The last thing you expect to see when visiting a site during the annual Journées du Patrimoine is a dead rat, but then the Tunnel de Napoléon is not a typical heritage site.
The tunnel is the second place linked to Napoléon III I visited during the weekend, but it has very few similarities with the Cité Napoléon. Whereas that site, an experiment in social housing, was concerned largely with the hygienist ideals of light and air, this storage tunnel near the Parc de Bercy is tenebrous and fetid. But it is also apparently worth preserving.
The entrance to the tunnel is at the end of the Rue Baron le Roy, on what theoretically remains private property owned by the SNCF. Dire warnings of electrocutions and potential collisions are posted on the entrance gates, but there is nobody around to stop you wandering in. The patrimoine event had taken place the day previously, but even on a Sunday afternoon there is life in the tunnel...and dead rats.
Apparently there is a network of six tunnels here, although just one remains fully in activity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the site is not very well documented, and even its name is unclear. What is known is that it was built in the 1860s during the second empire, and that it was linked to the key industry of the Bercy region at the time - the importation and storage of wine. The tunnel leads down to the Seine where supplies could be delivered, and the constant cavelike temperature inside was ideal for its principal function.
Later the French national rail company took control of the site, relabelling it the Gare Frigorifique de Paris Bercy. It was divided into two levels, the higher of which has today been abandoned, and was mainly concerned with the importation of Algerian wine via Marseille.
Wine continues to play a key role on the site, and the conditions in the tunnel are still ideal for its storage. Several units are used by wine and champagne suppliers, but most are used for a very wide range of other purposes including metalwork and photography. Indeed, it was for this reason that the tunnel was open during the Journées du Patrimoine.
The future of the entire site is menaced by a mega-development scheduled to mushroom from the ground in 2017-18. The project - drawn up by British architect Richard Rogers - will cover a surface area of over 63 hectares, but it seems that rather than deliberately demolishing a piece of industrial heritage, the planners and developers simply overlooked the fact that it existed at all.
Since the announcement of the development, the various occupants of the tunnel have organised themselves into a collective in order to promote their activities and save the site (rather cheekily renaming it the 'Tunnel des Artisans'). It was this team - the Collectif Baron Leroy - that organised the visits during the Journées du Patrimoine, something of a curiosity in itself. If the location was one of the featured heritage sites on a government-sponsored event, why is it menaced with demolition? And who will actually take the decision to demolish or preserve?
Should the site be saved? Clearly the damp, cool conditions, the riverside location and the surrounding wastelands are ideal breeding grounds for rats, but they also make the tunnel an almost unique location in Paris. The thick stone walls provide a naturally cool environment, but they also insulate against noise - enabling semi-industrial activities that would be impossible elsewhere in the city. Another advantage - superstar footballers can drive their Lamborghinis directly up to the photo studios in the tunnel!
Inside the tunnel the air is heavy on the lungs. The stone arches are blackened with age, even if a surfeit of more recent concrete additions does spoil the atmosphere somewhat. It is a menacing environment, a gangster film location, but also a space with a myriad of possibilities.
The outside seems older still. It resembles a fortress, the thick walls holding back the invading cars as they thunder in to Paris. The logic of the site is obvious here, but also the reasoning behind the proposed redevelopment. In one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, here is a vast unused space which could welcome new communities and infrastructure. Is it not possible though to combine both old and new?