The original structure, the exhibition halls and skyscraping Concorde-Lafayette hotel, were designed by Guillaume Gillet, an architect who had made his name building prisons and religious structures. Whether by accident or design, its labyrinth underground passages, curving concrete walls and surrounding racetrack roads have given it a certain fortress feel.
Indeed, the first problem when approaching this structure is how to get inside. There is seemingly no clear entrance. The architect Christian de Portzamparc gave the structure a more modern twist in 1998, but his juttering façade is no more accessible than the previous layout. Stand in the little park in the roundabout opposite the building, and you will see groups of people trying to cut through tiny gaps in the incessant traffic. Few succeed, with the rest being forced to negotiate the underground passageways.
Once inside, the building is no more welcoming. It is the architecural equivilent of a set of Russian dolls. The concrete exterior hides conference halls, ampitheatres, shopping centres and cinemas. Beneath and behind these, the truly hidden – the delivery roads, back stage areas and utility zones that help the building to function.
The building sends visitors through its intestines according to very curious flows. The shopping arcade is a double ring of depressing Dantesque spirals lit only by a neon glow. The tedium of the circuit is broken by empty supermarkets and cafes that look like glass enclosures in a zoo. The exhibition halls and conference facilities are reached via an endless series of escalators. When empty, these are vast caverns that echo to a chorus of vacuum cleaners. It would be easy to get completely lost in this world.
This universe has come to resemble a rich person’s ghetto. The official website for the boutiques describes the stores as “luxe et haut de gamme”, and it is probably the only shopping centre I have ever visited that has carpets. However, there are also very few clients. Visitors - and everyone here seems to be purely a visitor - wander aimlessly, with no purpose beyond killing time before the next events or their flights home. Miniature Ferrari race cars sit outside toy shops, but no children are here to see them.
A domain of Non-Places
In 1992, French sociologist Marc Augé published ‘Non-Lieux’ (Non-Places), a book which chronicled and investigated the rise in dead spaces in modern society. The Palais de Congrès is filled with these personality-free zones that people move through but never appropriate. Some of them have seemingly been forgotten. Stairwells that lead nowhere, a disused post office counter, hidden nightclubs and long corridors that illuminate only their own emptiness. These are shapeless, temporary facilities, existing outside of the urban fabric of the city.
On giant electronic boards, the perplexing titles of professional exhibitions. The Congrès français des chirurgiens esthétiques plasticiens and the 10th World Inflammation Congress. The European toxicology conference and Euro PCR. Temporary installations bringing people from all over the world together in this anonymous shared space.
If delegates stay at the massive hotel Concorde-Lafayette they need never leave the building. A dedicated entrance leads straight to the Palais de Congrès where they'll find their conference. They can eat, drink and shop in the gallery, and even watch a show or a film. Paris will be what they find inside these walls, the view from their hotel window and the souvenirs they find here to take back home.