment! It's fun, but I'm more interested in the architecture and urbanism of this decade. What is quickly evident though is how few structures there are from this period in Paris, which is somewhat surprising for a city that was home to architects such as Le Corbusier, Perret, De Mailly and Pingusson.

I can see 50s everwhere, but I can't find the 50s anywhere.

Across much of Europe, the 1950s was marked by the new. Mass destruction during the folly of the previous decade had left many major cities in ruin, but Paris had the good fortune to be spared. Whilst much was lost in the rebuilt cities, it did offer a fantastic opportunity to recreate basic infrastructures. In France, it was principally the port cities that were regenerated, notably Le Havre and Marseille. Whilst we can be thankful that Paris wasn't burnt to the ground (which Hitler had ordered), it did mean that the terrible living conditions in the city lasted longer than they perhaps should have.

In the early 1950s, much of Paris was in an unacceptable state. It was estimated in 1954 that 1/5th of all properties in France had no mains water, 2/3rds had no toilet and three-quarters had no bathroom*. In Paris, the areas around Les Halles and Beaubourg housed many families in such conditions, and shanty town camps or bidonvilles could be found on the edges of the city or alongside the railway lines.

Finally, it was the incredibly harsh winter of 53/54 that was to provoke change. The newspapers were full of stories of people dying in the streets, and one child died in one of the miserable, old appartment buildings. Something had to be done to house people decently, but with France being France, the results of the laws voted at this time were mostly not seen until the 1960s, and almost all of the new housing construction was high-rise towers in the towns in the suburbs of the city. It is mainly for this reason that there is such a shortage of 1950s constructions in Paris.

A renovated old building in the Rue d'Argout

Whilst I would not argue that Paris would be a better, more attractive city today had the architects of the time had their way, I do think that many parts of Paris would surely be improved if they had been rebuilt in the 1950s. In the centre of the city, the renovated old buildings are much in demand today, but in other zones, such as the 13th, 15th and 19th arrondissements, hesitations in the 1950s meant that when construction did finally start, in the 1960s and 70s, cheaper, less refined buildings were put up. In Le Havre and Marseille, the elegant urban planning of Auguste Perret and Fernand Pouillon were true modernist success stories, with the architecture of Le Havre being listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Ah yes, the UNESCO building in Paris. Finally a structure in the city that was built in the 1950s! The modernist block, which is shaped like a letter Y or a three-sided star looks somewhat out of place in Paris, alone as it is. The only other contemporary building that I can think of for it is the CNIT structure which launched the development of La Defense. Both were prestige projects, and were not the housing that the city desperately needed. Had the city been regenerated in this decade, and had housing been constructed in the centre and not in the suburbs, it is likely that not only would there be prestigious architecture, but many of the social problems facing the country today would have been avoided as well.

Photo taken from Wikimedia

Thursday, 15 January 2009

A School of Thought

Living in a city, one statement that I begin to hear more and more often amongst people of my approximate age group is "I'd never bring up children here". Cities are giant playgrounds for young adults, with brightly coloured distractions and amusements ensuring that those with disposable incomes and time need never be bored. However, at a certain age it suddenly seems to strike these same people that the city is not a healthy place, and indeed is as dangerous an environment for children as the forest in fairy tales. Is the city really such a big, bad wolf?

The fears are partially based around imagined dangers that lurk in the dark corners, partially on the lack of space, green areas and healthy air, but mostly, in my opinion, on the quality of the schools. In France, there is no choice in the education system, with the allocation of places depending on a system known as the Carte Scolaire, meaning basically that children will always attend the school closest to where they live. As many young people tend to live in the older, more socially mixed areas of the city, they suddenly realise that their children will also be attending the older, more socially mixed schools. Naturally, if everbody stayed put this would not even be an issue, as the school would become a utopian mix of the more privileged and the more socially disadvantaged. However, the sentiment of fear encourages people either to move their children to the private sector (over 2 million children in France attend such establishments) or to move them out of the city altogether, leaving the public city schools to cater only for those who don’t have choices.

Is this fear justified though, and just what are the schools like in this city? Reading about a recently opened school in North London, the St Mary Magdalene Academy, I am reminded about an interesting school building I'd seen recently in Paris. What interests me about this establishment is not the biomass boilers, photo voltaic cells, and natural ventilation, but the supposedly revolutionary rooftop multi-use games area, and the fact that it is enclosed in a small space. These features also describe the Ecole Maternelle on the Rue de Moscou, a curious structure with metal bars running down the walls, built at least 50 years earlier.

The curious Ecole Maternelle in the Rue de Moscou, 75008

The St Mary Magdalene Academy is a structure designed by the flavour of the month architectural team of Feilden Clegg Bradley, and was built within constraints known as a "tight-fit" space. A school needs to offer the same structures wherever it is situated, meaning that city schools often need to find imaginative ways to use what little space is available. In this school, and in the Rue de Moscou, the play area has been forced upwards and finds itself on top of the structure itself. High fences stop children tumbling over the edges, but apparently in London, a hockey ball has already slipped under the barriers down into the street below.

It is this concept of a ‘tight-fit’ that I find most interesting though. Do city schools squeeze the young into narrow boxes that prevent them from blooming? Do children need space in order to grow and mature? Worryingly, I don’t have answers to these questions myself, and can only look back on my own experiences in order to attempt a comparison.

I attended schools that were situated in a very dull, but safely middle-class suburb of a medium sized town. They were average schools in an average suburb, but they also looked out across acres of playing fields, complete with patchworks of cricket, rugby and football pitches. It was something of a shock to me when I first arrived in France to see that the concept of a school playing field just does not exist. Where do they go to play sports I wondered, and how do they manage to be so good at them whilst we in England were so poor?

My ex-school and green surbaban monotony!

Despite the comfortable income brackets, the cleaner air and open views across green fields, my own experience was that these schools seemed to inspire us only to ordinariness. The town was built around plots of houses with no central meeting points, meaning that the only activity open to us was to wander the streets whilst shadowy faces behind twitching net curtains observed our every step. Had I lived in a city, would I not have encountered a wider range of personalities, abilities, backgrounds and nationalities? Would this not all have been of great benefit to me and my education?

My own conclusion would be that it is not about the architecture of the school, the amount we have in our bank accounts or the quality of the air we breathe, but how much as parents we can inspire our children to be imaginative and curious. If anybody else has experiences of city schools they would care to share though I’d glady receive them!

Note: Credit of course to Robert Doisneau for the first picture, called "Information Scolaire". It was taken in 1956 in a Paris city school situated in the Rue Buffon in the 5th Arrondissement.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Watching the Detectives

Walking along the Rue Tronchet towards the Madeleine, a sign jutting out from the side of a building catches my eye; Dubly Detective. Amongst the standard street signposts for a pharmacie or an opticien, this feature seems a little unusual, particularly for a service that should have discretion as its keyword. Intrigued, I decide to turn detective myself and investigate further.

Locating the entrance to the building, I expect to find a plaque with contact information and perhaps some details on the specialities of the agency, but nothing is visible near the doorway. A glass door gives access to the building, and just behind this I spy a row of letterboxes. Again though, nothing can be seen for Dubly. Where to turn to next? Later, I check the Pages Jaunes, but again nothing is listed, although surprisingly I do find over 100 other such agencies or individuals listed in Paris.

Finally, I discover another trace. Dubly is recommended by the American Embassy as being somebody who can communicate in English and could therefore possibly assist intrigued English speakers. I decide to call the number given in the document, but as the phone begins to ring, I suddenly panic and hang up. I remember what I’ve been told about private detectives, that they are amongst the most paranoid people in the city, often with reason as their activities are carefully monitored by official police services. The detective will now be sure that something fishy is afoot, so I can’t call back. What should I do?

My trail has gone cold and I’m unsure of where next to look for an insight into this mysterious profession. I look again at the Yellow Pages and am surprised by the quantity of information that is given. The first in the list gives these details:

Affaires privées-Entreprises-Avocats-7j/7-Spécialiste Aff. conjugales-Confidentialité-Concurrence déloyale-enquêtes filatures

Many have detailed websites, boasting about the technology used and the fact that they work weekends and bank holidays. The site for the Agence SDI makes most interesting reading, and I'm very impressed by their ability to disguise themselves as a bush.

There is one name in the Yellow Pages list that stands out and sends my memory bells ringing - Duluc Detective in the Rue de Louvre. The agency is one of the oldest and perhaps the best known in Paris, due to its proximity to the Louvre. The slightly art deco signage will probably be familiar to Parisian promeneurs.

How could I find out more about these modern day detectives without making myself seem like a suspicious investigator myself? Only one solution is left, literature. In my neighbourhood of Paris, a new bookstore has opened called 'Terminus Polar’, selling only books on this subject. Surely here I would find an expert on the subject. I ask if anybody has written about the modern day Private Eye in Paris, but after much searching around, the lady running the shop has to admit defeat. The ‘Polar’ and its twin, the 'Film Noir' are popular genres in France, but the crime stories based in the city all tend to be based around characters employed in an official capacity. As such rebellious characters are tolerated, or indeed often encouraged, is there a need for a Private Detective? Why have a Marlowe if you already have a Maigret?

Two recommendations are made though. Firstly, the stories of Nestor Burma, a private detective created by Léo Malet. Malet was a true fan of American literature and his character was based on Spade and Marlowe. However, his tales contained little in the way of reality and were written in a far more humourous manner. Malet also wrote the magnificent ‘Trilogie Noire’, three stories with fantastically explicit titles; La Vie est Dégueulasse, Le Soleil n'est pas Pour Nous, Sueur aux Tripes. To the best of my knowledge, these have never been translated into English, and are currently scandalosly out of print and unavailable.

I purchase the second recommendation - Belleville - Barcelone, a story based in my neighbourhood and relating the tale of a detective in the 1930s. I may learn little about the detectives of today, but I was assured that I'd enjoy the story.

In France it seems that the work of the Private Detective today is neither glamourous nor especially interesting. The individuals in this industry do not have the right to carry arms, to search properties or to interview suspects, and their daily activities are in fact more akin to spying. Their missions are usually for companies who want to see if an employee is truly sick or has broken a clause in a contract, or most banal of all, for ladies preparing divorce cases against cheating husbands.

Leaving the shop, I conclude that this is a world that is better investigated in the pages of a book.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Inside the Gare St Lazare

(Part 2: Part 1 here)

It is one of the curiosities of the Gare St Lazare that the station concourse is at a lower level than the train lines behind. To enter the station you need to find some stairs, preferably one of the twin marble staircases. Despite the impractical nature of this procedure, it does give a certain taste of the Italian renaissance, where the grand halls were situated up a flight of stairs on the first floor. Take the steps at the Gare St Lazare and you certainly find the monumental, although it’s unclear how grand it ever truly was.

It is a fascinating time to visit the station as large-scale renovations are stripping back over one hundred years of history, and the layers of time are clearly visible throughout the structure. It has been decided that the station does not currently suitably reflect its prestigious past and its role in the urban heritage of the city, and must therefore be upgraded. Naturally this means that it will shortly become a glorified glass and steel shopping centre.

The principle changes will all be in the Salle des Pas Perdus (lost steps). This curious, evocative name is used quite frequently in France, and refers to any area where you are likely to be waiting and strolling around aimlessly. It is therefore somewhat saddening to read that one of the objectives of the renovations is to ensure that people waiting for trains will be able to optimise time spent in the station, which of course means shopping. Browsing, perusing, people watching and simply wasting footsteps are leisure activities that should be encouraged!

Sit in this hall and listen carefully and you may well hear some of the ghostly footsteps that are being washed down from the walls. It is easy to imagine mustachioed gentlemen puffing on pipes, or ladies in travelling dress calling after excited children. Wander around this empty hall and you will be sure to see some of the traces of history behind the trails of exposed wiring and piping. At one end, greasy marks from an old ‘Bistrot’ sign and the remains of a barometer advertising a company which surely no longer exists. Above the old shop fronts, brown smoke-stained windows promoting various towns which were once served by this station but which have long since seen connections moved to other places.

These windows continue through to the twin hall on the other side of the wall, the ‘Salle d’Echanges’. It is in this hall that we finally see the trains, and the flood and ebb of passengers coming and going. More recently modernised, this hall seems to offer less historic interest, but look carefully and you'll find a charming mosaic water fountain. A reflection of the station as a whole, it is cracking with age and has long since stopped offering refreshment.

It is of course also in this hall that we see the impressive glass canopies that Claude Monet famously captured on canvas. Monet was also partial to Cathedrals, notably at Rouen (a one hour train ride from here!), and it is no surprise that he saw similar beauty in these light dappled structures of iron and glass. Indeed, the massiveness of these station constructions led them to becoming known as the modern cathedrals of the city.

Why did he choose this station over another though? Legend has it that he dressed up in his finest clothes and went to see the station director. On finding him, he said "J’ai décidé de peindre votre gare. J’ai longtemps hésité entre la gare du Nord et la vôtre, mais je crois finalement que la vôtre a plus de caractère" (‘I’ve decided to paint your station. I hesitated for a long time between the Gare du Nord and this one, but finally I feel that yours has more character’). Using such flattery, he was sure to get the required permission. Whether this is true or not, it was a subject that he painted 11 times.

It is perhaps also this ‘character’ which has persuaded Hollywood to use the station as the archetypal Parisian Gare. In ‘French KissKelvin Kline takes a train to Nice whilst Tom Hanks pretends to take a train to Lille in ‘The Da Vinci Code’. It will surprise nobody to learn that neither city has ever been served from this station.

From the Salle d’Echanges, we can now drop down beneath ground level again, this time to a 1970s addition, a passageway beneath the 27 train lines, running between the Rue de Londres and the Rue de Rome. Curiously, it is this passage that today looks the most dated part of the station, with faulty strip lighting and ceiling tiles ready to fall like leaves in autumn.

It is perhaps this passageway which shows more than elsewhere how this is a station in decline. One hundred years ago it was the capital's principle station, welcoming wealthy Brits and Americans who were breezing in from cruise liners docked in the Normandy seaports. Today it is a station which has slipped behind the Gare du Nord, and which is one of only two stations in the city without prestigious high-speed TGV lines. It’s current role is to serve surburban commuters and weekend voyagers slipping out to their second homes in Normandy. An honourable and useful mission of course, but one that may take this refined old gentleman a little bit of time to get used to.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Behind, the Gare St Lazare

From the Gare St Lazare we can take a trip around Europe, through Amsterdam, London, Vienna and finally Rome. It’s a fascinating journey through art and history and the history of art, but it should only take us about 30 minutes.

But where should we meet? The Gare St Lazare is the most historic station in Paris, but certainly not the easiest to navigate around. Perhaps by the Hotel Concorde St Lazare (Terminus), the street-facing extension of the station, and the first such hotel to be part of a railway building. Maybe a more atmospheric starting point would be under the disused passerelle which previously connected the two buildings. However, beside this great, stone muse, an artistic meeting place would be best, so why not next to one of the artist Arman’s twin statues, the clocks of ‘L’heure pour tous’ (above), or the piled up luggage of ‘Consigne à Vie’, positioned on the station concourse.

As we head north up the Rue d’Amsterdam past the grafted on 60s and 70s office blocks, we can reflect on how trains and train stations have inspired generations of writers, photographers and painters since they first started appearing in the city landscape. Emile Zola was amongst the first to notice this switch from naturalism and modernism, writing that "artists have to find the poetry in train stations, the way their fathers found the poetry in forests and rivers". He was writing in 1877 about the series of paintings the artist Claude Monet had produced in and around the Gare St Lazare.

It is easy to see why 19th and early 20th century artists were inspired by the train station. We can look at the Gare St Lazare from the Rue de Londres, across the 27 lines, towards the zig-zagging roof canopy and central clock tower, and we will see an almost unchanged vision of the iron and steel revolution that cut into the heart of the city. The vista is perhaps unaltered, but today’s quiet diesel and electric trains are certainly less romantic. Edouard Manet, who had his studio within earshot of the station (4, rue St Petersbourg) famously captured the age of steam, in his ‘Chemin de fer/Gare St Lazare’ painting, a portrait of woman, child and dog positioned before iron railings at the end of a friend’s garden above the rail lines near this spot. Behind them, steam from unseen trains rises skywards. This symbol of a naissant industrialisation was roundly criticised at the time, but Manet knew that he had captured a new reality. “Faire Vrai Laisser Dire” (Be truthful, let people say what they will) he wrote when later inviting sceptical critics to his studio.

Walking onto the Pont de l’Europe, we’ll arrive at the heart of our trip. It was Gustave Caillebotte who best captured this scene with perhaps his most famous painting being situated here (Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876). Living nearby on the Rue de Miromesnil, Caillebotte saw and painted the changing face of this Europe district from his studio window, defining the new city order and man’s interaction with his changed surroundings. On this bridge Caillebotte painted a couple of flaneurs walking alongside the vast iron structure, but also more tellingly, a man in working clothes looking down towards the revolution beneath him. Caillebotte had transported the peasant away from his traditional agricultural environment and placed him in his new, radically changed situation.

Zola himself later captured the schizophrenic sentiments that existed around the subject of trains in his novel, ‘La Bête Humaine’ (1890). Set largely in this part of Paris, particularly at the Gare St Lazare, his machines are murderous, as they had been in Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ 10 years previously. Perhaps it was this sense of impending danger coupled with a fear of the creeping dehumanising industrialisation that attracted large quantities of walkers and flaneurs to the Pont de l’Europe. The city pedestrians were clearly fascinated by the new sights and sounds, but perhaps secretly terrified of the great, noisy iron beasts.

The Pont de l’Europe next cropped up in a 1932 photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson, ‘Derière la Gare St Lazare’. He captured a moment when the bridge was being transformed from an imposing iron structure into a smoother concrete form. The station backdrop is identical, but the narrower bars give a softer view. A puff of smoke is just visible, and workmen still feature in a scene which finally is not far removed from Caillebotte’s vision.

It is a bridge that is indeed worthy of celebration. Captured from above in a Google maps satellite image, it is easy to appreciate the elegant X design, and see how it is in fact the meeting point of six different roads (or European cities). It also manages to house several elegant buildings each with tree lined, lawn gardens and the Europe Metro station.

Step across to the Rue de Vienne and we see the station as it finally became in 1889. The site saw several major developments from 1837, when it was a simple wooden structure and the first station in Paris, to 1889, when it was celebrated as the largest and busiest in the country. On this western side it incorporated brick, today housing train company offices, and curiously some interesting decorative touches. The most prominent is a miniature lighthouse which is tagged on to the end of the roof canopy, and which seems to serve no purpose other then perhaps to recall the sights seen at the seaside destinations of many of the trains that leave from this station.

What is left to inspire artists today? It may now be the age of the train, a cleaner, slower form of transport, but their powerful symbology has diminished over time. Outside though in the Rue de Rome, there is a sight that could well inspire surrealists or absurdists – a staircase and pair of handrails descending into solid set concrete. This is surely a blocked up under-road passageway, but the visual aspect is surprising.

Finally, turn the corner and I'll return you back to 21st century Paris and the station concourse. If you have some more free time, I’ll take you inside the station. There’s plenty more to see!

Monday, 5 January 2009

Snow Patrol

"I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint" (The Manic Street Preachers)

Waking up, the city is still in dormant darkness, but the falling snowflakes are clearly visible in the orange street lamp glow. Putting my forehead to the cold kitchen windowpane, I see that a thin sheet is forming in the street below me. A steady flow of cars is keeping it from the roads, but the untrodden pavements are still pure virgin whiteness. Would I finally get to see Paris under a blanket of snow?

As I leave the appartment and head off for work, daylight is trying to push its way through the thick, snow-heavy clouds. The streetscene still looks like it belongs in a shake and snow globe, but the flakes, though abundant, are little more than sprinklings of ice. In the street, the first signs of the city fightback against the conditions are visible. The Metro staircase is liberally sprinkled with large grains of salt, burning ice and slippery dangers away. Scurrying pedestrians have eliminated most of the snow, leaving behind freezing puddles. Water is also dripping down from the rooftops, liquid traces of snow that melted under the steam of warm showers and the electric buzz of hundreds of computers being switched on.

At lunchtime, with the snow still falling heavily, a chance to explore. Will the familiar sights of the city look different in this unfamiliar weather? The reality is a chilly, watery world, with snow only visible in streaks, clutching on to rooftops and the naked branches of trees. In quieter streets, unused cars also provide a protected landing space for the snowflakes, and here there is enough for local schoolchildren to gather up for improvised snowball fights. Only through the locked up park gates, over iron fences into private gardens or across the most infrequently used train lines can true blankets of snow be glimpsed. As I walk, nowhere do I feel or hear the sliding crunch of fresh, packed snow under my feet.

On my return home from work, daylight has disappeared and temperatures are dropping back for the night. The city inhabitants can be heard grumbling about the conditions, about how it made them late, or wet or cold. The only ones we don't hear are the ones that truly suffer, the lady with her cat at the Metro entrance, and the man curled up with a sleeping bag in a shop window.

The snow has stopped now, but the pockets and corners that have survived the day will freeze into place overnight and provide a welcoming base for fresh falls. It has snowed all day in Paris, but the promised blanket never became anymore than a thin, white sheet. In this overpopulated city of gas, electricity, and perpetual movement, temperatures are knocked up a crucial degree or two higher than in the surrounding towns. Maybe I'll wake up to the sight of weighty piles of snow on surrounding rooftops tomorrow, but I don't think I'll encounter a snowman. This is a battle that the city always seems to win.

An arctic cold wind this morning has turned slushy puddles into slippery mirrors, but there were no fresh snow flurries overnight. Opposite my appartment though I prop my camera up onto the corrugated iron fence that blocks off the wasteland and catch this snap. Over 24 hours after the first flakes fell, there are still some parts of the city where the snow has stayed untouched and unmolested, and which has managed to avoid all human created warmth.

Friday, 2 January 2009

A Rocher and a Hard Place

(Rue du Rocher, 75008)
"Ajoutez deux lettres à Paris, c’est le Paradis". The French author and Parisophile, Jules Renard, penned this famous hommage to the city in his “Journal”, but it would be a difficult job to find traces of paradise in the footsteps Renard left in the city. He lived in apparent happiness at number 44, Rue du Rocher in the 8th Arrondissement, but today the land on which he dwelled is covered with a block of massive concrete brutalism. The city is sometimes harsh on those that have loved her the most.

Slicing upwards from the Gare St Lazare on an ancient route towards Argenteuil, the Rue de Rocher is no stairway to heaven, but is rather testament to the fact that the most nondescript parts of a city can often hide the most fascinating stories. Take each street as an urban adventure playground and you will undoubtedly unearth the muddy jewells, historic diamonds and bizarre architectural nuggets that at first glance seem to be disguised as scratched plexiglass.

Today the Rue de Rocher seems to lack a number 44, with the office block situated in this plot taking the pencilled out spaces of at least three previous structures. Such brutalist buildings are a rare sight in the centre of Paris, but they almost invariably house offices of government or state industries. This one is home to the Gaz de France, and if truth be told, this imposing building is not without interest. However, what draws me in to look more closely is a sign announcing a Bains Douches (public baths). Why was such a feature added to a comparitively recent building and just where is it situated? I eventually find the entrance, but it seems that it is only accessible by taking a chance along a pavementless service road under the building. At the end of this road, the doorway into the Bains Douches is distinctly unwelcoming, with twisting barbed wire spiralling across the fences surrounding the entrance. You’d need to be in a desperate situation to find the motivation to use this most unfriendly structure.

Immediately next door, dwarfed by the neighbouring structure, a pointed rooftop can be seen peeking over a high wall. A solid wooden door bars access to the building, and the slide-across peephole is firmly shut, but a sign on the door gives some clues to what lays behind. It indicates a link to the Congrégation des Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Bon Secours, a community of nursing Nuns, who were surely very useful contemporary neighbours to Renard and his family. Alongside the public baths next door, Renard would be comforted to know that his neighbourhood still offers assistance to the most needy in this wealthy part of the city, but for how long will this continue? Strips of packaging tape now cover over the services offered by this community, and the buildings seem to be abandoned. Looking later, I discover that this plot too is earmarked for development, a demolition and rebuild that should already have started according to this link

Thinking perhaps of his legacy, Renard also noted in his Journal that "on vieillit peut-être
plus vite quand on est mort" (we age perhaps more quickly when we are dead), but this is a street refusing to die through perpetual evolution. Continue upwards though, across a viaduct that flies above the ground and streets below, and it sinks down to become a monument to the dead, a place that marked history then made sure it could never be found again.

Stretching across what today forms the Boulevard Malesherbes, the Rue Monceau, the Rue de Miromesnil and the Rue de Rocher was the Cimetière des Erancis, a hastily constructed cemetery which had a gruesome role to play in the French revolution. The cemetery was placed in the shadow of the ancient city limits, but the first visible object - a sign which read simply “Dormir, enfin” (Sleep, at last) - gave little notice as to the horrors that lay behind. Beyond this point was a communal burial pit, where the headless corpses of the Robespierristes, including Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre himself, were dumped. The bodies were then covered over with quick lime to ensure that they could never be dug up in the future and identified. In 1840, 30 years after the cemetery had been shut down, an attempt was made by subsequent robespierristes to recover the remains, but time and chemisty had done their job. Today this plot is covered by a forest of buildings, seemingly little aware of the stories that lay beneath.

Shortly after this, I arrive at the top of the street, and look back on the route taken. Am I now in paradise? No, just Paris.

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