Monday, 30 August 2010

Multi-story brutalism

A year ago on this blog I asked whether they were any true examples of brutalist architecture in Paris. The example I eventually found in the 13th arrondissement was positively gentle alongside this multi-story car park in the suburb of Nogent sur Marne!

It was no surprise to discover that this rather impressive structure is condemned today and will shortly be demolished. The reasons for this removal echo the explanations given by city planners across the world who have justified similar demolitions.

"Le projet de requalification de l’entrée de ville modifiera la physionomie actuelle du quartier
dont l’esthétique au plan urbain ne valorise pas l’image et l’attractivité de Nogent
" (the regeneration project for the town entrance will modify the current physionomy of a district whose urban esthetics do not promote the image and attractiveness of Nogent).

In place of this structure will be something far more banal, but this sleek architectural froideur is apparently more acceptable today. Brutalism is still deeply unfashionable amongst city planners, but will it ever make a comeback or will buildings such as this one soon disappear for ever? It would be difficult to class this car park as attractive, but such solid and uncompromising lines certainly make for interesting photo opportunities. I can't help feeling that one day we will regret the passing of this style.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Something for the Weekend (27th - 29th August)

It's already the last weekend in August, and there are many signs that Paris is coming back to life after the summer break. Finding a baguette has become less of a challenge, as has finding some organised events in the city! See the Paris Weekends blog for some suggestions of things to do this weekend.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Jardin Serge Gainsbourg

"J'suis l'poinçonneur des Lilas, le gars qu'on croise et qu'on n' regarde pas" sang Serge Gainsbourg, so it seems particularly appropriate that a new park at the Porte des Lilas should take his name. In several ways this park represents the new spirit of Paris city planning. During the opening of this eco-friendly park, Gainsbourg's ex-companion, Jane Birkin, pointed out that visitors would be able to picnic on the grass like in England, but it is more for its position that it is of interest.

The park has been built on top of land reclaimed from the périphérique motorway, and stretches from Paris across to the neighbouring town of Les Lilas. It is an example of Paris urbanisation that at last breaks through the physical and psychological barriers of the Thiers fortifications.

Is the park itself of any interest though? It covers a small area, but through intelligent landscaping it creates the illusion of being much larger. The features presently are not of the natural variety, with just a small pond and a few sapling trees currently in place, and it is more the winding concrete passageways and games of mirrors that catch the eye.

Where do the passageways lead? Climb up to the pinnacle of the park to find the answer - a viewing platform over the périphérique motorway. It's a post-modern joke that Serge Gainsbourg himself would have probably appreciated!

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The Parc Kellermann, or the view from the top

The Parc Kellermann sits alongside the Poterne des Peupliers, sharing the curve of the city's 19th century Thiers fortifications. The Bievre river passed by here too, winding its way into Paris across the no man's land of the city defences, but today the only water in sight - a pond, a waterfall - is decorative.

The park is a good place to contemplate the Enceinte de Thiers. The photograph below (taken at the Porte de Versailles) shows how these fortifications functioned. Deep trenches and walls up to 10 metres high surrounded the whole city, with gateways (the Portes that still exist today) letting people in and out of Paris. Beyond this area, a buffer of another 250 metres where construction was forbidden, and which came to be known as the 'zone'. Designed and built in the 1840s, the defences proved to be a spectacular failure, notably during the Prussian invasion in 1870. They were eventually destroyed and removed in the 1920s, but in a certain sense they are still very much in place today.

It is very rare to find traces of the fortifications today, but some of the stones are still in place in the Parc Kellermann. Beyond these physical remnants though, the park itself is very typical of the kind of equipment that sprang up in the zone and in place of the old walls and trenches.

Where previously there had been a paranoid emptiness, today there are parks, football pitches, swimming pools and red-brick social housing. The view from the top today is green, across a buffer of sport and leisure, but the psychological circle around the city still exists.

The edge of city is still solid and very clearly defined. From these walls in the Parc Kellermann today we still look out beyond Paris, across a football pitch, the periphèrique motorway, and out to the suburbs. Invaders are no longer to arrive, but the city still looks outwards with suspicion.

These walls were already a sign of the city's desire to dominate and control its neighbours when built. Many of the surrounding villages were annexed by Paris in 1860, but these walls had already extended the reach of the city out beyond them anyway, cutting several of them in half in the process. The villages had become an extra cushion of defence for the centre of Paris.

But what purpose does this ring around the city serve today? When the fortifications were pulled down, the planners simply wanted to fill the space in the cheapest manner possible, and parks and stadiums were judged an ideal solution, particularly in a city that lacked such facilities. By preserving the line of these defences though, the planners also ensured that Paris would still be cut off from its neighbours nearly 100 years afterwards.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Something for the Weekend (20th - 22nd August)

Despite the predicted hot weather this weekend, there is definitely an end of the summer feel about it. Paris Plages ends on Friday and various other events will also be drawing to a close before Paris enters full 'rentrée' mode, so it will be your last chance to get some summer fun before the autumn arrives!

Discover my recommendations on the Paris Weekends blog.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The Poterne des Peupliers

The Poterne des Peupliers is one of Paris’s psychogeographical hotspots. Historically at once both a barrier and a passageway, this portal into the city was a place that saw traffic stop, water flow and trains pass overhead. The legacy is not clearly visible, but the creations of a collective of street artists today highlight its significance.

On one bridge is a railway line that is no longer used. Underneath, a road sits on top of the Bièvre river which has now been covered over. People are free to enter and leave the city as they please, with only traffic lights providing a brief pause to their progress. It would appear to be just an ordinary entrance point into the city today if it wasn’t for the creations on the walls of the various bridges.

If you arrive at this point via the tramway on the Boulevard Kellermann you will be following the city's 19th century Thiers fortifications. Some of the walls at the Poterne des Peupliers were originally part of those inefficient barriers, and it is on these walls that you can find creations by the inevitable Jerome Mesnager and Mosko et Associés, as well as more modern creations from Janaundjs.

If the creations are here though it is not to mark the old city fortifications, but rather to plot the entrance into the city of the Bievre river. This hidden waterway is celebrated by a collective of artists known as the Lezarts de la Bievre who work together at various points along the ancient routes of the river across the city's left bank.

The river is in the city's sewer pipes today, but this still seems like a highly significant part of the city. The picture below shows how it looked around 150 years ago (railway, river - more of a small stream in reality - passageway, and the peuplier (poplar) trees!), and although much of the surroundings have changed, the lines and axis remain the same. The city no longer has its physical barriers, but this is still a spot where energy flows in and out.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Something for the Weekend (13th - 15th August)

This weekend begins on Friday the 13th and ends with a public holiday, but there's no need to be afraid - there are still plenty of things to do. Listed on the Paris Weekends blog are some musical events and your last chance to visit a couple of excellent photography exhibitions. Have a nice weekend!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

A Monument to Motherhood

A strange atmosphere reigns in the Jardin du Monument aux Mères Françaises. It’s barely a garden, just a few lime trees and a gravel path shaping attention towards the imposing monument at its heart. There is nobody here, and no traces to suggest that anyone ever comes. Is it the perspective, proportions or politics that put them off?

The scale is Stalinian, and this doesn’t feel like Paris. In fact its easy to imagine yourself in a garden of an obscure Eastern European state, confronted by a visual representation of an ideology that is clearly unloved by the locals. This monument though, despite its forms and size, is not promoting a dogma or (directly) commemorating a glorious war, but was instead erected to honour something far more universal. Motherhood.

The monument, created by the architect Paul Bigot, was inaugurated by the President of France, Albert Lebrun, on the 25th October 1938, but it seems much older. It is heavy and austere, solemn too with the grey weather-eaten faces of the statues. There is too much text, a full paragraph from Lebrun chiselled into the stone on one side, and quotations from Edmond Labbe and Victor Hugo on the other. War and sorrow do not seem far away, and indeed war was the reason for its creation.

The First World War had sent a greater number of young fathers off to battle than ever before, and many never returned. In the 1920s, France therefore saw a generation of children raised by just one parent, and the nation wanted to recognise the role played by these French mothers in the rebuilding of the country. The timing of the unveiling though, a year before another brutal conflict, was unfortunate to say the least.

Has the monument ever been a popular one? Christel Sniter, in a thesis entitled ‘Les femmes célèbres dans la statuaire publique à Paris (1870-2004)’, outlines how it almost immediately became the scene of protests. First, in the 1940s, when French communists gathered to protest, and later in the 1970s when feminists identified it as an image of opression. On both occasions, the groups were critical of the fact that the image of the French woman was again being reduced to just that of a mother.

It is awkward and massive monument, poorly situated in a pocket-sized park. It is incongruous and outdated, and yet it does seem there is something here worth celebrating. Or perhaps I just visited at an opportune moment. Naturally my thoughts turned to one French mother in particular. The mother of my son, and since last Thursday, the mother of our lovely new daughter.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Something for the Weekend (6th - 8th August)

August in Paris means being outside - as late as possible! To see my suggestions for things to do this weekend at night in the city of lights, see the complete list on the Paris Weekends blog.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Casting a Shadow

On a sunny day, two tower blocks cast two long shadows. Near neighbours on the edge of the 13th arrondissement these two structures give additional relief to a chaotic skyline.

The first is the Tour Super Italie. Designed by the architect Maurice Novarina, this almost entirely residential tower was opened in 1974. Although at 112m it is roughly a third of the height of the Eiffel Tower, its 44,000 tonne weight is four and a half times heavier! For quite obvious reasons, its nickname in the area is the 'tour ronde'. UPDATE - there is a swimming pool and sun terrace on the top floor of this building! See the Comments for more information.

Slightly to the south on the Boulevard Kellermann is the Tour Chambord. It was the work of three architects - Gérald Brown-Sarda, Michel Holley and Daniel Mikol - and was opened a year later, in 1975. The shadow here is slightly shorter, with its 34 floors covering 96 metres. The uninterupted balconies of the residents give views over several parks and gardens, incluidng the Parc Kellermann and the Jardin du Moulin-de-la-Pointe.

Angles and shadows, curves and contrasts. Perfect for photographers, especially on blue sky days, but perhaps not so agreeable for the neighbours who live in the shadows.
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