Saturday 12 April 2014

The Galerie Argentine: Sauvage and Sarazin's metallic misfit

In any city, the three most important words for real estate are location, location, location. Sometimes though, even if you do manage to find a spot in a desirable district you may find that your face just never seems to fit in. This has always been the case with Sauvage and Sarazin's Galerie Argentine. 

Picked up and placed in another part of Paris, this striking shopping gallery and apartment block would be a popular and well-known address. On the chic Avenue Victor Hugo though (where a thousand-year old olive tree will be delivered to an exclusive residence this weekend), it has always been considered a pugnacious slap in the face of classic good taste.

There are two reasons for this; brick and metal. With its red-brick facade and all too apparent iron framework, the building is just a little too industrial for the neighbourhood. Not popular when first built, it is still very quiet and slightly dusty around the edges today. It bears the old-fashioned look of a place that was never in fashion in the first place.

It is nevertheless an exceptional development, and a fantastic early creation from a team (Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin) that would later produce other striking buildings in Paris, notably a 'hygienic' construction in the 18th arrondissement that has already previously been featured on Invisible Paris. It is also perhaps the moment to remind ourselves that Henri Sauvage would later design one of the city's most exclusive brothels, Le Sphinx.

The designs of Henri Sauvage often have a tendancy to fall between several different styles of architecture and this building is no different. The facade has certain Art Nouveau elements, notably the bow windows and metallic swirls, but it is not a decorative building.

It was a thoroughly modern building at the time of construction, and yet the idea was far from a new one. Covered passages had been in existence in Paris since the 18th century, and this one was on quite a small scale. Where it did innovate though was by so clearly displaying its metallic skeleton and offering natural light throughout the gallery.

At some probably quite recent point the gallery was practically and psychologically split into two levels - shops on the ground floor and offices on the first floor. The shop units are all filled today, mostly with rather idiosyncratic stores that would struggle to find premises elsewhere in the 16th arrondissement. There's an antique bookshop, a paper dealer and a fancy-dress costume supplier, all seeming to do reasonable buisness. The first floor though is practically empty, with the units perhaps unadapted to the modern demands of the small business professional. 

Now over 100 years old, it is difficult to imagine what the future might be for this gallery. If anything, the Avenue Victor Hugo has moved even more upmarket recently (there are ever increasing numbers of designer boutiques in the area), making Sauvage's building seem even more of an anachronism. It would be nice to think though that it may one day be made to feel welcome in the neighbourhood.  

Note: The gallery is situated just a few metres away from another recent Invisible Paris feature - the ex Victor Hugo Pathé cinema.

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