Tuesday 19 March 2013

A Walk On the Waterfront

A building transformed into a giant paint pot might seem surprising, but it is only one of several curiosities on the quixotic Quai d'Austerlitz.

Take the lines 5 or 6 of the Metro as they fly across the Seine and you won't help but notice the giant luminous blobs of paint oozing down the sides of a riverside tower block.

Standing on the Quai d'Austerlitz, this is the creation of urban artist Idem, who decorated the empty building over two days at the end of 2012.
"I wanted to give the impression that it was a giant overflowing paint potexplained the artist in the Le Parisien newspaper, without giving any further insight into his rather surreal choice. 

Idem's creation was no clandestine happening though. Local authorities in the 13th arrondissement are actively promoting the building as a support for urban artists until its scheduled demolition this autumn. Those allergic to the colour orange may be happy to know that these blobs of paint will soon disappear...to be replaced by another surprise!

To get the best angle of the building, exit the metro at Bercy station and cross over the Pont de Bercy.

Facing you as you cross the bridge is part of the new Paris Rive Gauche development, which stretches from the Gare d'Austerlitz to the edges of the city. The current view is a snapshot of a cityscape destined to disappear. The paint-splashed building is the spearhead of a large-scale development that will see the creation of 300 new apartments in seven twisting towers. Are the blobs of paint an augury of construction work soon to begin, or are they instead tears or streaks of blood?

In addition to Idem's work, a number of other creations can be seen at ground level, within the structure of what was until recently a petrol station. Several of these were produced by Brazilian artists during a 'live performance' in February.

Cross the road and walk down to the riverside and you will find yourself transported to a brutalist and slightly dystopian landscape. Bleak and heavy, it feels like an Atlantikwall bunker, mounted here to defend against the possibility of water-bound attack.

Although recently opened to pedestrians, this was previously a service road on what remains an active port. Sitting above on the pilotis, out of sight, are the administrative offices of the Paris Port Authority. Despite appearences though, this is a carefully sculpted environment. Created to look ancient, the cobbled pathway is, according to the architects, a 'harmonious mix of colour and materials'. Along with sandstone, there is granite from the Tarn and Comblanchien limestone from the Burgundy region of France. One can only hope it was all brought here by boat.

This is a zone that has been declared 'mixed', bringing together 'urban logisitics' and passenger transport as well as 'cultural and leisure activities'.At riverside level, these are not immediately obvious until you see the luminous (once again) green hulks above. These belong to a recent creation that doesn't seem to have any one particular name or identity.

At this point you can move up a level and now stroll along a wooden boardwalk. This is at once the 'Cité de la Mode et du Design' and 'Les Docks'. Move up another level, to the rooftop terrace and it becomes 'Wanderlust', a restaurant/club/gallery/exhibition space, describing itself - without any irony - as '« post » (everything?) et mutant'.  

It is a plastic playground of concrete chic, but on a rainy Sunday there are very few people here. The original structure dates back to 1911 and was a revolutionary construction at the time. It was one of the first major reinforced concrete structures in the city, and was designed to stock goods transported into the city by barge. Embedded in these slices of concrete now are designer shop units. 

Back down at riverside level, it seems that the structure only provides a shelter for the homeless. The Paris quais though have always played this role. A little further along is another concrete monument, a floating testament to this aspect of the city's history.

Just beyond the Viaduc d'Austerlitz, near the site where the city's hidden river, the Bièvre, used to enter the Seine, sits the rusting hulk of the Louise Catherine. I wrote about this barge back in 2010, describing how Le Corbusier helped transform this old coal transporter into a floating shelter for the city's homeless who previously camped out under the bridges of the Seine.

At the time I reported that a project was underway to restore the barge, then noted each time I passed by in the subsequent three years how work never seemed to have begun. Now however it seems that the Louise-Catherine will finally rediscover her previous appearence - if not her previous role (even if this is still apparently needed).

Details of the exact project are difficult to come by, but it seems that it will stay on this site and become a kind of floating museum and education centre. A sign on the barge proudly proclaims it to be a monument historique, and briefly outlines how the three main spaces will be recreated (dining area, kitchen/bathrooms and the 160-bed dormitory). Ever the hygienist, Le Corbusier had also designed a rooftop garden on the barge, and the recreation of this could bring a little colour back to the riverside.

A heavy shower sent me running into the Gare d'Austerlitz at this point, but you can follow the footpath along the riverside right into the centre of the city - even if the environment becomes a little less eccentric from this point onwards!


Thérèse said...

Despite the rain a colorful insight:-)

Anonymous said...

If it keeps on going that way Paris will loose all it's charm and character.... I cry for Paris....

Norman said...

That was a fascinating post and next trip to Paris we will spend more time exploring. It was always something we went by too quickly. Nice to see your occasional references to early use of concrete, a fascinating material in which French architects and engineers have played major roles.


V. said...

sadly the building and its paintings is nomore :-(

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