Sunday, 31 January 2010

Mythogeography: an interview with Phil Smith

Following in the footsteps of the psychogeographers, then drifting in a completely different direction, the writer and performer Phil Smith explains in a new book the art of walking sideways, or how you can make a stroll into something far more subversive and entertaining. Here he tells me more about the book and the concept behind it.

Mythogeography: The art of walking sideways’ is a very curious document. Like an unknown city, at first it seems dense and impenetrable, but slowly patterns begin to emerge. Symbols like street signs help readers find their way, but visitors to this world are also encouraged to make their own routes. Unusually, the author is not named, and instead there is a series of more or less reliable narrators and guides. This is a “provocation” says Phil Smith, to encourage “others to adopt the book as a handbook rather than consume it as an autobiographical travel piece”.

Broadly speaking the book is divided into two halves. The first half describes a walk taken by Smith over a two-week period in 2007, recreating a similar journey undertaken by an engineer named Charles Hurst a hundred years previously. Hurst had walked across the North of England planting acorns, and Smith set out to find the Oak trees that he imagines must have grown from these seeds. Along the way, Smith reflects on landscape, property and people’s attitudes to their surroundings. The voyage became a classic mythogeographical experience, which Smith has subsequently reproduced as a stage play.

The second half of the book is closer in form to a handbook, describing the discipline of mythogeography, offering a manifesto and giving intruiging and often amusing suggestions of activities that you can undertake on foot. But just what is mythogeography?

Mythogeography emphasises the multiple nature of places and ways of celebrating, expressing and weaving them” explains Smith. It emerged from his work with a group of artists known as Wrights and Sites "as a term to describe their approach and tactics to sites where multiple meaning had been forced into a single and restricted one, for example, heritage, touristic or leisure sites".

The tactic of the mythogeographer is walking and journeying. "By the particular focuses and the angles of trajectory we choose, we make an interpretation of our world, and from our impressions we begin to re-make its meanings" explains Smith. Ideas suggested in the book for achieving this include trying to talk your way into the tops and bottoms of a building, or choosing a book at random in a shop, picking a page and a word, then wandering until you find that word. The reason for doing this is to experience the familiar in multiple manners, and to learn not to look at things in the way that those with the power of exposure want you to.

In many ways it seems like classic Debordian psychogeography, particularly in the section on drifting, but to Smith there are important differences. For Guy Debord, explains Smith, "psychogeography was a study of how places effect the psychological states of those who pass through them. With a reciprocal meaning: that the places might be changed in order to change the experiences and mental states of the residents and visitors". The original idea of the drift was to find ways to transform cities into utopias, with a focus on play rather than work, but Mythogeography does not have the same overtly political focus. The last line of Smith's book is perhaps particularly revealing. "What (mythogeography) longs to be is not a political organisation, but a mental architecture".

The book is a fascinating read, particularly for someone who already tries to write about the invisible, but how could I use it in Paris? Smith proclaims not to know the city very well, but does describe a drift that he undertook here, which began at the Palais des Glaces theatre. When I tell him that it is situated in the street where I live, he is delighted. "That is fabulous" he says. Another reminder perhaps that everything is connected in some small way.

It could certainly be a point to begin from. "Start in the familiar and straightway head off into the unknown" says the manual on Smith's Mythogeography website. "Keep out of shops, museums, art galleries. Go to places you wouldn’t normally visit – courtrooms, waste tips, fairgrounds, industrial estates, morgues, stadia car parks, ornamental gardens, bad zoos. Slip down alleys, chase any intriguing detail, follow instincts not maps".

Anyone care to join me?


Click here for the full transcript of my chat with Phil Smith.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Something for the Weekend? (29th – 31st January)

Already the last days of January. Traditionally the last chance to eat some Galette (thank God...) and wish others a bonne année, but also a time to get outside and start exploring again!

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also
if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

The Prix d’Amerique Trotting Race
If you have never been to a trotting event, this weekend is the perfect occasion. Trotting (harness racing) is a kind of horse-race in which the jockeys are not on the horses, but rather placed in a very uncomfortable looking chariot behind. The pace is slower than a standard horse-race as the speed can never get beyond a trot, with the horse and jockey being eliminated if they quicken the steps. The spectacle though is as much in the crowd as on the track for this event which is expected to attract 40,000 spectators including many celebrities. There is even a special limited edition Zadig et Voltaire t-shirt!
Sunday January 31st
Hippodrome de Vincennes.
2 route de la Ferme 75012 Paris
5 € for adults, free for those under 18
Closest Station : Joinville Le Pont (RER A) where a free bus service will take you to the racetrack

Become the Air Guitar Champion of Paris!
Have you ever found yourself guiltily plucking thin air whilst listening to the intro to Smoke on the Water? If this is the case, perhaps you should think about adding yourself to the list of competitors for this Sunday’s Air Guitar champion of Paris event! Even if you are not tempted into getting up on stage, it should still be an entertaining evening in a nice venue, and you may even be able to help select the champ!
Sunday January 31st, 6pm
La Fleche d’Or
102 bis Rue de Bagnolet, 75020 M° Alexandre Dumas
8 € which includes one drink

Mo’Fo 10 Music Festival
This 3-day event features 19 live groups as well as the Mo’Forum, an installation of independent artistic creation. Most of the groups are French, but the two standout acts are Aidan Moffat (ex Arab Strap) on Friday night, and above all, the cult band Television Personalities on Sunday night.
29th – 31st January
Mains d’Oeuvres
1, rue Charles Garnier 93 400 Saint-Ouen, M° Porte de Clignancourt or Garibaldi

A Contemporary Art Fair in an Interesting Venue
Contemporary art fairs are frequent events in Paris and generally something to be viewed with suspicion. I know little of the art that will be featured at this sale beyond the fact that it will focus on graffiti and street art, but it should be worth visiting for the architecture of the venue alone. The Halle Fressinet was built in 1927 and served for 80 years as a freight storage facility on the Paris – Orléans railway line, before being reinvented recently as an exhibition venue.
28th - 31st January, 11am to 7pm
Halle Fressinet
55 Boulevard Auriol, 75013, M° Chevaleret or Quai de la Gare

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Le Corbusier and the Salvation Army

Le Corbusier lived for most of his life in Paris until his death in 1965, but relatively few of his designs were ever constructed in the city itself. Here though is a quick look at two of his creations built in conjunction with the Armée du Salut (Salvation Army) in 1929.

1929 was an important year in the life of Le Corbusier as it marked the point where he began putting into places his theories of urban planning. The two commissions from the Salvation Army are good examples of this, with Le Corbusier himself saying that "these buildings played the role of a laboratory".

The first, alongside the Gare d'Austerlitz is the most unusual. It is not a building as such, but a converted barge called the Louise-Catherine. The barge was first built in 1915, and was initially used to transport American coal from Rouen to Paris. Less than 15 years later though it was acquired by the Salvation Army who wanted to turn it into a floating shelter. Le Corbusier was brought in to imagine a revolutionary usage of the space.

Le Corbusier himself wrote about the project;

"Le barge was 80 metres long. We built, from the bottom to the top...a vast space divided into three compartments. We added 160 beds, a dining room, kitchens, toilets, sinks, showers, private apartments and a hanging garden on the roof of the barge".

Le Corbusier wrote of its mission to house the 'clochards' (tramps) who had been chased out from under the bridges by the cold. However, it was also moved down the Seine when it got warmer and used as a summer camp for young boys. Today though it is difficult to imagine how luxurious it would have seemed at the time. The hulk is rusting, and the barge is closed off to visitors. It was nevertheless used for over 60 years until finally being closed down by the authorities in 1994. A project is now underway to restore the barge and to use it for artistic and educational purposes.

The second Salvation Army construction is situated around 1km away on the other side of the railway lines. The Cité de Refuge was designed by Le Corbusier with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, who were specifically chosen by the philanthropist, the Princesse de Polignac, who paid for the work. Le Corbusier and Jeanneret were given almost a free hand, which enabled them to come up with a radical design, but also one that would eventually be found to be ahead of its time.

The central feature of the design was a south facing sheer glass wall. The design was based around an ambitious and revolutionary system of double glazing and a type of air conditioning that unfortunately never worked. This glass wall had to be replaced in 1952 after a series of summers in which the residents had been almost baked in their rooms! A series of polychromic sun-screens were added at this point.

The idea behind this building, and one that still applies today, was not simply to house the homeless, but also to transform these outcasts into useful members of society. Despite his rather pious protestant upbringing, Le Corbusier was not a religious man, but he did share some of the principles of the Salvation Army movement, and clearly believed in this project. He created not only dormitories but also classrooms and relaxation zones, most of which are still operational. However, if it is seen as an important building today, it is more because of the role it played as an experiment for Le Corbusier's subsequent constructions.

Note: If you are interested in seeing these constructions, both feature in the 'Contemporary Architecture' free downloadable walk I produced last year. Download it here.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Relax, don't do it...

Whatever happened to the simple city bench? Across Paris, above ground and underground, new furniture is appearing that radically changes our perspective on what constitutes a seat. The designs are attractive, amusing even in the Metro with their smiley faces, but the reasoning behind their shape is less glorious.

On the Avenue de France in the new Paris Rive Gauche development, the benches that line the road are just simple metal bars. The design makes sense as an ensemble, matched with the sculpted tree holders, but who would ever sit on this post and for how long? Most importantly of all for the city planners one imagines, nobody is ever likely to loiter here either, and it is sure that no-one will ever lay down here and sleep!

Similar concerns in the Paris Metro. A quick look through history shows how the ideal seat has evolved. In 1910, stations were equipped with wooden benches, but the latest model, the 'smiley', follows the more recent choice of providing a row of separated plastic chairs. 'More comfortable and easier to clean' boast the RATP, but once more the concept would seem to be rather to ensure that nobody relaxes for too long here. City dwellers today are also apparently more comfortable with a little extra space between themselves and their fellow travellers.

So where is it still possible for somebody to lay down and relax in the city today? Not the Parc de Belleville apparently! Here there is no suggestion that ball games or picnics would be problematic, but rather the dangerous individuals who want to lay on the grass. The best place to relax today would seem to be in your own home, but the city bench was also traditionally the home of those with no roof above their head. Where do they lay down today?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Something for the Weekend? (22nd – 24th January)

I imagine it must be the time of year, but I have struggled to find many interesting events this weekend. Nevertheless, even when very little is happening in Paris, there is always something to do!

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments.
Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to see mentioned here.

Izis at the Hotel de Ville
In 1951, an exhibition called 'Five French Photographers' was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The photographers were Brassaï, Doisneau, Ronis, Cartier-Bresson and...Izis. The other four went on to become famous worldwide, but Lithuanian immigrant Izraëlis Bidermanas, otherwise known as Izis, remained relatively unknown. Why should this be so? This exhibition organised by the city of Paris offers an explanation, showing that it was not because he had less talent than the other four but rather because he was a full-time employee at Paris Match magazine. The photos he took were simply for the love of photography and he never looked to sell or promote his work. Visitors to this exhibition will see that he deserves to be judged historically as an equal to his more illustrious peers (see photo above).
Until 29th May

Hôtel de Ville de Paris, 5 rue Lobau, 75004
Every day except Sunday 10am -7pm
Free entrance

The Bellyfusions Festival
This festival, taking place on Saturday and Sunday, aims to demonstrate new fusions in oriental dance styles. The festival includes theatre performances, workshops with French and international teachers, and a closing party at the La Java night club. A variety of styles will be featured with exotic names such as Oriental Flamenco, Gypsy Fusion, Oriental Salsa, Bellywood and Gothic Fusion!
See for more information on times and venues.

A Day Trip to Belleville
I'm proud to declare myself a citizen of Belleville! Despite having lived here for around 10 years, I still find it to be a fascinating corner of the city. Until 1860 when it was incorporated into Paris it was of course a town in its own right (indeed in 1856 with a population of 57 699, it was one of the biggest towns in the country!) and still has a very independant soul. What is it missing to attract more tourists? How about a shop selling the creations or local artists and t-shirts promoting Belleville designed by Jerome Mesnager?
Such a place recently opened, giving you one more reason to visit! Take the line 11 to Jourdain, where the shop is situated and which still looks like the heart of a village, then wander wherever your heart desires.

La Source - Hameau de Belleville,
9 rue lassus 75019, M° Jourdain
Every day except Sunday and Monday, 3pm - 7pm

Help for Haiti
After the terrible recent events in Haiti, the French (France is of course home to a large Haitian community) are organising a series of events to raise money. If you can, try to get tickets for one of the two shows at the Bataclan this Sunday (4.30pm and 7.30pm).

If the concert is sold out, make sure you buy some of the special stamps that the French post office have produced. The stamp costs 1 Euro with 44 cents going directly to the French Red Cross. Not in France? Try buying some directly via internet!

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Paris People : Joanna Walsh, aka Badaude

Joanna Walsh is the personification of the Eurostar generation. She has one foot in England and one in France, and a heart that is torn between the two. As a freelance illustrator and writer she is able to flitter regularly back and forth between Oxford and Paris, but she usually leaves her alter-ego, Badaude, in the French capital. Now she has also left her mark on the walls of one of the city’s most famous bookshops.

After studying at Oxford University and at Central St Martins College, Joanna Walsh worked in publishing and for a literary agency before becoming an illustrator and writer for some of the world’s leading newspapers. Since 2006, she has also regularly worked in Paris, most visibly as Stylebible’s Paris editor. She also runs her own blog, Badaude, built around the experiences of her ‘cartoon’ second self.

We agree to meet in front of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Saint Michel where Joanna recently sketched a wonderful mural. I half expect the cartoon version of herself to turn up but instead I’m greeted by a perfectly normal person – who doesn't wear glasses! “That was a kind of joke” she tells me. “I was drawing a group scene and gave myself a pair of sunglasses, and that image kind of stuck. I like the fact that you don’t see my eyes”.

Amusing, and somewhat ironic too. If there is one thing that defines the creations of Joanna it is her very acute sense of observation. Her warm, quirky, and often acerbic sketches and text capture tiny moments in time in microscopic detail. This may be overheard conversations on the Eurostar, irritating people sitting near her in restaurants and cafés or simply anonymous people she follows in the street. An eavesdropper I suggest, and she readily accepts the description. I'm fascinated by people” she tells me. “The way they talk, dress, behave - whatever the setting. More than its buildings, a city is its inhabitants” she continues.

So why is it the inhabitants of Paris who feature so prominently in her work? “I guess one of the reasons I write more about Paris is because it's easier to notice a place that's 'somewhere else'. I'm fascinated by writer, Amelie Nothomb's, concept of being a 'jamaisien'. As she said in a recent interview, ‘I’m living abroad and I feel it. I have all sorts of proof that France is a foreign country. And this makes life much more interesting’”.

An illustrator and observer, with the eyes and ears of a curious outsider. It’s not quite so simple of course. As Badaude, Joanna sketches herself as the anonymous onlooker, the eyeless axis around whom the action gyrates, but this is more for artistic reasons. In reality, she is just as much an actor as a spectator, as her creation on the wall of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop testifies.

The shop is crammed with books from floor to ceiling, but Joanna Walsh managed to find enough space on the staircase to sketch a series of illustrations. The current owner of the store, Sylvia Whitman, wanted portraits of English language writers and artists who had been connected with Paris, but Joanna Walsh was able to choose her own selection, as well as the James Joyce quotation that snakes around the pictures. The ensemble is a contrast of broad graphic blacks and sensuous swirls tinged with a rococo gold, and is a very evocative addition to the store.

Is it particularly satisfying as a creator to leave a trace in such a famous institution in Paris? “Actually I knew very little about the shop until quite recently. I was involved in a party for a magazine launch and found that I loved the atmosphere of the place. It wasn’t what I had expected at all and I immediately felt that I would like to do something there. Seeing the result on the wall today, and knowing the history of the shop, well yes I’m very happy to now have a little place in the story”.

Now that she has come out of the shadows and become a part of the city, does she envisage moving to Paris permanently? “I hope so” she replies, only to add more mysteriously “though of course you never can tell”. Tennessee Williams wrote that “some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself”. If Joanna Walsh moved to Paris, and if the city became her simple everyday, would Badaude then fade away? Perhaps it is always best to keep our passions cloaked in dark shrouds of glamourous exoticism.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Fumer Tue

Walking home from a concert on a rainy Saturday night two images struck me. Behind the images are two recent news stories, but what else do they have in common?

At the Maison des Métallos in the 11th arrondissement, a poster announces a play that is currently running at the theatre inside. Nothing exceptional about that, but pasted on the window outside is a second banner from a feminist pressure group. This has not been put here in protest at what is playing inside, but rather in support of the writer and actress of the play, Rayhana, who last week was attacked on her way to a performance. The play, called 'A mon age je me cache encore pour fumer' ('at my age I still hide when I smoke') discusses the role of women in Algeria, and is critical of men in this society.

Taking such a position should not present any problems in France, but the Maison des Metallos just happens to be opposite one of the most radical Mosques in Paris. Rayhana was attacked from behind, covered in white spirit, then had a cigarette thrown at her, by people, she believes, who knew who she was and what she had produced.

On a more trivial note, in the Metro, a striking poster but with something very clearly missing. If you can't guess what is absent, scroll down to the same poster that is visible just about everywhere else, including just outside the Metro station concerned.

"Dieu est un fumeur de Havanes" sang Serge Gainsbourg, but not in the Paris Metro. The producers of the film had carefully designed a poster that showed the singer smoking, but without a cigarette. Not acceptable to the RATP though who feared attacks from anti-smoking groups for promoting tobacco'.

Smoking kills so we hide it away. Stupidity kills but it is all too visible.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Something for the Weekend? (15th - 17th January)

The snow has melted in Paris and the temperature has slowly climbed back upwards, but my selection of events this week are still all safely tucked up warm.

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also
if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

Back in the Days
I mentioned the previous Back in the Days event which took place in November, and this edition looks equally as intriguing. The concept of an Old Skool event at tea-time on a Sunday is already quite a bizarre one, but when it involves a tattoo artist, retro gaming and dance battles, it gets even odder, but certainly in a good way! This time round the venue, the recently renovated Bains Douches, is perfect as it was the place to be when Old Skool was New Skool.
The event includes an exhibition by the artist Estevan Oriol, live art by Laura Satana, DJ sets, a “Who’s got the hippest Old Skool look” competition, retro gaming and a dance battle.
Sunday 17th January, 3pm
Les Bains Douches
7, rue du Bourg l'Abbé 75003

12 Euros

Everything Everything
Another recent reopening has been the Fleche d’Or bar, restaurant and concert venue. If you haven’t been yet, the concert programmed this Saturday should give you an extra incentive. Shortlisted as one of the sounds of 2010 to look out for by the BBC, Everything Everything could make it big this year and are by all accounts impressive performers live. Take the chance to see them in an intimate venue whilst you still can.
Saturday 16th January
La Fleche d’Or
Rue de Bagnolet
8 Euros

Les Passages Parisiens de Robert Doisneau
Friday sees the last chance to visit the exhibition of photos of Parisian passageways taken by Robert Doisneau in the 1970s. The exhibition is not a large one (only around 30 photographs) but it is free, and the place in which it is being held has been chosen very deliberately. In 2012, the buildings of the Monnaie de Paris will be opened up to the public as a series of passageways, albeit this time in a metallic and thoroughly modern form!

Monnaie de Paris
11, quai de Conti, M° Pont Neuf

Until Friday 15th, admission free.

Robert Doisneau at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson
As one Doisneau exhibition closes, another begins, this time on a much larger scale. This show features a selection of over 100 photos, covering the period between 1930 and 1966.
Fondation Cartier-Bresson
2 Impasse Lebouis, 75014 (M° Gaité)
January 13th - April 18th

A Bric a Brac in the 104 Arts Centre
The city authorities were not sure what to do with this immense space, but perhaps they’ve now found an answer. The Emmaüs charity which looks after the poor and homeless across France opened a shop unit in the CENTQUATRE arts centre on Wednesday selling donated second-hand goods such as clothing and furniture. It may be a place to find interesting bargains, but it is also a place where you will be able to donate unwanted or no longer needed goods yourself.

If the 104 is on the wrong side of the city for you, try the original space in a converted car park on the Boulevard Jourdan in the 14th arrondissement which has been running since 2007. The concept, known as Emmaüs Défi, will also be expanding this year, with the charity looking to set up 10 similar stores across the city.
104 rue d'Aubervilliers 75019
Wednesday to Saturday: 3pm - 6pm
Goods can be donated on Tuesday from 3pm to 6pm, or from Wednesday to Saturday from 11am to 6pm

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Guilbert Père et Fils

On the facade of the Chemistry and Natural Science facility at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, two names stand out; the architects A & J Guilbert. A father and son whose work spanned the first half of the twentieth century and the many upheavals that this period brought. Their story is one of kinship and collaboration, but also one with a sad ending.

I have previously written about the work of the father, Albert-Désiré Guilbert. Born in 1866, his first major commission came at the end of the century with the construction of the Notre Dame de la Consolation church in the Rue Jean Goujon. This very classical structure was built on the site of the Bazar de la Charité charity fire as a memorial to those killed in the tragedy. The building brought him a certain renown, and he was soon commissioned to build another church on a neighbouring plot, this time the neo-byzantine Eglise Arménienne.

At the same time as these constructions were taking place, another important event in his life occurred – the birth of a son. I have no information on whether Albert-Désiré had other children or not, only that it would be with this son, Jacques, born in 1900, that he would later form a partnership.

How significant was it that Jacques should be born at the dawn of a new century? This was to be the beginning of a new age in society, art and architecture, a thoroughly modern age where children rejected the weighty inheritance of their forefathers. Jacques followed his father into the architectural trade, but in a very different register. He was one of the founders of l'Atelier du Palais de Bois a group of students who rejected traditional architectural teaching at the Ecoles de Beaux Arts, and chose instead to study under the modernist Auguste Perret.

Immediately after graduating though, Jacques made a curious choice. He began working with his father. Albert-Désiré was the Architecte en chef des bâtiments civils et palais nationaux, and had continued to build neo-classical and neo-byzantine constructions such as the Sainte Jeanne d'Arc church in Versailles. What would the two produce together? The answer was the Chemistry and Natural Science facility at the Ecole Normale Supérieure.

This, along with a similar construction at the Collège de France, would be Albert-Désiré’s last work. Was he just passing on a lifetime of experience to a very promising talent rather than any of his personal ideas and influences? The building itself, in concrete and brick, certainly owes more to the style of Perret than to his previous constructions. It was a success though and is today a listed building, perhaps principally for the wonderful moulded concrete typography on the facade.

As the father’s career ended, war broke out. This was not a time for extravagance, but rather for the practical and functional. Jacques remained close to Auguste Perret, becoming a teacher at his Atelier in 1943 and helping with the reconstruction of Le Havre at the end of the war. It was a career that looked as if it would be dedicated towards post-war reconstruction and the teaching of the new generation, but fate decided otherwise.

Biographies can be harsh recorders of facts. The lifes of Albert-Désiré and Jacques Guilbert are sometimes reduced to just two dates; birth and death. What stories are hidden behind these dates though? It is easy to imagine the joy of the father at the birth of his son, happiness that blended seamlessly with the optimism of a new century and two large commissions. We can also sadly imagine his devastation in 1948 when his descendant and architectural heir died. Fathers are not meant to bury sons, particular after the most murderous conflict in the history of the planet had ended. Simple dates tell us that Albert-Désiré lived until his 83rd year. They also tell us that he died less than a year after his son. We draw our own conclusions.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Snow Play Today

"It's snowing, it's cold, it's slippery" says the message on the city council website. An equally observant four year old has already spotted this fact from his bedroom window, and can't wait to get outside. Against the snow and cold he'll put on thick gloves and a hat that covers his ears, then he'll pull on a pair of boots to give himself some traction on the ice. He's now ready to face the wintery conditions in the park.

Except that the city authorities have decided otherwise. Today, the activities in the park are out of bounds to children and adults. "In cold weather, the ground becomes hard and slippery" a rather pompous specially-produced sign announces. The entire play area is cordoned off behind red and white tape, a victim of the weather before the weather has the chance to take any victims.

It looks like a crime scene, but one undisturbed by any traces of a guilty party. The criminal is the snow itself, forever labelled now a danger in the mind of an impressionable child. Here there will be no snowballs, no snowmen, no angels in the snow. Move along please, there's nothing to see here.

The child is disappointed, the adults bewildered. Another responsibility taken from them, the responsibility of deciding what is safe for their children. In the city, there are no private spaces to make these decisions, no sheltered gardens behind houses. In the city, the child's garden is the park. Which parents would forbid their children from going out into a back garden on a snowy morning, a decision the city fathers have taken? This is no longer a play area, but an area of safe containment. Closed, "for your security and the security of your children".

It would be more understandable and less offensive without the intellectual dishonesty. How much more refreshing it would be to see a sign that read "Closed due to the fear of expensive litigation".

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Something for 2010?

A new year, a new beginning and lots of events for the year ahead. Here are some of the things I’m looking forward to in 2010.


Cité de la Mode et du Design
It’s around two years late, but finally it seems that the Cité de la Mode et du Design will open this Spring. I’m being a little unfair because the part of the structure that houses the ‘Institut français de la Mode’ has already been in operation for a year, but it has often seemed like this great, green hulk on the river would never open.

In reality, it is difficult to understand what has caused the delays. The main structure of the building, the concrete shell of the old ‘Magasins généraux’ establishment, was already in place and the green wood and glass exterior was clipped on to it a long time ago. The design by Dominique Jakob and Brendan Macfarlane, with its riverside garden and promenade will certainly pull in the visitors, but could the problems have arisen from trying to actually find a purpose for the structure? Will there be anything more than a café and some shops here when it finally does open? The answer to these questions should arrive in May or June.
28-36 quai d'Austerlitz,
M° Gare d’Austerlitz or Chevalret

The Louise-Catherine
Alongside the Cité de la Mode et du Design is moored a rather decrepit old barge, and it is easy to overlook the fact that it is an important monument in the city. This should change when renovations to the Louise-Catherine get underway, but during this period it will still be a site to visit. The barge, which was redesigned by Le Corbusier in the 1930s as a shelter for the Salvation Army, will be turned into a temporary sculpture by the architect Shuhei Endo. It will be wrapped in a metallic spiral known as a ‘Springtechture’ for the duration of the renovations.

Fondation Louis Vuitton pour l’art contemporain
After the American Center alongside the Parc de Bercy, Paris will get its second Frank Gehry building this year. Paid for by Bernard Arnault, President of the LVMH luxury goods group, the Fondation Louis Vuitton pour l’art contemporain will be situated in the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne and will house works owned by the group.

Gaîté Lyrique
Previously a famous ‘opérette’ theatre in Paris which was once managed by Jacques Offanbach, the Gaité Lyrique should finally reopen this year after being closed for 19 years. Interestingly, it will focus on digital technology with studios and workshops for artists working in electronic and robotic spheres.
As well as these rehearsal and creation spaces though, there will also be performance areas and a café for the general public.


Année de la Russie en France
Each year France organises artistic and educational exchange events with another chosen country, but this year's promises to be especially interesting. There has long been mutual fascination and admiration between France and Russia meaning that the two countries will want to surpass themselves to prove the superiority of their artistic heritage.

The main event in Paris will be “Sainte Russie” at the Louvre from the 5th March to the 24th May, a look at 900 years of Russian art, up to the 17th century, in collaboration with more than ten Russian museums.

However, both countries will also want to promote contemporary culture, so look out for events at the Palais de Tokyo and regular visits from musicians and dance troupes.

Crime et Châtiment
As previously mentioned, it is the year of Russia in France, so what could be more natural than taking a title from Dostoyevsky for an art exhibition? The theme of the exhibition is also of course positively Dostoyevskian; the esthetics of violence. The period covered is from 1791 at the height of revolutionary bloodletting, to the 30th September 1981, the date when capital punishment was abolished in France. In these two centuries, art and literature developed an obsession with crime and criminals, and of course the punishment that followed. This exhibition features paintings from Goya, Géricault, Picasso and Magritte amongst others, as well as documents and photos. The museum also points out that certain images may shock!
Musée d'Orsay

15th March to 27th June

Paris inondé 1910
Exactly 100 years ago in January 1910, Paris experienced a "semaine terrible" with non-stop rain that brought flooding to almost the whole of the city. To mark this event, the Galerie des bibliothèques de la Ville de Paris has organised an exhibition around the ample photographic documentation of the floods. Interestingly, such floods are said to happen once every hundred years or so in the city…
Galerie des bibliothèques de la Ville de Paris
22, rue Malher 75004 (M° St-Paul)
8th January to 28th March


Several big names this year, but curiously almost uniquely artists from outside France.

Turner et ses peintres
After being the big attraction in London in 2009, this Turner show transfers to Paris at the beginning of this year. Surely less well known on this side of the Channel, it should nevertheless be the hottest ticket of the Spring and give people an insight into the artist and his many influences.
Grand Palais
22nd February to 24th May

Du Greco à Dalí: Les grands maîtres espagnols
After a very successful show on Flemish art, the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André will this year concentrate on Spanish painters. Around 50 paintings from 25 Spanish artists including Picasso and Miró will be on display.
Musée Jacquemart-André
12th March to 1st August

Lucian Freud: L'atelier
This exhibition is based around a recreation of the London studios of one today's greatest living painters.
Centre Pompidou
10th March to 19th July

An artist with a much shorter life-span than Freud, but whose creations show no sign of going out of fashion.
Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris
15th October to 30th January 2011

Edvard Munch ou l'anti-cri
Munch is best known for his tortured creations such as 'The Scream', but this exhibition will attempt to show a different, lighter and more colourful aspect to his work.
Pinacothèque de Paris
19th February to 18th July

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Paris Highrises

There has been much discussion recently about whether the Paris skyline should be allowed to creep upwards towards the height of other leading cities around the world. The current Mayor of the city, Bertrand Delanoë, is globally in favour so long as the new towers do not spoil exceptional views and are of sufficient architectural quality. His first project is Le Triangle which is planned for 2012, but other areas on the periphery of the city have also been earmarked for new highrise projects in the coming years.

Historically, the height of the buildings in the city has always been relative to the width of the street on which they stand. In general, this corresponds to a maximum of 31 metres in the centre, and 37 metres towards the edges of the city. However, as has often been the case in France, there have been many exceptions, notably in the period between 1967 and 1977.

Those who seek therefore to defend a supposed Paris exception and the homogentiy of the architecture seemingly overlook the fact that the city is already home to many tall buildings. They may be on a smaller scale to other places around the world, but they are as interesting in their various forms as in any other city on the planet. Here are a few examples.

Personally I would like to see more of these buildings, and yet I can also say that I wouldn't like to live in one! Nevertheless, as Germaine Greer pointed out in an article for The Guardian newspaper, "towers supply the most prestigious accommodation in the world". She also points out that if designed and maintained carefully, they are the most efficient forms of construction, something that Le Corbusier had also demonstrated. So is there a place for quality highrises in Paris?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Vous Êtes Ici

I recently received an e-mail from a visitor in New Hampshire asking if I did requests. It is not really something I have thought about before, but I was very happy to oblige. It was a simple enough request, written with a touch of melancholy, and I thought I might be able to bring a little seasonal cheer.

"I have always wanted to find a particular image that I never had a chance to take a photo of. It is an image on the side of a building, facing west, which is visible from the bus line 26 on Rue La Fayette. I often passed that mural thinking each time, "next time I will get off the bus and take a photo of it". But I never did"

As I approached the mural, camera in hand, a thought came to me. I was becoming somebody else's eyes. This person had passed by the mural many times but how closely had he ever observed it? It was an arresting image on a banal bus journey, a colourful mural glimpsed through windows mapped with scratches and condensation. It had been powerful enough to make a lasting impression, but would the photographic reality match the picture in his mind's eye?

As I walked around the building, observing it from every possible angle, another fact became evident. From each of the angles, the picture was different. From underneath, the head of the man disappeared, and it was a Space Invader in the foreground that grabbed the attention. On the left hand side, the male figure was very clear. On the right-hand side, bathed in a streak of sunshine, it was three words that were brought into focus; Vous êtes ici.

Alongside the three words was a train sitting in a station. My visitor had mentioned a man taking off his hat, surrounded by trains and other machines of transportation, but the image I saw before me was mostly a representation of the city of Paris. Why was it the train that remained etched in his mind? The answer could be found 20 metres further along. After flashing past this mural, he would have crossed the La Fayette bridge that spans the Gare de l'Est. Two neighbouring features of his bus journey had perhaps fused in his memory.

One person who would appreciate this is the artist who sketched the mural. François Boisrond is mostly associated with the Figuration libre group of artists who were briefly famous in the 1980s, but today he is interested in everyday life and how this affects the perceptions we have of our surroundings. His paintings of Paris place him in the position of an observer, showing how we are often overwhelmed by the noise of the city. He has painted a series of pictures where typically Parisian scenes can only just be made out behind large advertising boards, and interestingly in the context of this post, views of the city through a car windscreen. This time, the observer himself created something that has changed a perception of the city.

I took the photos and have posted them here, but will my visitor recognise the images I captured? I am here in his place, with time to clear out the clutter of everyday life and choose the best angles, but by doing this have I also burned away a cherished vision of a happy time in his life?
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