Monday, 30 March 2009

Le Parking Bellefond

My first post on this blog was about a garage, the fantastic art deco styled Grand Garage Haussmann, and I'm sure this post will not be my last on the subject. I don't have a driving licence, cannot drive and I certainly have no passion for cars, but yet I still find car parks fascinating. This is perhaps particularly true in Paris where the vintage models were often designed in interesting ways in order to be allowed into the city.

Advances in engineering techniques in the last thirty years have enabled the city of Paris to sink car parks underground, but in earlier times the problem was how to make these large buildings fit into a street in an aesthetic manner. Paris has never been big on practical brutalism and the purpose of these buildings had to be disguised. The Parking Bellefond in the street of the same name is testament to this fact, with almost no cars being visible from the exterior.

Looked at alongside its neighbours, solid, traditional Haussmannian appartments, this building could easily be a factory or warehouse. It is only at ground floor level that we see cars, but even here the purpose is disguised somewhat by plate glassed office units. Above, the whitewashed walls give a light feeling to the building, and the zig-zagging layers and frosted windows offer a touch of originality to the ensemble. With the potted plants and decorative emerald green mosaic tiling at the entrance, the building becomes almost attractive.

Why am I so fascinated by these multi-story car parks though? They certainly offer a graphic interest making them easy to photograph, but I think my regard goes beyond that aspect. It is more about their atmosphere, and the curious lighting that make them a favoured location for the modern day film noir. How many times have we seen car parks used as the scene of murders, drug drop offs and double dealings? They have become iconic city locations, places where nothing good can happen, and symbols of the machines that are slowly asphyxiating us. In the UK, where car parks mostly have a final rooftop level that is open to the elements, they have also become the urban place of choice for suicides.

The now demolished multi-story car park in Newcastle made famous by the film 'Get Carter'

As a mirror of the city as a whole, the Parking Bellefond has become a kind of vehicle cemetery. Cars are no longer welcome in cities, and far from being objects of pride and prestige they are now something to feel guilty about. Locals can leave their vehicles to rest on the higher floors, but beneath ground level there is a collection of old cars buried beneath decades of dust. It feels like the end of some kind of era, the death of the motor car and therefore the car park too. What will replace them in the years to come though and will any car parks survive to be observed by future generations?

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Positivist Discrimination

Paris is made up of approximately 6200 places that are labelled by the city council, including streets, squares, passages, courtyards, bridges and swimming pools. The majority of these have been given the name of a prominent personality, but until recently only around 3% were named after women. In the period since 2001 it has been a deliberate policy to increase this percentage, with 53 out of a total of 171 new namings taking the patronym of a woman, but this is an inequlity that will long remain written large in the city.

Stand in front of the Pantheon and you will see the following inscription on the facade; “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE”. Inside, amongst the great men such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Emile Zola, lays just one woman; Marie Curie. The French state has indeed often recognised the contribution made by the great men of history, but what about the women? It was a question I asked myself when I stumbled across the tiny Rue Clotilde de Vaux.

The street is little more than a small square, a passageway and staircase that sees only pedestrians pass through on their way between the Boulevard Beaumarchais and the Rue Amélot. They may notice the street name or the statue placed on a bust in the garden, but do they know who this lady was? As I stood and took photos I can confess that the name and face meant nothing to me.

What had this lady achieved to be deemed worthy of the rare privilege of having a street in her name? Almost inevitably my trail of discovery into this character slowly led me towards a more well-known male figure. De Vaux is not famous for anything in particular she did or created in her own right, but is remembered more as a sufferer and an inspiration, a tragic character who led a man towards his destination. It seems that many females in the city are only celebrated if they are angel, madonna or muse.

A painting of Clotilde de Vaux which hangs on the wall of the Auguste Comte museum. The sculpture in the Rue Clotilde de Vaux seems to be based on this image.

Born Clotilde-Marie de Ficquelmont on the 3rd of April 1815, De Vaux has been condemned to be known throughout history by the name of her feckless husband. She married Amédée de Vaux, an adventurer when she turned 20, but after he was declared bankrupt following a series of gambling debts, he escaped to Belgium and left her alone and broke. As a divorce could not be declared, she was not able to remarry and thus was condemned to live as a spinster with no income. Her uncle gave her a pension which was just enough to pay for somewhere to live, whilst meals were mostly taken with her brother in his appartment.

She filled her days reading and writing, having several stories and poems published in magazines, but it was to be a meeting with her brother’s professor in October 1844 that would change two destinies. Auguste Comte was the teacher, a man who was working on a monumental thesis but was somewhat lacking in direction. The initial meeting was electric and the married Comte fell instantly in love. De Vaux rejected his approaches but a friendship developed and the two became regular correspondants.

Auguste Comte

The relationship lasted for just over a year until de Vaux’s untimely death from tuberculosis only two days after her 31st birthday in 1846. Over the year, Comte’s feelings became close to an obsession and each meeting and word from de Vaux took on almost a religious significance. De Vaux herself was a practising Catholic whilst Comte was a scientific athiest. He saw de Vaux as his moral superior and began to infuse his theories of the human condition with a more religious flavour. He concluded that cults and celebrations are indispensable for mankind although he still leaned away from Catholicism and the traditional church.

Comte’s initial theories were a kind of early Sociology. Indeed, he is credited as being the first person to use and describe the term. He studied the conditions of man in society and how he could develop, believing that science was the ultimate answer, with sociology being the most important science of all. After de Vaux’s death, he transformed this scientific positivism into a form of natural athiestic religion. This religious positivism described the principles by which the human society should organise itself, namely according to three notions; altruism, order and progress. Although Comte’s cult is almost dead today, the last two terms survive on the Brazlian flag, a fact which is not surprising as it was in this country that the theories of Comte were most popular.

The Chapelle de l'Humanite in Rue Payenne, featuring a bust of Comte and Brazilian and French flags.

The connection with Brazil continued in a bizarre manner after Comte’s death. His cult had been moderately successful and in 1903 a group of followers in Brazil wanted Comte’s creation to be recognised and celebrated in his homeland. They believed that the ideal place for a chapel would be in the house where Clotilde de Vaux had lived and died, but for some reason they bought the wrong house. The chapel still exists today, the only Positivist temple remaining in Western Europe, at 5 Rue Payenne, whereas Clotilde de Vaux had lived at number 7 (today demolished and rebuilt).

A museum also exists which celebrates the life of Auguste Comte and is situated in his old home at 10 Rue Monsieur Le Prince in the 6th Arrondissement. The museum is curiously only open for 3 hours a week, on Wednesdays between 2 and 5, but admission is free. There is also a statue of Auguste Comte in front of the Sorbonne, something which caused controversy recently when a Minister of Education tried to have it removed. Finally it was only moved 90°, something that Comte himself had done after meeting Clotilde de Vaux.

Note: Both Clotilde de Vaux and Auguste Comte are buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. If you visit their tombs you may notice messages from Brazil. Comte still has followers there whilst de Vaux was revered as the spiritual mother of the religion (it is probably also her face which is featured on the alter in the Positivist chapel in the Rue Payenne).

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


On a little concrete triangle between the Canal St Martin and the Rue Jean Poulmarch a naked wall has been given over to groups of local artists. As the artists climb ladders and reach down into pots of paint, children run with footballs, using the wall paintings to mark out the contours of the goal. It is the kind of space that helps a city to tick, displaying a constantly changing selection of creations whilst also giving local children a safe space to fill their lungs. The two worlds exist in very picturesque harmony.

On the day I pass by to take photos though, I'm struck by the rather disquieting composition of the place. At first, all seems normal. Artists are at work, creating interesting, colourful pieces and the local children are running around as freely as usual. A desk has been set up in front of the wall - apparently you can add your name to a list in a book and get involved in future creations. Passers by all seem to have smiles on their faces as the sun at last brings warmth with light. To one side though, a tree showing the first signs of budding has two unwelcome intruders.

At first the sight is amusing. Trapped in a tangle of branches are a Velib bicycle and a green wheely bin. It is surprising. It makes passers by stop and I am not the only person to take photos, to search for the right angle to capture this unusual scene. When I stop to reflect though, it is a scene that makes me angry. On this space, the tree composition becomes a form of performance art, but just what message did the individuals involved want to pass on? The articles chosen are also heavy with significance, a Velib bicycle and a recycling bin are at the forefront of the attempts by the city of Paris to create a greener future, and trees are the lungs of the city. Combining the three is pure vandalism and an empty, nonsensical message.

On the wall, an artist is working on a representation of a tree. His tree has a face and is a living, breathing being, with leaves of pinks and yellows. It is a loving reproduction with seductive, swirling branches and flowers coming into bloom. The tree roots are bathed in a pool of water and a lush jungle is growing alongside. Are the artists aware of the anti-creation behind them? The only thing that is certain in the scene is that when the individuals made their creation (and it was surely more than one person - a Velib bicycle is very heavy!), nobody asked the tree if it wanted to be involved.

Visit the space with Google Street View!

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Monday, 23 March 2009

Mon Paname, que Tu es Loin

Like many large cities, Paris has its own affectionate nickname. To tourists it is the city of light, but to locals it is known simply as Paname. It is not entirely clear where this name originated from, but it seems that there may be a connection to the city of Panama and its canal, possibly linked to Ferdinand De Lesseps's failed attempt to build the waterway in 1880. A connection was made to Paris, a city cut in half by a river, but the name was probably only adopted because it had such a nice musical ring. Indeed, the continuing popularity of the nickname is probably due to its continual use in song lyrics, such as Edith Piaf's "Marie la Française" featured in the title of this post.

Which brings me to the Residence Paname. It is a little surprising to see the nickname used for these large blocks of appartments between Bastille and Republique, but I imagine it seemed entirely appropriate when the construction was on the drawing board. This post is largely an excuse to publish a series of photographs of buildings that I found to be graphically very interesting, but there is also a strange atmosphere to this Residence, a place that imagined itself as a small-scale version of the entire city.

The construction almost certainly dates from the 1970s, a period when the city decided to replace run down insalubrious housing with modern multipurpose edifices. Between the Boulevards Beaumarchais and Richard Lenoir in the 11th arrondissement, a series of constructions replaced industrial passageways and crumbling courtyards, with the Residence Paname being the largest and most interesting. In a similar manner to Le Corbusier's 'Unités d'habitation', this residence combined living areas with spaces dedicated to other purposes including shops and offices.

Today the dream of contented communal living seems to be over. The appartment blocks stretch skywards, the inhabitants breathing fresh air from their large balconies and enjoying open views across the city. At ground level, the doors to the shopping galeries are locked. The individual appartment units seem clean and well looked after, but down below, the original concrete design features are damp and crumbing. Residents have also complained of problems with the local homeless population. Whilst they sympathise with their predicament, they are fed up with their stairways being used as beds and the gardens surrounding the residence being used as open toilets.

I find an open door into the heart of the construction, an area known as the Centre d'Affairs Paname. Here the units that previously welcomed shops and which were open to the public at large have become individual office units. It is a curious mix of nature and concrete. Dark passageways open out onto roofless square plots, where trees reach desperately up away from the gloom. Looking up through these plots gives a glimpse of angular appartments climbing skywards. There is no link today between this top and bottom, between luminous balconies and the opaque alleys leading to locked gates.

Appartments in this residence are still much in demand as people in cities always want to escape away from the street. Living in the sky, your environment is the patchwork you see stretched out before you. Watching the sunsets beyond the city limits you can almost forget the locked passageways down below and the groups of faceless individuals whose only view is of the stars above.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Creation vs Evolution

In this year, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, it is amusing to find the creation versus evolution debate written large on the Paris skyline. Genesis informs us that “God created the heavens and the earth” and that “by the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing”. It seems that whilst he was resting, an artist came along and commented on that work. Then I came along and took a photo of the artist's work.

The fundamentalist creationist wing of the church would have us believe that the earth is young, approximately 6000 years old. Is it for this reason that an artist has slipped up a conveniently placed ladder, possibly belonging to Jacob, and pasted an Ammonite fossil on a church spire? According to carbon dating techniques, it is estimated that Ammonites are at the very least 65 million years old, but were also living creatures possibly as long as 400 million years ago.

It was the discovery of such fossils that led Darwin to develop his theories of evolution, and whatever your belief systems are, the creation here is a striking homage to this great man in his two hundreth year. Has the artist chosen the right target though?

This simple picture becomes a tale of two men named Charles. Seeing the image makes me think immediately of Darwin, but what is the steeple on which it is painted? The answer is written on the street name on which it is situated – the Rue du Pasteur Wagner. The Pasteur was Charles Wagner, and the church is his, a temple known simply as the ‘Foyer de l’Âme’ (a shelter for the soul).

Charles Wagner (1852-1918) was an interesting man, a talented orator and writer. He belonged to a wing of the church known as Liberal Protestantism, but claimed independence from all creed and orthodoxies. After going on a conference tour around the United States, supported vocally by the President Theodore Roosevelt, he managed to raise enough money to build his temple in Paris. Opened in 1907, from the exterior it is one of the more discreet places of worship in Paris, with just the little wooden steeple peeping over the top of a school on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir near Bastille indicating that it is there at all.

Inside though the temple sits up to 1200 people, proof that Wagner was a popular orator. He was known as a left-wing preacher and attracted many curious visitors from the working class corners of the city. Liberal Protestants very largely accept the advances of science and the the principle of evolution, seeing Genesis as giving only rough metaphors for the process, so it is likely that Wagner celebrated the teachings of Darwin.

The 'Foyer de l'Âme' when first opened (photo taken from official website).

At the entrance to the church, a further clue that this was not a centre of fundamentalism. A sign reads "Ici on enseigne l'humanité" (here we teach humanity), and a quick look at the church website reveals discussions about encouraging homosexuals into the fold. It seems then that the artist chose the worst possible steeple in the city to place the evolutionary comment!

The Protestant faith remains very minor in France, with this temple apparently attracting mostly British and American expatriates. The story ended quite sadly for Wagner too, with his church opening two years after French laws decided on a strict separation between church and state. His temple backs onto a school, but his dreams of universal teaching and of avoiding the schism of the various Protestant factions in France proved to be in vain. He died half way through the First World War, an event which also caused many Liberal Protestants to question their belief system.

Perhaps the artist has chosen this steeple for another reason. The work of art brought my attention to this hidden, but interesting site in the city and it could almost function as a beacon for the particular identity of the church. If this were the case, a perfect title for the work would be that of a famous Liberal Protestant sermon from America in the 1920s – “Shall we let the fundamentalists win?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Marmite Bazar

"It's the crisis". A succint comment from Mithu, one of the co-owners of the Marmite Bazar restaurant which sits in a quiet street south of Montmartre. He wanted to explain why I was the only customer so far that lunchtime, but he needn't have worried. "It's much busier in the evening" he explained, "sometimes we don't even open at lunchtimes". I reassured him, telling him that I'd been here before on a Saturday evening and had loved the food and simple atmosphere and had decided simply to enjoy the first warm rays of springtime and make a 15 minute pilgrimage on foot from work.

Mithu is originally from Bangladesh. His partner, Caroline Choain looks after the kitchen and is a fantastically talented, imaginative chef. Together they have created a simple restaurant 'de quartier', but one that has warm touches of exotic destinations. Mithu has a little accent, much like me, and we're not sure whether to talk in English or in French. Caroline pops in and out of the kitchen, always wearing a colourful scarf wrapped tightly around her hair. I take a moment to look around the room, ticking off the continents and countries that are featured in the decoration. Rugs from the east, possibly from Bangladesh, hang on one wall. On another wall, African themed paintings and above the bar, a boomerang. In a back room, Moroccan style wall lighting.

Sitting in the dappled sunlight by the window I can quietly enjoy my trip around the world. Looking at the menu, it's clear that this circuit continues in the contours of the dishes. As a starter, I could take Bangladeshi potatoes, whilst other choices have hints of Africa and Italy. Caroline Choain takes classic dishes, then twists them and reworks them, experimenting with herbs, spices and textures until she finds exactly the combinations that she feels work best together. Once prepared she then takes time to make sure that each dish is presented beautifully on the plate.

I choose a main course, a perfectly cooked chunk of tender beef served with roasted new potatoes and a red wine sauce with crispy onions and pepper berries. This 17 Euro lunchtime formula also includes a glass of wine, an interesting red that Mithu chooses for me, and a starter or dessert. I opt for the dessert, knowing that their Panna Cotta is a miracle of flavours and textures, a classic dish that here subtly changes with the season. This time it was infused with vanilla and served with thin, crisp slices of apple and a smooth salted butter caramel sauce.

"Yes, it is the crisis" I tell Mithu as I leave. Whispers of redundancies are getting louder, but until it truly strikes I'll continue to do my bit to support quality, independance and imagination. I work in the largely soulless area around Opera and despite talk of downturns, the chain restaurants serving up reheated preprepared frozen identikit meals are still just as busy. McDonalds are also taking the opportunity in these troubled times to expand whilst low-cost supermarkets are also thriving. People cannot be blamed for cutting back on spending, but who are the victims at the end of the long chain? The true crisis will be when the economy picks up again but we find that such independant, talented free spirits have disappeared from the city.

Le Marmite Bazar
14, rue Bochard de Saron 75009

Monday, 16 March 2009

The Accidental Artist

If the street is a canvas, spoilt by the taggers but enhanced by artists, what place is there for the accidental? In the Rue de Chantilly, a flash of sunlight catches my eye. This lightning glint, an accident of angles and directions, leads my eyes towards a spherical, spiky object attached to a drainpipe.

The object is clearly positioned there to prevent invaders, a modern-day equivilent of the hidden spikes that protected medieval castles. Opportunistic thieves will not attempt to shin up this drainpipe to the first-floor window-ledge, whilst escaping robbers will have to find another means of exiting the building in a hurry. Beyond the intrinsic purpose of the object though, or perhaps because of it, the item takes on another significance.

Such protective features are not rare in Paris, but this one is different due to its size and aesthetic qualities. My instant reaction is to think how much it reminds me of the "B of the Bang", Thomas Heatherwick's monumental but ill-fated art installation in Manchester, England. Sanctioned street art there has come to signify danger as several spikes have come loose and threaten to impale passers-by. The installation will soon be dismantled and packed away and the city council have demanded compensation from the team of artists.

Looked at from different angles though, the prickly entity in this street also brings to mind a Sputnik or space satellite, or perhaps even a virus, blown-up to terrifying proportions. The object is curiously attractive yet full of sinister significance. It attracts and repels at the same time, contrasting interestingly with its surroundings but with just one intention - to injure.

On the Rue Saint Sebastien, another chance discovery. Here the creation is one of decomposition and dampness, of hidden messages and drowned voices. A crimson drainpipe running down a building has provided a smooth surface for promotional messages and offers of services, but time and the weather has chewed up the paper and turned into papier maché. Streaks of clean crimson shine through, but fractions of messages resist. Someone can 'Effectue tous travaux' whilst another is looking for 'Homme Femme'. Call 06.73.85.... for what service? A ghostly 'Piano' can be tuned or bought or perhaps even offered for lessons.

If this modern day totem pole were a deliberate creation it would be impossible to recreate the installation. Here the blends of colours, the texture of the putrefying paper and the veracity of the messages add up to something unique. This is not the thought process of one individual, but a collection of tiny voices becoming liquid. The pole, a system of defence in the Rue de Chantilly, becomes here a representation of transmogrification and the ephemeral nature of existence.

The city is a canvas for artists or vandals, but the city can also be an accidental artist itself.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

No Tag

Nathalie from Avignon pointed out this week on her captivating blog some problems that exist in her local environment with graffiti and tagging. The suggestion was that cities today, even such ancient and architecturally pleasing ones as Avignon, have few if any remaining sacred environments. The problem is universal, with ancient doors, freshly painted white walls, shop windows and even churches being seen as acceptable surfaces to paint on.

Her pictures set me thinking. Who are the taggers, why do they tag and what prevents them from tagging? Being fascinated (naturally!) by invisibility, my interest in the subject stems from the contrast between the invisibility of the perpetrators and the distinctly visible traces they leave behind on the face of the city. This simple fact seems to explain many of the issues involved.

Is invisibility always something that we choose? Research conducted amongst taggers and graffiti artists around the world has shown that they share some basic traits, notably that they are predominantly male and generally between the ages of 12 and 25. However, there are no defined links to any particular social or racial background, meaning that the phenomenon has spread to almost all geographical locations.

Without wanting to fall into the traps of cod psychology, this is clearly an age where individuals are asking many questions and building personal identities. Young men have traditionally had difficulties with self-expression, but may also be wondering where their future place in society will be. Tagging gives them the opportunity to create an imagined identity (the tag) and to impose this identity on their surroundings. On a more visceral level, it also gives them the thrill of climbing up onto rooftops and doing something illegal.

On a technical level, tags exist rather than more advanced multi-coloured pieces simply because not everybody has the talent or the time to work on larger works. Their creations are known as bombing, a night-time activity based on repitition and rapidity. If they find themselves with more time in a more hidden location, they will create a throw-up, a larger two-tone version of the tag. The only aesthetic criteria considered important is that it should be recognisible and easy to produce in the dim orange glow of the streetlight.

Are there any parts of the city that remain sacred and untouchable today? Research seems to suggest that city councils that are proactive in this field and offer sanctioned zones suffer less problems, although it would be naive to think that this would put a stop to an activity based around a certain rejection of authority. Near my home though, I discovered one shop owner who had found an original solution. The shutter which protects their establishment at night is decorated with a mural painting on which a 'No Tag' message has been added. To one side, they have added a black panel which they have invited taggers to use. To date, this system seems to be working and their mural has remained tag free.

Does this suggest that if our streets were more creative environments there would be less tagging? On a very basic level, many parts of our cities can be seen as a series of flat surfaces, devoid of character and interest. City authorities have no problem sanctioning advertising on many of these surfaces, yet reject street art installations. It would seem to be an experiment worth trying to change some of these parts of the city into canvases of free expression.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Post Modernism

When looking at the city, I try to avoid thinking of it in terms of before and after. I prefer to concentrate on what is left standing and focus on the walls that have managed to survive the demolition teams. Sometimes though, digging around a building will turn me into an archeologist, and I'll begin to find notes and traces of a site's previous existence. When two such sites involve current incarnations as post offices, I begin thinking that I should dig deeper still.

Oscar Wilde said that "fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months". Whilst architecture may have a longer life-span than this, it is clear that it is subject to the same rules as other spheres of society. The corner of the Rue de Provence and the Rue Chauchat today houses a rather attractive Post Office building, decorative in a faintly Art Deco manner. It retains original signage, and even doorways that today lead nowhere. Little though would lead you to believe that you are standing at a point in the city where a fashion was created.

This Post Office building replaced a previous structure which housed a furniture showroom and gallery run by an American named Samuel Bing. The name of this shop? "L'Art Nouveau". Bing opened his showroom in 1895, selling objects reflecting this new style, but the only trace remaining of this era is the name he gave to the budding movement. The building was rented, meaning that he could not make changes to the external decor, but in any case, within 15 years the movement had blown itself out. I'm inclined to agree with the critic Jonathan Glancey who stated that it was a style "better suited to interior decor and illustrations rather than architecture", and the building that stands there today has sufficient merits of its own to justify its place.

In the Rue de Douai, a brisk 10 minute walk away, another Post Office building but a radically different style from another era. This bureau occupies the ground floor of a curious 1970s office building, sitting beneath rows of individual office units at counterpoints.

I find the building neither attractive or ugly, but rather an interesting attempt to break up the linear restrictions of the Paris streetscape. In such a historic area as this though (just south of the Place de Clichy), the chances were that this would be a concrete footprint on top of the skeleton of some dead fashion. It was a surprise though to learn that it replaced one of the most attractive and historic cinemas in the city, "L'Artistic", a place that showed the premières of both Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' in 1926 and Jean Vigo's 'Zero de Conduite' in 1933.

As was the case with the Gaumont Palace nearby, the rise in the influence of television and other forms of leisure made the sheer number of cinemas in Paris unsustainable. There were inevitably victims such as "L'Artistic" that should perhaps have been protected, but this was not an era that favoured protection of the old. Today, my regret is that I never got to see the fantastic interiors of this building, a disappointment made all the more bitter when I have to suffer the crushing banality of the inside of a Post Office.

For how much longer though will the Post Office hold its position in the streetscape? Throughout Paris, large structures remain, a throwback to the days when as the PTT they housed both telecommunications infrastructures as well as the standard postal services. Today, the buildings dwarf the downsized structures contained within, and with technology leading us further and further away from the centralised distribution of paper, it may not be too long before these buildings go the way of architectural modes and decorative cinemas.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Paint it Bleue

Sometimes a street of buildings looks to me like a long shelf of book spines in a library. I browse the shelf, picking books out here and there, hesitating over whether the story inside is really worth reading or not. Sometimes the cover attracts me, but I reject it because I'm sure there’s nothing of depth behind. Other times, I’m sure I miss fascinating stories because the cover looks so ordinary. Occasionally though, I'll pick up a book and begin reading, only to find that the story is the complete opposite of what I expected. This was certainly the case with the building at 25 Rue Bleue.

The hero's name is written out in solid letters on one of the marble panels on the front of the building; Edme-Jean Leclaire, 1801-1872. Above, his carved bust, surrounded by extravagant leaves and scrolls. At the top of the building another name and date is displayed; Mon (Maison) Leclaire, 1826-1912. Even the building itself seems to tell the story - Haussmanian in form, but clearly constructed around an iron framework, with large decorative windows. Classical and modern, like the copper plated logos which seem to suggest a company headquarters for Mr Leclaire, alongside the marble panels. Could this be anything other than a family of industrialists egotistically celebrating their own success?

After I turn a few pages though, a very different story emerges. A fascinating story, far more interesting than I had imagined, and a tale of an extraordinary man. Edme-Jean Leclaire, as the building tells us, was born in 1801, in a small town in Burgundy. By the age of 10, he had already left school and had started working as a shepherd. He knew how to read and write, but the only other skill he possessed was his ambition. For the next five years, he moved through a series of jobs until he decided to move to Paris and became an apprentice painter. In 1827 he had saved enough money to create his own company. Twenty years later, he was to become famous around the world as the owner of the first modern entreprise and the creator of profit-sharing and institutional employee benefits.

Leclaire had become convinced from the beginning that as an entrepreneur he would have to take care of his employees. He wrote in one of his studies on the experience he had undertaken at his company,

"On se trompe quand on croit que le meilleur moyen de s’enrichir est de payer ses ouvriers le moins possible. La vérité, c’est qu’il faut obtenir d’eux le plus de travail possible en les payant aussi cher qu’on le peut" (We are mistaken when we think that the best way to get rich is to pay our workers as little as possible. The truth is that we must obtain as much work from them as possible by paying them as much as we can afford).

His entreprise had become a large construction company, specialising in large-scale painting and the installation of windows. It was hard work, physically demanding with tough timetables to keep to. To turn a profit, Leclaire knew that he needed healthy, happy staff, workers who would put in long days and strike as little as possible. The ideas that Leclaire found to achieve this though were revolutionary. His reasoning was also thoroughly modern;

"Je dois à mes ouvriers que le salaire, mais maintenant que ce salaire me donne la fortune et que cette fortune s’accroît tous les ans, il faut que je leur en consacre une partie. Ce qu’il faut à l’ouvrier avant toutes choses, c’est la garantie contre l’accident, la maladie ; c’est la certitude que la vieillesse ne lui apportera pas la misère" (My workers owe me only the salary I pay them, but now that salary is making me richer and richer each year, I have to give them something back. What the worker wants more than anything else is a guarantee against accident and illness, the certainty that getting old will not also bring misery).

To meet these objectives, Leclaire introduced several things. Firstly, the workers would have a true role in the running of the company, and would receive a percentage of all profits made by the company. Secondly, a percentage of income and profits would go to a mutual aid society, an entity that would ensure an income to sick or injured workers as well as a sum of money when they retired. Indeed, it is this aspect of the business, an entity known as the "Société de prévoyance et de secours mutuels des ouvriers & employés de la maison Leclaire" which was headquartered here at 25 Rue Bleue. Whilst these initiatives could be said to have made Leclaire rich by guaranteeing him a healthy, hard-working staff, other initiatives were more altruistic. He invested in schools for the children of his employees and campaigned against toxic lead paints that were common-place in his industry.

Leclaire was awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his career, and he later became mayor of the town in which he lived, Herblay in the suburbs of Paris. His experiments gave him fame elsewhere; the English economist John Stuart Mill was very interested in the results achieved whilst in the United States, a model cooperative village was created and named 'Leclaire' (today part of Edwardsville, Illinois). It was a long distance covered for a working class boy who had left school at 10, and a story worth celebrating with an extravagantly decorated cover.

Note: The company Maison Leclaire is still in existence, and still using the same logo, since 1826 as they say on the website. I have no information though on whether there is still a family connection or not though, and perhaps more interestingly, whether they still follow Edme-Jean's methods. These offices seem today to be used by a company supplying wholesale dental equipement, so there seems to be no company link to this location anymore. If anybody else has any information on any elements of this story though, I'd be very interested to hear from them.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Walls Have Eyes

At the heart of the Maison de l’Architecture, a renovated monastry and hospital opposite the Gare de l’Est, the passage of time is literally painted on the walls. A staircase snakes upwards, twisting round on itself, accompanied by a myriad of faces and stratched messages, overlooked by two monumental windows. Natural light blends into the burning glow of the artificial across these symbols, making them appear slightly menacing. The walls of this building have provided a surface on which many stories have been written, the forms splashed across them are modern day hieroglyphics.

I’m here on a sunny Monday morning, exceptionally finding myself with an hour to fill, and I am alone. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to enter the building at this time but the gate was open and nobody stopped me. I’ve been here before, on Sunday afternoons when families come to take advantage of the tranquility of the courtyard café, but I’ve never seen the staircase before. I understand now the reason for what the Figaro called the ‘Gothico-Punk’ interiors of this wing of the building.

When ancient buildings are renovated, there is a tendancy to strip them back, to sandblast the walls and to clean out the guts. The goal is to rediscover an unobtainable original state and to unearth the hidden colours of the primary materials, but the inevitable result is also to pull down the layers of history. When this interesting multi-functional space was primed for development at the beginning of the century, this dilemma was one that faced the teams of architects.

The decision had been made to divide the old Villemin/Recollets buildings into three parts, one for artists residencies, one for visiting researchers and one for the Maison de l’Architecture. It is this third part which interests me, containing as it does the original chapel and the graphic traces of the past. Here are walls that have reverberated to the chants and footsteps of monks, up to 200 of which were based here in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here are walls that were requisitioned by the revolutionary forces in 1789, that became a barracks then a shelter for elderly and a hospice for men with incurable conditions. Here are walls that stood firm when the railway arrived and cut a chunk of the original structure away, the walls that saw generations of wounded soldiers pass through right up until 1968. Finally, these are walls that became an artists’ squat, the shelter for the ‘Anges des Récollets’ and walls that became their canvases.

The architects given responsibility for this part of the building were Karine Chartier and Thomas Corbasson, a young team who had presented the most interesting project. They had two principal objectives; to respect all the traces of history in the building and to recreate some of the original volumes. To them, it quickly became clear that the major witnesses of this passage of time were the walls that make up the structure, and that these should be left almost in the state they found them. This was a courageous decision when we take into account the fact that the squat was forced out after a fire nearly destroyed the building in 1999.

The chapel is now a meeting room and performance space, and a café has been brought into a central area and allowed to spill out into an adjoining courtyard. These areas are rough, brought up to an acceptable safe level, but allowed to continue breathing out the past. It is the staircase though which best reflects this spirit. On either side a pair of black dogs leap away from the windows, perhaps towards the fire. Moving upwards, indiscriminate layers of creations, eyes without faces and phrases in meaningless fractions, upwards past peeling paint and cracked, cratered plastering, upwards to a fully preserved blue family with cats and a final locked door.

Outside, it is equally as quiet. Crunching along the gravel path, the only eyes observing me are the piercing yellow ones of a fluffy grey cat. In the garden, a cast of metallic furniture, a reflection of the skeletons that have passed through this building over the centuries. I sit down and join them, silently enjoying the first warming sun-rays of spring.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Scratching the Surface

It is an unwritten rule of architecture that things are not always what they seem to be. The Saint Eugène church in the 9th arrondissement of Paris is a perfact example of this maxim, being at once thouroughly modern yet ancient in appearance, impeccably presented yet incredibly run down. Indeed, viewed from the outside on the Rue du Conservatoire you may barely notice that it is a church at all.

The external wall that runs along this quiet street is a large map of cracking and crumbling stone. Benches were cut into this wall, but it seems that they are used only by the city down and outs who stick wine labels onto the descending drainpipes. The pointed window arches and gothic forms of the structure offer clues to the purpose of this building, but the stained glass is barely visible on this side. With a side door sporting a broken window and patches of peeling paint, this does not look like a building that was renovated only 20 years ago.

Turn the corner onto the rather quaint parvis on the Rue Saint Cécile then look face-on at the structure and the purpose on the building will be revealed. There is no spire and little decoration, but from this perspective, it now appears to be a modest parish church. It seems functional, a structure that was designed to fit a particular corner of the city, with decoration that was limited to simple gothic forms in order to not stand out too distinctly from its neighbours.

None of this prepares you for the astonishing interior of the building. Push open the door and you are transported back to the thirteenth century, to a brightly painted medieval edifice. Almost every inch of the interior is decorated in reds, greens and golds, with magnificent stained glass windows adding to the overwhelming sensation of warm colour. On a midweek lunchtime you are likely to be alone, the silence broken only by the squeak of your shoes on the harringbone parquet flooring or the curious mechnanical chiming at each hour. You are free to wander down the aisles where Jules Verne was married in 1857, around the naves lit by second empire suspended chandeliers, or to listen to the echos of the confession boxes.

Sit down and observe more carefully though and you will see that this is a 19th century creation, a curious facsimile of a medieval church interior. What is even more surprising is the fact that the structure was revolutionary at the time, being built around a cast-iron framework that would later be used by Baltard to construct covered food markets. It was the work of Louis Auguste Boileau, an architect who would later also put iron to work when creating the Bon Marché department store. By stripping away all the traditional obstructions, the large stone columns and vaulted ceilings, Boileau was able to produce a structure that would be filled with light and seem larger inside than outside. From almost any point in the church you have a clear and unrestricted view of the rest of the structure.

Returning outside, the relative ordinariness of the church is even more striking. It shares the parvis with the Conservatoire de Musique, an institution where both Berlioz and Bizet studied, but both seem to have been ousted by less spiritual and intellectual pursuits today. On the facade of the church local children have managed to kick a football on to a plinth where previously a statue of a saint would have stood. It somehow seems to be an appropriate symbol today in a largely secular society where sports have become religion replacements.
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