Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Sous le Parc, le Supermarché...

Dig beneath the newly created Parc Alsace in Levallois and you'll find not a beach but instead one of the biggest supermarkets in the Paris region.

A newly constructed park is an irrational concept. Its primary initial objective is that it should immediately look mature, but the Parc Alsace was also created with other very specific purposes in mind.

Sitting opposite the new So Ouest shopping centre - and on the extreme limit of Paris (reach through the fence and you can touch the city) - it is in fact a carefully designed extension of this commercial world. In the words of the developers, the park is simply an element of what they call the site's "géographie urbaine".

Urban geography though is a slippery thing. Developers and local authorities speak of the park's role in softening and bringing oxygen to a concrete landscape, but before this park sprung up, Google maps tells us that it was previously a sports stadium. This was surely a very useful facility in a built-up environment, but obviously not something that would be desirable opposite the "centre commercial urbain chic qu'attendait l'Ouest parisien."

In fact the creation of the park was not down to a desire to create a green space, but instead to provide an intelligent and useful surface area to meet the needs of the supermarket that would be built beneath.  

This though is not immediately obvious. From the outside, the only sign that there is something unusual afoot here is the giant gaping mouth that sucks in hulking delivery trucks. Devoid almost entirely of explanatory visual information, there are nevertheless two no entrance signs which only 'authorised' vehicles have permission to ignore.

Pass through the park gates and you'll find a green space that initially looks much like any other. Trees and plants have a satisfying level of maturity, and lawns seem completely bedded in. Despite being open for less than a month, there are even already a number of desire paths. Look more closely though and you will begin to see a number of more unusual features.

Firstly there are the doors. Built into a series of featureless structures across the park, they are completely unmarked and without handles on the outside. The doors are clearly extraneous to the life of the park, and appear rather to be portals from another place.

Peer through locked iron gates and over high walls and you will also spot several wide concrete staircases, all of which are devoid of people and seem to lead nowhere.
Dotted around the park are other oddities. Under-employed exercise machines lay in the shadows of 15-story tower blocks, and a modern/antique So Ouest branded merry-go-round spins alone in a completely child-free zone. There are also the esoterics - a wiry gazebo marking the 'highest point' of a flat park, and a set of bee hives that have been layed out in the form of an analemmatic sundial.  

These all may offer clues, but the answers are to be found underground. Since the 1960s there has been a desire in France to place equipment - car parks, stations, shopping centres - literally out of sight. However, although the equipment can be buried underground, the functional aspects - fire escapes, air outlets, electrical equipment, delivery routes - cannot be completely hidden away, and instead need to be dressed up when they sprout on the surface. Here they have become features in a park.

What we see underground though is not the full story. Although the endless aisles and individual 'worlds' (baker, butchers, wine and spirits..) fit snugly under the contours of the park, the supermarket itself only covers half of the space occupied by the store (there is around 8000m² of produce on display, but the company makes use of more than 15000m²). It is like a set of Russian dolls - a park covering a supermarket covering delivery, storage and staff facilities.

The park may be the acceptable face of this new city of consumption, but by redrawing existing urban geography it at least has the benefit of being positioned where people live, and not - as is so often the case - on functional agricultural land beyond the limits of the city.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Counter-Tourism at Notre Dame

Counter-Tourism is a term coined by writer and performer Phil Smith (aka Crab Man), and is described as a series of "tactics (which) are designed to transform the way you look at places and to get you thinking about the way the industry packages 'heritage'".

Far from being elitist and snobbish (according to Phil, counter-tourism is "definitely not about sneering at tourism"), the philosophy is in fact geared towards "those who want more from a heritage site than a tea shoppe and an old thing in a glass case".

I am a big fan of Phil's playful writing and films, and interviewed him on this blog after the release of his previous book, entitled 'Mythogeography'. Counter-tourism takes many of the ideas developed in that publication, and applies them specifically to the heritage industry.

Phil's theories are outlined in a handbook (described by his publishers as being "the definitive guide to Counter-Tourism, except that Counter-Tourism has a low opinion of definitive guides"). Alongside this guide is a smaller counter-tourism pocketbook, containing suggestions for "50 odd things to do in a heritage site", and there is also an online resource where people can share tactics. 

My first thought when reading his texts is that there is probably less of a need for counter-tourism in France than there is in the UK or the US. Heritage sites in France do not have grafted-on ghosts, or staff members wandering around in 'period' costume, and are generally bereft of cheesy documentation and 'as featured on TV' signs. 

That said, the entire city of Paris has become something of a tourists' theme park, with a series of attractions that people feel obliged to visit. By blindly following guide books and official tours, most tourists will miss the opportunity to get a real feeling for a place for themselves. Counter-tourism tactics can help them get off the beaten track whilst still visiting the city's principal heritage sites.

The tactics need not only be for tourists, and can also offer a way for locals to discover sites they have abandoned to visitors from elsewhere. 

This is certainly the case for me with Notre Dame. Being the 'point zero' of France, it seems that it must be infused with genuine signification. As Joanna (@Baudade) pointed out to me on Twitter though, "Notre Dame might itself be counter-touristic. I've spent so much time nearby but strange force field's prevented me from ever going inside".

It is clearly a must-stop site for tourists today, even though it had previously been reduced to a desecrated glorified storage space after the French revolution and was very nearly demolished. It was saved in part by the fiction of Victor Hugo, who in doing so created new myths for the building. Was Hugo then the first counter-tourist? 

With pocketbook in hand (which I must say would make an excellent stocking filler for anyone who is a reluctant tourist - or even just a tourist!), I set off to visit Notre Dame as a counter-tourist, and to see if I could make some tactics of my own.

Going Underground
The visit to Notre Dame begins on the parvis. By the 1960s this space had become a giant car park, crammed at all hours with tourist buses. In an attempt to clean up the site, the city authorities decided to put everything underground. You will notice that the 'archeological crypt' was placed directly alongside the underground car park, and that they share the same entrance. Instead of visiting the crypt (which is also currently closed for a few weeks), why not instead visit the car park, and imagine the cars as important sarcophagi or relics?

Other tactics outside of the site:
  • Instead of visiting Notre Dame, visit the Hôtel Dieu hospital or the Prefecture de Police instead. Both were built alongside the cathedral during Baron Haussmann's 19th century reconstruction of the city, replacing the original medieval street layout. As they have been given equal space on the Ile de la Cité, they must be just as important.
  • Notre Dame site managers have rather handily just installed a grandstand in front of the cathedral as part of the 850th anniversary celebrations. As the building has clearly become something to watch, why not visit it as if it were a football match or opera performance? 
  • Alongside the cathedral is the 'Notre Dame' café tabac. Visit this establishment as if it were the cathedral. Ask the manager for a guided tour, and talk only in whispers.

Inside Notre Dame
At the beginning of the pocketbook, Phil Smith points out that "there are only two ways you can do these tactics 'badly': hurt yourself or reduce other people's pleasure." Although tactics should transform your experience of a site and subvert the heritage industry, it should also be remembered that Notre Dame is a sacred site for some people, and therefore it's probably best not risk upsetting them or injuring yourself by shinning up the walls. 

Inside the church one thing is immediately apparent. There is a clearly defined and signposted flow. The entrance is on the right-hand side, the exit on the left. The church must therefore be visited in an anti-clockwise direction, ending - of course - at the gift shop. The first tactic when inside Notre Dame is therefore to walk in the other direction, and literally see the building from a different angle to all other visitors.

One of the 50 tactics in the pocketbook encourages you to "visit gift shops as if they were the museums." By visiting Notre Dame in the 'wrong direction', you can first admire cut crystal trinkets and praying dolls before going on to the altar and transepts. Or to confess.

Other suggestions for tactics inside Notre Dame:
  • Play chess on the checkerboard floor tiles. Come dressed as a king or queen - you'll feel at home in this most royalist of French churches.
  • Investigate and photograph the practical equipment and temporary storage spaces around the church. Not only will it bring to mind the revolutionary warehouse it once was, but you'll also soon notice that it is really quite a scruffy place - and very much alive!

Finally - and most important of all - enjoy yourself and have a good time! As Phil concludes, "when Counter-Tourism opens the doors, tourism becomes a funny, subversive and adventurous experience - not a deferential procession through the unrevealing homes and castles of Heritage plc."

Phil Smith's Counter-Tourism - The Handbook and Counter-Tourism - A Pocketbook are both available from Triachy Press

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Invisible Paris on CNN

At the end of October I was filmed by a team from CNN for a travel show on Paris. Considering the standing of the other guest presenters involved, it was an honour to be included, and an all-round interesting experience.

One thing I quickly learned was that television is not a natural medium for me! With this blog I have become accustomed to writing at length about sometimes tiny details, but this is simply not an option with such a visual medium. 

>>You can watch the film here (I’m after Frenchie chef Gregory Marchand).<<

My brief had been to present three places that have significance or importance for me, but as I was representing my blog it was quite a challenge to choose these places. My blog focuses on the invisible, but here the necessity was to select places that would be interesting visually for the camera. Secondly, this was a travel show, so the chosen spots should be places that people might theoretically want to visit and see for themselves.

I finally decided to have three places that could be linked by a theme, with this being the edges of the pre-1860 Paris. I would talk about the villages – Belleville, Charonne and Gentilly (including the Bièvre river) – that were annexed into Paris, and what traces they have left in today’s city.

That was the theory anyway. Despite preparing myself a script, on the day of shooting the realities of filming became apparent. The angle of the sun made one shot impractical, cars constantly interrupted recording on another, and at the third the owner of a café told us that he didn’t want his establishment being filmed. As this last place – on the corner of a grafitti-filled street – is not at all my favourite bar in the city, I was quite happy to move on to another spot.

With all this, and with shots being recorded several times from different angles, my train of thought got a little bit lost. At the end of the day’s shooting, I wasn’t even sure what I had actually said anymore, and that was before CNN did the editing.

Looking at the result, I think it looks great. The CNN Go city series is genuinely interesting (albeit very fast moving), and I thoroughly recommend their guides to other cities. Even in Paris, the eclectic choice of guest presenters (a chef, a designer, a DJ, a musician, a tattoo artist…and an English blogger!) is quite audacious for such a mainstream channel, and shows a city far from traditional tourist guides.

However, it is also quite frustrating to see that many filmed segments didn’t make the final cut, elements that I think would have made my presentation clearer and more complete. For this reason, I have put the script I wrote online here. You can just imagine how it may have looked on screen, and perhaps I’ll one day try to film these parts again!

I would like to thank Lidz-Ama, France and cameraman Sylvain for choosing me, and for their efficiency and good humour which made me feel very at ease - despite being filmed for ‘a potential audience of 300 million people’!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Way of Saint James through Paris and beyond

For many people a trip to Paris is a kind of modern-day pilgrimage, but for several hundred years the city has also been one of the traditional starting points on the Chemin de Saint Jacques (Way of Saint James) pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The pilgrimage, an activity common to most religions, uses the act of walking as a means to obtain moral or spiritual redemption. It is walking with a purpose following emotionally significant paths, and therefore
curiously similar to the very secular psychogeography of the Situationists. I decided to combine both by taking a drift along the historical route through Paris, using the scallop, the symbol of the Saint Jacques/ James pilgrimage, as my guide.

The Tour Saint Jacques
Although many pilgrims come from further north, stopping perhaps at the Basilica of Saint Denis and the Saint-Jacques-Saint-Christophe church alongside the basin de la Villette, the traditional starting point for pilgrimages from Paris was the Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie church, of which only the tour Saint-Jacques remains.

The rest of the church was taken apart after the French revolution, with the individual stones sold off and used for other constructions. It is ironic that a building that stands now almost as a monument to the French secular society should still be the starting point of religious pilgrimage. That said, many of the 'pilgrims' who follow the route today do so for their own metaphorical reasons, or just for the pleasure of walking.

From this point it is around 2,000km to Santiago de Compostela, a distance that serious walkers can expect to cover in around six to seven weeks. My walk to just beyond the city limits would take around two hours.

Saint Julien le Pauvre
Setting off from the Tour Saint Jacques in Chatelet, the first stop is just across the river, at the Saint Julien le Pauvre church. Outside, the oldest tree in Paris. Inside, my first scallop, a holy water font, just inside the entrance.

The church is something of a mongrel. It is one of the oldest remaining religious sites in the city, but the building is made up of mismatched bits added or altered throughout its history. Like Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, it was listed for demolition during the revolution then forgotten about before being given over to the city's Melkite community at the end of the 19th century.  

As is the case with the majority of churches in Paris, this one was almost entirely empty. A couple of musicians were setting up their equipment for a concert that would take place later that evening (the only time when the churches are full), and provided an interesting sonic soundscape to the visit. On the noticeboard, a message encouraging me to purchase a candle for 10 Euros, with the money going - appropriately enough - towards a future pilgrimage of young parishioners to Santiago de Compostela. 

The Musée de Cluny
The route towards Santiago de Compostela from Paris most clearly begins on the significantly-named Rue Saint Jacques. Dating back to roman times, it is perhaps the oldest road in Paris - and was also one of the busiest until Haussmann hacked out the much larger and noisier Boulevard Saint Michel alongside. 

A few steps away from Rue Saint Jacques is the Musée de Cluny.

This medieval mansion house, originally the residence of the Bishops of Cluny in Paris, is in flamboyant gothic style, and a gaudy demonstration of wealth. Although the house was not on the pilgrim's route, the influential bishops of Cluny played a key role in the mapping of the various paths, and it is perhaps for this reason that exterior walls of the house are covered in scallops. Interestingly, 19th century pictures show a house without these shells, suggesting that they were a much later addition (after the house had become a museum), a kind of fake gothic ornamentation to attract gullible pilgrims passing by.

Saint Jacques du Haut Pas
Further along the Rue Saint Jacques, just beyond the Pantheon, a sign high up on the wall of a building, tells us that we are passing through the old Porte Saint Jacques, one of the entrances into Philippe Auguste's walled city. A few hundred metres to the south is the next significant site, Saint Jacques du Haut Pas.

On the wall outside, another scallop symbol, this time confirming that the church stands on the Chemin de Saint Jacques.

Inside the church, which was originally built in the 12th century on land belonging to an order of monks from Altopascio (Haut Pas) in Italy, there is another scallop holy water font. I also meet Saint Jacques/James himself for the first time.  

The diminutive statue dates from the 14th century, his face and hands eaten away by time, but there is surprising power in his delicately carved features.

Inside the church I spot a man with a backpack, walking boots and cut-off denim shorts, the only person I see that day that matches my idea of a pilgrim. As I leave the church I spot him again, striding purposefully in the direction of Santiago de Compostela.

Random traces
I'm disappointed not to find any shops selling tacky trinkets (or scallop shells), cashing in on their position along the route in Paris, but it's probably too early in the trip for that. However, I do though see scallops on the menu of several restaurants. 

Near the Val de Grace hospital, I find a real scallop shell, stuck somehow to a concrete wall. Quite high up (I need to stand on a wall to photograph it, drawing strange looks from passers by) it also blends in to its background, making it difficult to spot. As a route marker for pilgrims, it seems rather clandestine. On the other side of the road, at the entrance to the hospital's chapel, a giant scallop shell fans out behind the head of a statue.

The city limits
As I approach the edge of the city the significant sites start to thin out. The Rue Saint Jacques becomes the Rue du Faubourg Saint Jacques, informing us that we are moving away from Paris. To the left, the high walls of the Santé prison then the Saint Jacques Metro station, both situated almost exactly at the point where the pilgrimage route cuts across the Paris meridian

As Saint Jacques becomes the Rue de la Tombe Issoire, the path becomes less clear. There are no scallop markers plotting the route, so I continue walking in a straight line. After passing by the giant - but hidden - reservoir de la Vanne, I see that this decision was a mistake.

Somewhat incredibly, the path seems to lead straight onto the périphérique motorway. The final stretch of road is a non-space, a collection of trees and bushes beside the Cité Universitaire, housing a small tent city of the homeless. The street seems to serve no purpose, beyond acting as a shortcut known only to taxi drivers.

On the other side of the périphérique I can see that the road continues in a straight line. Was the centuries old pilgrim's path redirected when the motorway was built? 

Continuing beyond Paris
It seems that the correct route today is to veer off onto the Rue du Père Corentin which leads down to the chaotic Porte d'Orléans. Beyond Paris the route spans out in two directions, towards Orleans or towards Chartres. Just outside the city though I make one final stop, at the surprising Saint Jacques le Majeur church in Montrouge.

Although churches have stood on this spot since the 13th century, this impressive concrete box dates from the 1930s. Designed by the architect Eric Bagge, it was built with the assistance of the engineer Eugène Freyssinet, and is very reminiscent of his industrial hangars. 

If the building looks like it is missing something, this is because construction was interrupted by the war. A spire was planned, but finally never added. The building is in quite poor condition today, and was apparently closed (for the afternoon? The day? For repairs?), but I was happy nevertheless to spot a series of scallops in the stained-glass windows.

My trip finished here, as has many other people's over the last hundred years or so. In 1885, the bishop of Paris declared that this church (in its previous conception) was one of three in the Paris region that people could make a pilgrimage to if they were not capable of walking all the way to Santiago de Compostela. Today that's good enough for me.

Next stop: Bordeaux
My walk covered around 5 kilometres. From here it would be just another 1,995km to Santiago de Compostela, but instead we'll take a leap of over 500km and pick up the path again in Le Bouscat, just to the north of Bordeaux.

Part Two: Invisible Bordeaux then picks up the trail again as it winds its way through the city of Bordeaux.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Paris Archives: A Lucky Find?

With an exhibition on the later works of the artist Raphael currently running at the Louvre, it is interesting to note an earlier link between the renaissance painter and Paris.

An article published in the Petit Parisien newspaper on Feb 2nd, 1899 describes a disagreement between a secondhand goods trader and an art dealer - with a picture by Raphael at the heart of their discussion!

The adventure began when the art dealer went in search of a wooden frame with very specific measurements. He found exactly what he was looking for in the secondhand goods trader's shop, and purchased the frame - which still contained a very dusty and mouldy painting - for the very minimal sum of 20 francs.

A few days later, a painter (the article is very short on names and specifics!) visited the art dealer's shop and spotted the frame and painting. After clearing away some of the dust and grime from the picture, he declared it to be a creation by Raphael that had some link to his Adam and Eve painting that hangs in the Vatican.

Raphael's Adam and Eve

After the painting was cleaned up and restored it was eventually sold to a collector for 80,000 francs. A very healthy profit for the dealer, but also seemingly a very cheap price for a Raphael (by my estimations, 80,000 francs in 1899 is the equivilent of around 300,000 Euros today).

Naturally the story didn't end there. The secondhand trader got wind of the sale and immediately went to the dealer to ask for the money he had received for the painting. The dealer refused, claiming that the picture had come free with the frame. Given the impasse, the disagreement was taken to the law courts for deliberation, but here the article ends and I can find no further trace of this case.

Was this a genuine Raphael, and if so how did it get to Paris and into such a sad state, and where is the painting today? Who eventually profited from the lucky find? If anyone has any answers please don't hesitate to let me know!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The First Skyscraper in Paris

The subject of tall buildings in Paris is still a controversial one, but it is easy to overlook the fact that the first skyscraper was erected in the city over 50 years ago. This particular structure, variously known as the Tour Albert or Tour Croulebarbe, is even a protected historical monument today.

By international standards, the Tour Albert (for the sake of this article we'll use this name as it connects it to Edouard Albert - its principal architect - rather than the area in which it can be found), is a tiddler. At 67 metres and 23 floors it is not even a third of the height of the Tour Montparnasse, but in its time it was just as revolutionary.

Although its size, breaking age-old city regulations, was obviously controversial when it was completed in 1960, the revolution was mostly in the way the building was put together (by the engineer Jean-Louis Sarf). The tower is almost a completely pre-fabricated structure, using a system of concrete filled steel tubes interspersed with horizontal blocks of concrete. Having almost no internal supporting walls, the apartments can be freely reorganised according to the desires of their inhabitants.

This design, combined with its facade of glass and stainless steel panels and the fact that all windows can be opened outwards gives it an almost unique aspect. Perhaps most interesting of all though is the terrace that cuts through the building about one third of the way up.  

Seen from below, it is the cubist-styled decorations by artist Jacques Lagrange on the ceiling of the terrace that stand out. This space though is not just a simple design feature of the building, but was originally planned to be one of its key elements. To appreciate this, we need to see the building from the other side, on the Rue Abel-Hovelacque.

The view from this angle is obscured by a tall iron fence, but by standing on tip-toes and pointing the camera over the top, it is possible to see that the building sits above an RATP Metro depot. 

The original sketches by the team of architects (Édouard Albert, Robert Boileau and Jacques Henri-Labourdette) shows how they had imagined the construction. Despite being the first 'skyscraper' in the city, it is in fact an extremely discreet building and largely unnoticeable in the city landscape. This is because it is built into a slope, with the terrace marking the point where the land drops sharply downwards.

The architects had planned to cover over the Metro depot and create an esplanade in front of the building. The terrace would have been a viewing platform, open to the general public (indeed, visible in the sketches are the Eiffel tower and what looks like the dome of the Invalides building, although both are now obscured in my photo by other buildings).

An interesting article published in the Liberation newspaper in 1995, shortly after the building had been granted listed status, gives us an even greater insight into this atypical structure. 

The article describes promotional material for the new construction that appeared in the le Figaro newspaper on 23 January 1959. The slogan for prospective buyers was 'aimeriez-vous habiter au premier étage de la tour Eiffel?' (would you like to live on the first floor of the Eiffel tower), but the reference was not the one that the building's principal architect would have chosen. Edouard Albert was a fan of gothic architecture, and deliberately chose to model the height of his tower on those of Notre Dame (his tower measures 67 metres, against 69 metres for Notre Dame).

It seems that the building's modern design appealed to young professionals, including a large number of university professors, who were attracted to the building due to its proximity to their schools and comparatively cheap prices. Situated in what was historically a working class part of the city, it quickly became known as the 'Tour des Snobs'.

If the building was listed in the inventaire supplémentaire des monuments historiques in 1994 it was largely down to the campaigning of the architect's daughter, Anne Coutine, who has also lived in the building for a number of years. "My father would have hated the fact that his building had been listed" she explains,  "but I had to do it to stop it falling into ruin."

After being listed, it was renovated in 2005 by Gorka Piqueras, and now looks ready to stand for many more years to come.
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