Tuesday 30 September 2008

The Road to Nowhere

(Cité Fenelon, 75009)
At the end of this very short street is the definition of frustration for a psychogeographist - a bricked up passage.

Psychogeography intrigues me, even though I'm not entirely convinced by the rather pretentious concept. Taken back to its very basic level, it can be defined as "an aimless walk", although there are of course more political and social connotations. One of the initial definers of the concept, Guy Debord, argued that cities are designed to imprison their inhabitants into routines based around work and other social obligations, and that the 'dérive' or drift is the only way to break out of the cycle and reappropriate our living environments.

It is interesting for a Paris-based blogger that the concept should originate here (through Guy Debord and the situationsists in the 1950s) but not completely inexplicable. Paris, with its wide Haussmann designed boulevards, is the definition of a managed city. The boulevards were created to direct traffic flow and to prevent insurrection, and at many places around the city they either replaced or cut through routes that had been used since the city first came into existence.

Which takes me back to the Cité Fenelon. Walking up Rue Milton, I glance down along the Cité Fenelon and see the bricked up passage. Although it is flanked on one side by a modern development, the cobblestone Cité Fenelon is clearly an ancient passage, but today it is just a short cul-de-sac. Although there is probably little mystery as to where the passage led (today we can just consult Google maps), I'm more interested in why it was taken out of existence.

Tunnels and passageways have always been significant constructions, provoking at once fascination and fear. They provide an entrance to something without us being aware of what is on the other side, but one that is bricked up is even more interesting as we do not even know what is inside. Fear comes from the darkness that often defines these constructions, but also perhaps from sexual connotations or from some kind of universal birth trauma. When such a passageway is blocked through human intervention in a city we feel frustration that we are being forced to take an alternative route, but perhaps also frustration that we cannot enter the passageway or tunnel itself.

Much as I would like this passageway to exist still, I can only imagine that it has been absorbed back into the building that housed it. There are other examples of similar passages in the area, such as the rather cut-throat Impasse Briare and it is possible that it was a smaller version of this impasse. When and why this occurred will perhaps always remain a mystery to me, but our imagination of what may be around us when it is dark is always more interesting than the reality of what we can see when the lights are on.

Monday 29 September 2008


Last week saw a general strike at La Poste with up to one in four of all postmen and women in France stopping work and marching against the possibility of a partial or complete privatisation of the service. Strikes are nothing new in France of course, but what interests me in this case is how the postal service worldwide is changing and what possible effect it may have on our cityscapes in the future.

Recently, I was with a colleague who wanted to post some letters. We'd been out for an hour at lunchtime, and it wasn't until we'd arrived back at the office that we found a postbox - just 10 metres from the front entrance of our office. French letterboxes are bright yellow, and although they are far smaller than the traditional English red pillarbox, they should in theory still be very noticeable in the street. However, perhaps because of some similar effect to the luminous clothing theory I mentioned before, or perhaps because we simply don't post letters anymore, they seem to have become invisible. There could be a letterbox every 50 metres, or they may all have been removed from Paris overnight and I wouldn't notice either way.

Whilst La Poste is obviously still an ongoing concern as a financial institution (it provides banking services for people who would not be able to open an account in a standard high street bank), and as a delivery of parcels and other non-standard communication, how many people today take the time to write a letter by hand, address an envelope, lick a stamp, paste it on the envelope then put the envelope into a postbox? And if postboxes are now so infrequently used, will they begin to disappear, and if they do, will we notice? Close to my office again I recently saw a phone box being dug out of the ground, lifted onto a truck and taken away. If I hadn't witnessed the event, I would never have known that the phone box had existed.

Further Information
I found a report produced by the Senate in France explaining the evolution of the service. It outlines how the actual postal and delivery service has been slowly declining, but also that it in fact only represents around 5% of the activity of La Poste.

To counter that report slightly, here's an interview with France's most famous postman, Olivier Besancenot.

Friday 26 September 2008

La Marché de la Madeleine

"You can't take photos of my customers" he said as I peered into his restaurant in the Marché de la Madeleine. Apparently I was far too visible, whilst his clients seemingly chose his restaurant for the secrecy it offered them. Perhaps he often has celebrities dining on his kebabs, or maybe his restaurant is known as being the perfect venue for managers to take secretaries for lunch.

"You can photograph my restaurant" he added, gesturing towards an empty area of seating. Fortunately, I was far more interested in this than who was or wasn't eating today, so I snapped away. The whole converted market area was of interest to me, but his unit intruiged me the most. The Marché de la Madeleine is not very well-known in Paris, and I had always assumed that it was a disused development until one day I decided to investigate and found the old market area still in existence. It was only on my second or third visit though that I even saw his restaurant, which is tucked away in a corner behind one of the Asian units.

Built some time in the 1930s, the marché can not have had a long life. As was the case with many of the covered markets in Paris, decline came when shopping habits changed, and Parisians found they no longer had time to purchase their produce from these places. Many of these buildings are empty shells now, but the Marché de la Madeleine found itself a new identity, ironically as a provider of fast-food to office workers. The original decoration is still in place, including wonderful tiled floors and columns, and hexagonal skylights that bathe the lunchtime diners in light, and fittingly, most of the units have been taken over by Asian traiteurs. Their signage marries perfectly with the origanal red units on which we can still see the 'fruits' and 'charcuterie' lettering, and the 1930s design adds an oriental grace to what are actually bog-standard chinese takeways.

But then in one corner, you stumble across his slightly incongruous restaurant. Besides the elegant units in chinese red, his unit looks a little like a 1960s London café. Green plastic chairs are lined up alongside wipe clean tables, and a large autumnul mural is splashed across a side wall. Outside of the unit, more chairs and tables are flanked by carpets that seem to have been tacked to the walls. It's scruffy yet unpretentiously welcoming.

I decided to stay for lunch, and I'll be back whenever I feel like being invisible.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

La Porte Joubert, Galeries Lafayette

Entering the Galeries Lafayette store by the Porte Joubert entrance is like taking a step back in time to 1975. Around this time, my brother, sister and I were often taken to the local Heelas department store in Reading by our Mum, and to me it was like a giant adventure playground. In those days, most High Street shops were fairly austere affairs, staffed by elderly men in suits or women with bouffant hairdos, and woebetide any child who stepped out of line! Heelas was different though as it was larger than almost any other building I'd ever been in. It had polished wooden staircases, a restaurant, a hair salon, and a seemingly never ending series of departments running into each other. In one there would be banks of televisions and radios, in another piles of brightly coloured carpets and rugs, whilst yet another had glistening shelves of china dishes and plates where my Mum would close her eyes and pray whilst we ran around in excitement. In fact, it was the avowed dream of the three of us to be forgotten by our Mum and shut inside the shop FOR A WHOLE NIGHT!

Each time I enter the Galeries Lafayette through this door, a little tingle of that excitement comes back. It is surprising that in the largest shop in Paris, and one which prides itself on being at the forefront of fashion, such a forgotten corner exists. The store still proudly displays much of its Art Nouveau heritage, but this is no deliberate display of splendour. Instead, it is perhaps the only part of the store which has not merited an upgrade since the 1970s.

The trip back to 1975 begins with gently sweeping staircase, which leads up to a clock and watch repair unit (charmingly called ‘La Marche du Temps’), a bank of plastic chairs and a row of public telephones. Another 20 metres through the toileteries and wig showroom takes you into the main shop and disappointly back to 2008. As you become absorbed into the flow of tourists through the Chanel, Cartier and Luis Vuiton units, the magic slips away and you become the adult consumer again, not the wonderstruck child.

The Heelas store in Reading still exists, although today it has taken on the uniform rebranding of the John Lewis group. It is twice as big as the store I knew, but only seems to be half the size of the shop in my memory. Little of that place remains, perhaps only the wooden staircases, but I'd still love to spend a night there!

Friday 19 September 2008

21 Rue Laffitte

(21 Rue Laffitte, 75009)
As any half-decent magician would be able to tell you, the simplest way to create the illusion of invisibility is to divert people’s attention elsewhere. This phenomenon explains perhaps why the building at n°21 Rue Laffitte is so little known in Paris.

Henry Miller wrote in Quiet Days in Clichy, “Looking towards the Sacré Coeur from any point along the rue Laffitte on a day like this, an hour like this, would be sufficient to put me in ecstasy“. The majority of people in Paris taking a stroll from Boulevard Haussmann down Rue Laffitte would be like Miller, and stare gormlessly up towards Notre Dame de Lorette and the kitsch christmas cake at the top of the hill. To do this though would be to miss an exceptional office development at number 21. To be fair to Miller, this building was not even there when he went on his drunken walks, but there’s no such excuse today.

To be truthful, Miller again was right when he wrote in Tropic of Cancer that “the Rue Laffitte...is just wide enough to frame the little temple at the end of the street and above it the Sacré-Cœur”. This vista, with Notre Dame de Lorette in the foreground and the Sacre Coeur in the background, is indeed impressive, but it is for the wrong reasons. Views such as this one were what was intended when the edifice was built, as it was created “pour le pardon de toutes les révolutions françaises“. In other words, its purpose was to cleanse the souls of the Parisian sinners who had revolted during the Commune of 1871, and the plan was that it should be visible as often as possible to as many as possible. The fact that it was such an architectural flop was just another slap in the face to the lowly Parisian.

This monument to guilt and repression contrasts sharply with the sprit of light and openess that consitutes the building that I’ll call N°21 (Does it have a name? Did it ever have a name?). What strikes you first is a feeling of space and airiness. The centre of Paris can be a claustrophobic experience, with narrow streets being flanked on both sides by uniform buildings that practically touch the road. The intention here though was clearly to take a step back from the street and open the building up to the visitor or passer by. You can actually see the sky here and take a deep breath, something that would probably be a good idea given the amount of greenery that has been incorporated into the design.

In fact, it seems that the intention was to produce the opposite of the traditional Parisian building. A classic French construction is to design a building with a fairly austere or impressive frontage, then create the space and greenery inside in the courtyard. Here, the building sits exactly where we could imagine the courtyard being situated, and the exterior, the area that would typically constitute the building, is a succession of terraces, gardens and sculptured walls. It is such a successful design that it could only have been the work of a renowned architect, and this is indeed the case.

Built in 1969, initially to provide a headquarters to the Banque Rothschild, it is today the HQ of a large French insurance and pension organisation. If it seems vaguely familiar or reminiscent of another construction, it may be because co-designer Max Abramovitz is also the pencil behind the United Nations building in New York.

A 40 year old office block is almost an incongruity today when typically they seem to have a life expectancy of 20 years or so before being torn down and rebuilt. However, this is a building which is only just reaching maturity, and although clearly of its time, it still remains handsome today. The gardens now flank the building impressively, and the terraces, with the splashes of trailing greenery, must be exactly how Abramovitz imagined them.

It is a building which is truly relevant to the Parisian worker today, and far more of a monument to these working classes than the garish blob beyond at the top of the hill.

Additional Information: For those people who are fans of Henry Miller, this site provides an excellent resource for his time spent in the city of Paris.

Stephen Gill

I'm rarely up to date with all that is happening in the UK, and it was only recently via a roundabout route that I discovered the photography of Stephen Gill. This was also the result of discovering the work of Jon Ronson very late too, particularly his series of radio shows, Jon Ronson On. Jon Ronson mentioned the photographs of Stephen Gill, notably his series Invisible, which naturally enough featured in the episode Jon Ronson on...How to be Invisible. I realise that I am about 3 years behind the times, but bare with me please!

I was particularly taken by the revelation that he "wears a fluorescent jacket when he's taking photographs and doesn't want to draw attention to himself". His subject in this book is in the city workers, the people who fix and repair and keep the city ticking over. He suggests that as we are not interested in them and what they do, they go unseen, despite the fact that they wear the brightest clothing possible. This disguise or invisibility has been noted by criminal gangs who have taken to wearing this form of clothing which makes it safer for them to operate in broad daylight than at night.

It struck me that his theory was in essence very similar to mine with a slightly different focus. Whilst my main interest is the invisible buildings of a city, he was interested in the invisible people. However, the reasons for this invisibility are largely similar. These are the workers, the people and objects that serve a very real purpose, and it is perhaps their usefulness that renders them invisible.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Le Grand Garage Haussmann

(43 Rue Laborde, 75008)
Typical visitors to Paris, if they were to think about the subject at all, may note how rare it is to see a car park in the city. It’s rather surprising therefore to discover an art deco car park, but almost equally surprising to see just how well it fits in to its environment. At first le Grand Garage Haussmann strikes you as a building that would be more at home in Miami, with its sculptured, almost completely glazed frontage, but take a step back and you can see how it has been designed to blend into its Parisian surroundings.

Being the same height and width as its typically Haussmannian neighbours, it doesn’t shock by its scale, and by hiding its principal activity (providing parking spaces for cars) behind frosted glass windows, it does not immediately reveal to passers by what its purpose is. Make no mistake though, behind this attractive façade is a thoroughly practical building.

Le Grand Garage Haussmann is quite clearly a pre-war construction. We can imagine what must have been a pure white paint job, with the red lettering and tablecloth tiling around the ground floor office adding a daring decorative touch. What is truly remarkable however is how little this building has changed since its inception. The façade is now showing the effects of years of polution, but the art deco block lettering has not changed, and the tiling is still in remarkable condition.

In fact, rather than a car park or garage, we can almost imagine this building to be a cinema or theatre, with the name of the latest show emblazoned across the front, and the name of the establishment running down the façade. It’s a proud building, and one that has been preserved by the fact that it has clearly served a useful purpose since it was built. Long may this continue!

Finally, if you ever wander past this building, make sure that you also visit the Ghisoni boulangerie further up the street, which serves fabulous Corsican sandwiches.

Related information:
The 20th century garage building boom has been much decried, but recently there have been moves to celebrate these sometimes iconic modern constructions. The most notable exponent has been Simon Henley’s “The Architecture of Parking”. (
Read an interview, buy the book, or look at some extracts).

In this book, he praises the very nature of car parks, which are often damp, poorly lit spaces, and rejoices in their gothic, film noir atmosphere. I’m not sure what he’d make of the Grand Garage Haussmann though as it’s about as far as you can get from this picture in the car park world. Being almost entirely glazed, the light surely floods into the parking areas, and being above ground, condensation cannot not be a problem either. Rather than a film noir, it would probably be more suited to a gentle romantic comedy!

Invisible Cities

One of my favourite books is a little known story called "The Glamour" by Christopher Priest. Without giving too much away, it centres on observation and memory. Basically, it suggests that there are many blindspots in our lives, and plays with our perceptions of what we see and remember.

My theory is that we react with cities in the same way. Paris, where I live, is one of the few cities that most people would be able to imagine even if they'd never visited, and when they do visit, it largely lives up to those expectations. It's like the ‘Paris’ featured in Ratatouille - it isn't the real Paris, but it just feels like Paris when you watch the film. All they needed to do this was put in a couple of iconic buildings, such as the Eiffel tower, a river with a couple of quais, and fill up the rest with vaguely Haussmannian looking blocks.

The reason for this blog though is to celebrate the bits of Paris that don't fit this mould. I think of them as being invisible because most people either visiting the city or living in the city just walk past without even noticing them. To me though, they are the parts of Paris that I take most interest in today. I would compare it to sharing a house with a group of top models. At first you are overwhelmed by the beauty, but after a few weeks, its the imperfections that become interesting. After a couple of years, its the imperfections that become beautiful.

Paris is often described today as being a 'ville musée' or a city museum. I'm interested in the life that exists outside of the museum; the 1960s office blocks, the 1930s garages, the underground canteens that haven't been renovated since they were created. I'll use this blog to chronicle and celebrate these elements before they disappear and become another branch of Starbucks.

I hope that this won’t be confused with the glut of ‘Secret Paris’ books that have appeared in recent years, which have either highlighted areas, shops or restaurants that most people who live here already know about, or which celebrate slightly off the beaten track but still completely bourgeois locations. I can appreciate these places of course, but being secret is not being invisible.
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