Friday 28 November 2008

Another Brick Lane

(Rue de Pontoise, 75005)
After declaring my love for brick on this blog, like an obsessed suitor I've now started to see it popping up all over the city. Along the Rue de Chateaudun a red chimney stack spine running up through the grey stone side of a building. Opposite, in a structure being rehabilitated, flashes of brick nudity on partially undressed walls. Walking aong one street though, I discover a fascinating trio of brick constructions which reveal much about the history of the material in Paris.

The Rue de Pontoise in Paris runs down to the Seine across the Boulevard St Germain from just adjacent to the Mutualite building. A rather insignificant street, it nevertheless offers several points of interest. The most well known structure in this passage is the Piscine Pontoise, a swimming pool designed by the architect Lucien Pollet in 1933. Whilst the brick façade is of a rather standard design, it is inside that the architect hid the jewells. Art deco tiling runs throughout the building, but what catches the eye most are the two balconies surrounding the pool, each offering individual changing units. This unusual structure gave a melancholic and slightly threatening backdrop to Kieslowski’s film "Bleu".

Behind the Piscine Pontoise you can just catch glimpses of the newly renovated Collège des Bernardins, a medieval monastry and centre of learning. The spotlessly new terracotta tiles on the roof of this building give an attractive background to the Piscine, but what really catches my eye is this magnificent brick chimney, stretching up to catch the last rays of afternoon sun.

Either side of the piscine are two more fascinating structures. On the corner of the Rue de Pontoise and the Boulevard St Germain, a building cut away from its bretheren and left to stand and guard this spot alone (see photo at the beginning of the post). From this angle, it gives a very curious perspective, appearing almost knife thin, but what interests me most is how it displays parts of the construction that were originally designed to be hidden away. Behind the classic Haussmannian façade we can now see the rear of the building and the rather shameful brick wall and bathroom windows. I’m not sure what would have originally hidden this view, but it feels almost voyeuristic to observe it today.

Flanking the piscine on the other side, a more typical later use of brick, but this time in a most unusual design. From the early decades of the 20th century, brick was the material of choice for municipal buildings, and many schools appeared sporting this element. Typically, these structures were in art deco or more modernist forms, but the school in the Rue de Pontoise is in a decorative, italianate form. The building features many elements typical of this style, such as projecting, over-hanging eaves and arch-headed windows. Even the brickwork is more ornamental than is usual, incorporating a fresque, and a wide selection of coloured bricks, ranging from deep blues to delicate pinks. It is further evidence if evidence is needed of just how flexible and multi-functional this material is.

If you are interested in brick and find yourself in this area, two other structures should be of interest. Firstly, a fantastic and imposing ‘ilot’ building behind the Maubert Mutualité market on the Boulevard St Germain. Secondly, further along the Boulevard Saint-Germain at number 57, the Ecole Supérieure des Travaux Publics.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

The Day the Music Died

(Jussieu Music, 75005)
A long, long time ago the playing of music was based on the revolutions of a disc, but the children of the digital revolution have brought this cycle to an end. The world of music has always been a helter-skelter of cyclical fashions, but the changes today are so radical that we are still not sure what the musical landscape will look like when we get to the bottom. In the city, the first victims of this revolution have clearly been the independent music retailers. Walking along Rue Linné I see bad news on the doorstep - Jussieu music has closed. I can't remember if I cried, but something touched me deep inside.

Being a child of small town suburbia, I grew up thinking that choice was what the major chainstores could provide. Their stock could satisfy my teenage kicks whilst my musical tastes remained mainstream, but when my choices moved more leftfield and I began looking away from current fashions towards the back catalogues, and I began to see that I was lost in the High Street.

Fortunately, around this time I moved to Paris and I discovered a world of small, independent retailers. Each shop had its specialties and idiosyncrasies but all stocked huge ranges of discs, both new and second hand and sometimes more excitingly, dirt cheap pre-release discs sold on to them by music industry insiders. The golden triangle for an afternoon of browsing was Gibert Jeune, Crocodisc, and best of all, Jussieu music. I rarely went to these shops with specific ideas for purchases in mind, but instead flicked through the rows, boxes and shelves of discs, picking out things that interested me, hunting for elusive 69 Franc bargains. It was only rock and roll, but I liked it.

How quickly our youth and young manhood disappears! Today music is streamed in bits and bytes. Slash and burn then return, listen to those notes churn. Do we know what true music sounds like anymore? Files are shared, but music is stuck in individual pods. We've entered a world where quality is less important than the number of titles we can carry around with us, and how easily we can skip and shuffle. Do we still believe that music can save our mortal soul? Here we are all in one place, a generation lost in My Space.

Back to Rue Linné, and the sad sight of the four shops of the Jussieu music empire with the shutters down. What a waste! Once four proud horsemen, now a true apocalypse. It's the end of this world as we know it, and I don't really feel fine. It's coming like a ghost town, all the music shops have been closed down.

It now seems such a long, long time ago, but I'll always remember the good old days when the music played, and how that music used to make me smile. Now it's all so quiet.

Thanks to Tim for suggesting the subject. Now see if you can earn yourself more points by finding all the songs in the post!

Sunday 23 November 2008

A Question of Perspective

Walking around Paris, it is easy to consider yourself as a kind of time-traveller. If you use your imagination just a little and block out the most ostentatious elements of the 20th and 21st centuries, you can almost believe that you are experiencing exactly the same city as inhabitants from hundreds of years ago. But how do we know exactly how our ancestors saw and experienced the city? Standing on the Parvis of Notre Dame today, we may have the impression that we are stepping in the footprints of visitors from centuries ago, seeing the same things that they observed, but here we would be very much mistaken.

In 1865, the Baron Haussmann completely recreated the parvis and other areas surrounding Notre Dame, tearing down all the medieval buildings that blocked a broad perspective of the Cathedral. The radical changes imposed by Haussmann have always proved controversial, perhaps nowhere more so than here. As the situationist Guy Debord wrote, “..from any standpoint other than that of facilitating police control, Haussmann’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Interestingly for the situationists, Haussmann also built a new police headquarters and law courts on the Ile de la Cité, making it in many ways represent the controversial trinity of the law, the state and religion.

It is the parvis though which has altered our perception of this historic monument. Called a “lake of asphalt” by the French historian Jacques Hillairet, he also notes that the current day parvis is six times bigger today than it was in the middle ages. Hillairet continues, exclaiming that Notre Dame “was originally constructed in order to be seen from the foot of its towers and not from the end of the present empty space. This view minimizes it”. If we look at Google maps, and compare Notre Dame with two other famous cathedrals in France, we see just how radical Haussmann’s renovations were.

In the first picture, we see that the parvis at Notre Dame is at least as long as the church itself. At Reims in the second picture, the parvis is an insignificant oblong form. Finally, at Strasbourg, the imposing gothic cathedral has almost no parvis at all, instead being tightly surrounded on three sides by other buildings.

Was the intention of Haussmann purely one of perspective? In fact, the previous perspective of the cathedral had long since stopped impressing the Parisians. The church had fallen out of popularity at the end of the middle-ages, and was already in a state of severe disrepair when the French Revolution occurred. With the old order temporarily defeated, Notre Dame narrowly avoided being demolished altogether when it was sold off, until further political revolutions finally stopped this from happening. The new revolutionary order did though pull down all the statues carved into the outside of the church and sell off many of its treasures.

Finally, it was Victor Hugo who did much to bring the edifice back into the hearts of the public following the publication of his famous story, Notre Dame de Paris. Haussmann then delivered perhaps what the public of the day wanted, and probably what many tourists today appreciate. When these tourists line up at the end of the Parvis, or the Pont St Michel to take photos though perhaps they are not aware that they are actually photographing history from a very modern perspective.

Further Information:
Following Alain's very interesting comment, I looked again on Google and found the markings he refers to. On this picture below, you can see a narrow road leading up to the church, and just how close to the church the original buildings were. The map beneath dating from the beginning of the 17th Century indicates that the street was called aptly enough, Rue Notre Dame. The map also seems to suggest that the original Hotel Dieu (hospital) was situated on the other side of the parvis, alongside the river.

Friday 21 November 2008

The City Sole Healers

Whilst Paris has largely managed to avoid the worldwide slide of cities towards an inter-changeable identikit identity, it remains a city, and necessarily shares some aspects of life that have evolved in these large communities. Cities are machines that function in mostly the same universal manner, housing certain trades that are entirely suited to the lives and needs of the inhabitants. Stop almost any person moving around a metropole and you’ll find they have two objects in common; a set of keys and a pair of shoes.

With this in mind, walk around almost any city and you may begin to notice two things. Firstly, shoe repairers are also specialists in key cutting, and secondly almost all of these shops seem to date back to at least the 1960s. Whilst most places in a city are involved in a constant struggle to adapt and keep up with fashions, the simple shoe repairer has quietly gone about his business. Why think about fashion when fashion does not exist in this trade?

A shoe or a key is a simple, universal object that has not changed to any great extent in centuries. Although we may now speak of biometric security, keys are still the keepers of the city door, and they still look much like they did in the middle ages. Our feet may be dressed today in more sporty models than in the past, but they are still functional items that have the same attributes as their ancestors - a heel, a sole, insoles and laces. When a lock changes or a heel breaks, we do not care about finding a modern, attractive store for our need, but someone who can offer us a quick service at a reasonable price.

Around Paris, I find shops that seemingly cornered the local market in the 50s and 60s and have kept their position in the community ever since. Where individuals may have retired, others have taken over the business and have seen no reason to renovate a fully-functional store. What would be the point when the machinery is still operating and a steady stream of people continues to use the service?

In many ways it is the ideal city business. Initial investment in tools and materials is low, and the shop can be set up in the smallest, low-rent units. It can be a one-person occupation with limited need for additional staff, and offers a steady stream of income with no need for continual occupational training. Storekeepers can keep stock for almost indefinite periods, and offer a service that people will never be able to reproduce in their own homes. For these reasons, it has often been a service provided by immigrants into a city, although with saturation levels reached many years ago in Paris, it is only through the purchase of existing units that the recent arrival can set up shop today.

What may be unique to Paris is the fact that no chain store franchising system is involved. These are individual businesses with a unique story attached to each shop, but what they share is their physical appearance. Whilst most of the street facades present a kind of faceless modernism, here are tiny throwbacks to what the city looked like 40 or 50 years ago. Typical shop logos and font types are constantly and imperceptibly altered, but these city survivors offer us a trip back through the history of post-war design as well as their more traditional, valuable service!

Wednesday 19 November 2008

…and the Baron Brick (Part 2)

(Ctd from Part 1)

There is something intrinsically comforting about the impeccably designed, immensely tactile brick. Thousands of years of experience have made them hand-sized, enabling a builder to grasp one in one hand and still have another hand free to apply the trowel of cement. The metallic scrape of the trowel on the brick’s surface, then the chink of one brick being placed on top of another is an urban symphony. In the hand they offer a satisfying, not too heavy weight, a scratchy roughness and a warm smell of burnt-pink dustiness. They are one of man’s ultimate creations, so much so that today they look and feel like an extension of nature.

Walking forward in time along the Rue de la Tour des Dames towards the Trinité church, my heart leaps as I see two brick buildings. At Number 11, a 19th century house, and sitting opposite at Number 16, pure 20th century industrial. The house is a different creature to the ladies at the top of the street, but this is not to say that the building is free from adornment. The Flemish-style gables and cream trimmings set against the carnelian brick red make this a most handsome structure. Across the street, a gutted electricity building caught on the cusp of art-deco and modernist. Constructed in several materials, it uses brick as decoration, perhaps to present a kind of working-class solidarity, or perhaps just to mirror the house opposite. These were buildings designed for a purpose; one to provide electricity, and one as a machine for living in.

Like their sisters at the top of the street, neither of these buildings functions today according to the original intended purpose. Number 16 was recently ceded by the EDF electricity company to the city of Paris, and is currently home to an information centre on renewable energy forms, but is earmarked for further development, possibly into a sports centre. Number 11, with its more classical forms, has become offices.

As these buildings prove, brick is eminently adaptable, but they are also pointers to the troubled history the material has had in France and Paris. Originally brought into the country by the Romans, brick was largely forgotten again until the 14th century, but then rose again to ultimately reach a pinnacle in the 17th century, most notably at the Place des Vosges. Since this period, brick has made sporadic appearances, but has largely been supplanted by the abundant natural stone to be found in the country. Paris itself is built on top of cavernous stone quarries which have provided much of the sandy white stone seen on the buildings in the city today.

In the 19th century brick was still frequently used as a building material, but almost always covered over with a plaster cladding. This house in the Rue de la Tour des Dames is therefore a true rarity, proudly baring its red skeleton to the world.

The early decades of the 20th century saw brick make a grand comeback in the city, but almost entirely on municipal buildings, particularly the swathes of social HBM housing around the edges of the city. In these more recent times though, brick has suffered on two fronts. Whilst it has largely been snubbed as a material by the rich since the 17th century, it also became deeply unfashionable in modernist circles. In the United Kingdom where brick has always reigned supreme, it became a class issue; being a material for the masses it was too lowly for the wealthy. It even became a 20th Century insult, with the term ‘Red-brick Universities’ given to the more modern schools, belittling them in comparison to the classical stone of Oxford and Cambridge.

Post-war, the modernists also rejected brick, believing it to be old-fashioned, and a symbol of traditional and pre-industrial technology. The modernists advocated the revolutionary new materials of glass, steel, and concrete, and when brick walls could not be avoided, they were rendered neutral with a coat of plaster or concrete cladding.

Today it is often considered an impractical material, certainly for the larger scale structures that are likely to appear in a city. It became easier to build higher and more quickly with the more modern materials, so much so that it lead the architect Louis Kahn to ask the famous question “what do you want brick?”. Kahn believed that brick would answer “I Like an arch”, meaning that it is flexible, wants to be seen, and can be decorative. Its simplicity, reasonable cost and solidity make it still practical, but perhaps it is through its aesthetic that it still makes its best case. Looking at these buildings in front of me, I can’t help but wonder if concrete and glass really are the answer to all today’s construction conundrums.

Further Information:
If anybody can give me any more information about the building at Number 11 I’d be very interested!

For examples of how flexible brick can be in construction, click here.

For more information on a very interesting book on the subject of brick in Paris, click here.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Great Dames...(Part 1)

(Rue de la Tour des Dames, 75009)
At the eastern end of the Rue de la Tour des Dames near the Trinité church stand a group of elegant Parisian ladies. These are not the ‘dames’ mentioned in the street name, but a collection of townhouses built when this area was the most fashionable part of Paris. Known as ‘la Nouvelle Athènes’ or new Athens, the streets in this district were home to a community of artists, writers, actors and composers, who used their restoration wealth to construct neo-classical follies.

The Tour des Dames mentioned is in fact a throwback to pre-revolutionary times. The Tour (tower) was a windmill found in this area which belonged to the ladies of the Montmartre Abbey, situated further up the hill from this spot. This place of religion and aristocratic privilege sheltered generations of ‘Abbesses’ (another street name in this part of Paris) and nuns until revolution came at the end of the eighteenth century. The last sister was named Louise de Montmorency-Laval, and neither her position nor her age, nor even the fact that she was blind, deaf and handicapped prevented her from joining thousands of other female representatives of the previous order at the guillotine. Worse, she was condemned for having ‘plotted silently and blindly against the Republic’.

The Abbey was destroyed and the windmill removed, but the area retained a rural feel. Less than thirty years later, after the failure of the first Republic and the restoration of the monarchy, a new kind of female resident began to arrive and construction began again. These were actresses at the Comédie Française, the wives of painters or, slightly later, writers such as Georges Sand. Given the power to design and create, they built a small community of elegant, curved, sometimes brightly coloured properties, and enjoyed the limelight of Paris for most of the nineteenth century.

Today these streets are quiet, although some properties such as the Musée de la Vie Romantique and the Musée Gustave Moreau retain their original decoration and character. The other ladies have retired from artistic life and have been converted to the more staid worlds of law, finance and insurance. In the Rue de la Tour des Dames, these ladies look forlornly at each other, perhaps discussing past times when they were young, beautiful and fashionable before they were upstaged by younger rivals in other parts of the city.

These houses are still in many ways the epitome of the Parisian lady. Gently crafted, elegant and perfectly formed, they nevertheless today present a face of cold indifference to the world. Some hide away their charms behind fences, whilst others have disguised their interior behind softly painted facades. As I walk along the street and admire them, they do not even acknowledge my existence.

I know why this is though. It is because I am brick. I was born in brick, brought up in brick, went to school in brick, and brick is in my DNA. It is part of me, and sometimes in Paris I miss having it around.

(To be continued…)

Monday 17 November 2008

Postcards from the City

If you want a comprehensive and detailed history of a city and would like to see how fashions and technology have evolved over the last century, ask a deltiologist. In Paris, the deltiologists, or postcard collectors to give them a simpler name, congregate around the Carré Marigny on the Avenue Gabriel behind the President’s residence. This piece of land just off the Champs Elysées was given to the city of Paris by a rich stamp collector in 1887 with the condition that the city allow the land to be used by the stamp collecting community. It branched out in the 20th century to include postcards and other collectibles, and is still lively when in use, which today is Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays.

I never understood stamp collecting, but I had a small postcard collection, made up of purchases I’d made on summer holidays. I generally purchased one type, a kind of cartoon style map of regions we’d visited, with a comical smiling sun in one corner. Collecting for me though only seemed reasonable if there was a defined number of objects, such as Panini football stickers, and I soon realised that postcard collecting would be an impossible and never ending task. So I grew older and stopped.

One person who has never stopped though is the British photographer Martin Parr. For nearly 40 years he has built up a formidable collection, numbering over 40,000 weird, wonderful and downright ordinary images, 750 of which he has published in a collection of books. The best known cards in his collection are probably those from a selection which he has labelled boring postcards, which are generally pictures of city modernity, including motorways, service stations and concrete shopping centres. For Parr, the postcard itself is an object of art, and the stories they tell are of endless fascination.

Postcards have rarely been produced without reason. Even the most banal items in Parr's collection are mementos of not so long ago times when people felt great pride in freshly constructed roads or new concrete municipality. It is a reflection of the fact that the postcard has always been as much about documenting as it has about communicating. In the early years of photography, daily newspapers were not technically able to print photographs, but postcards could be produced quickly and inexpensively. This led to an enormous demand for pictures of recent newsworthy events, but also of snapshots of the environments in which people lived, their buildings, streets, parks and shops, and collections began.

Being cheaper to send than letters, a postcard became almost the equivilent of today’s text messages or e-mails. This was a time when postal deliveries were assured several times a day, making it possible to send a card to someone in the same city and receive an answer within hours. In the early years of the 20th century, tens of millions of postcards were being processed by postal systems each week.

Is there a future for postcards in today’s world? Although we are always connected to some form of communication, and despite the ubiquitous nature of cameras, I believe there is a future simply because I still believe in the power of the postcard. They are classic items of design, retaining a size and form which has remained constant. They are also artificial, false representations of what we see, making them impossible to reproduce. They provide idealised versions of reality, taken at impractical hours of the day, from impossible angles with doctored, altered colours. It is for these reasons that they remain fascinating.

Friday 14 November 2008

Paranoid Park

(Square Alex Biscarre, 75009)
Parisian parks and gardens are another classic example of the French paradox. Often heart-breakingly beautiful, they are also often fantastically impractical and over-regulated. Like many aspects of the city, they are there primarily to be looked at, and not somewhere that you can run around and enjoy yourself. In case you should be in any doubt about the purpose of these facilities, the city of Paris displays a full list of rules and by-laws to explain exactly how you should be using them at the entrance of each park. Unfortunately once again, although the frame in which this list is displayed is wonderful, the protective grill covering the tiny characters makes it impossible to read.

The Square Alex Biscarre is a classic case in point. It is a tiny, tidy pocket of peace, hidden away behind a metal fence, but push through the swing gates and the first thing you see is the list of reglements. Just what by-laws could you possibly break in such a small space? In fact, this garden only seems to have two purposes. To the right as you enter, a small, sandy play area gives young children somewhere to burn off energy, but the rest of the park is simply a circle of benches where people can sit and observe a patch of grass.

This garden is a mature one with trees dating from the 19th century, testament to the fact that these were once the private gardens of the Hotel Thiers. This fine building was destroyed by the Communards in 1871, but later rebuilt and it now houses a library which calmly overlooks the park. The city deciders obviously felt that it resembled an English garden and thus honoured it with the word ‘Square’ when they transformed it into its present form.

The choice of this English word though is somewhat ironic. France and England are less than 20 miles apart at the narrowest point, but somehow the ability to grow and maintain grass has not managed to cross the Channel. In France, grass cannot be both admired and used, so it is simply reserved for the eyes. How can the grass of London parks survive football matches and picnics, but Parisian grass be so delicate? In this particular Square, the grass is the principal attraction which the lunchtime benchwarmers gather around. They observe the lush, green fenced in feature as if it were an exotic beast in a zoo.

Today though when I visit, it is the scene of a revolution. Sitting in the middle of the grass is an old, sponge football. There are only two other people in the park with me, and the owner of the ball is nowhere to be seen. Has the child broken a sacred law and been whisked off somewhere for punishment? It takes me back to my childhood and the times when I looked forlornly at a miss-hit ball sitting guiltily in the pristine and forbidden garden next door. Did the owner of this ball attempt a daring rescue or simply admit defeat and go off to purchase another toy?

Wednesday 12 November 2008

The Colour of Memory

Winter hangs over the city, and the lights have been switched off. In the natural world, a full year takes us through an entire palette of spring greens, summer yellows, autumn reds and winter whites, but Paris is anything but a natural environment. In our manufactured city terrains, devoid of life's primitive pointers, we seem to have settled on an ever-decreasing range of tones and hues. When did we decide to remove colour from our lives and who made the decision?

In the monochrome city streets, we scuttle about, pulling our grey coat collars up to protect ourselves from the chill and trying to avoid placing our black shoes into puddles. Traffic rumbles down the street in front of us, a procession of identikit cars in a narrow range of metallic blues, greys and silvers. When did they stop making them in yellows, oranges or greens? Take the steps down, underground to the bright lights of the Paris Metro though and we discover a land where colours still exist and resist.

Visiting the different stations in the system is like taking a voyage back in time through the history of 20th century design. Helpfully, the RATP celebrated its centenary in the year 2000 by pointing out the architectural heritage of its equipment, with signs explaining the history and origins of a very wide range of objects from logos to plastic seats. Metro stations are usually places where we try to spend as little time as possible, but the RATP have shown us that we are actually travelling through a living museum.

On stations along the Line 12 for example, attention is drawn to some early decorative touches along the passageways. This line was originally operated by the Nord/Sud company, one of the two original underground transport operators in the city, and they seemingly paid more attention to design than their competitor, the CMP. At Madeleine you can observe an attractive wave frieze which runs along the corridors and around the advertising poster frames in a very pretty, delicate jade green. At the top of many of the frames, the original N/S logo can still be seen.

Move forward in time to the Line 9. A child of the 1920s, many of the stations along this line nevertheless sport the bold oranges and primary reds of the 1970s. The Havre-Caumartin station displays the classic designs of Jean-Andre Motte, which represented a desire to incorporate modern materials into the system. The individual, extremely functional plastic seat is the most famous remnant of this era, and it can still be found in a range of colours across the city. The sunshine orange and yellow tiling though is in greater danger of extinction.

Finally, to the end of the century, and the Line 14. 10 years old this year, but already looking curiously dated, like a 1950s vision of what the year 2000 would look like. It is a dimly lit world devoid of any noticeable features. The tiles have become heavy, grey granite slabs, barriers are in transparent plexiglas and the seating just simple wooden slats on thin strips of metal.

The RATP is fully aware of its design heritage, but who chooses what survives and what is discarded? The Metro system is currently undergoing massive refurbishment, with the intention of renovating every station over a 5-10 year period, but the goal of this operation is seemingly to introduce a white, hospital sterility to the tunnels and platforms. Will there always be a place for the 1970s oranges, or will they follow lime-green Ford Cortinas to the design scrapheap?

Sunday 9 November 2008

Pro Patria Mori

The eleventh day of the eleventh month is better known as the Armistace, the day when the First World War was finally brought to an end. It is a public holiday in France, and will be especially poignant this year as 2008 marks the 90th anniversary of the agreement. Paris does not have a monument to commemorate this conflict, but there is one place in the city you can visit which is still imbued with memories – the Gare de l’Est.

The war ended famously in a train carriage in the forests of Compiegne just outside Paris, but for many it also began in trains, at the Gare de l’Est. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were sent out to the eastern front-lines from this station, and the Hall des Departs was a permanent buzz of comings and goings. Despite a recent renovation to welcome the TGV Est, this departure hall retains its original structure, and you can still imagine young recruits joking and laughing, couples saying tearful goodbyes and children waving to disappearing fathers. Most thought these separations would be simply an au revoir, but for more than 1 million French soldiers, it was an adieu.

The significance of this site is celebrated in a painting which still hangs today in the hall, although it now has to compete with the bright lights of retail outlets and flashing information screens. Most visitors to the station rush through, perhaps quickly grabbing a drink or a magazine before catching a train, but this immense, remarkable painting, entitled ‘Le Depart des Poilus, le 2 aout 1914’, deserves greater consideration.

The canvas, more than 60m2 in size, is the work of the American artist, Albert Herter. He presented it to the company running the station in 1926, but it was more than just a generous gift. Herter lost a son in the conflict, and the painting is a monumental tribute to his memory. Executed in soft, melancholic blues, greys and browns, it describes a scene which would have been a typical one in this railway location during the conflict.

When we investigate more closely however, we find that it contains not only universal themes but also intensely personal details. It is in fact a fantastic montage built around a triangular trinity of the father, the mother and the departing, soon to be dearly departed son. The artist/father is on the right-hand side, whilst his wife (the artist Adele McGinnis Herter) is facing him on the opposite side of the painting. Both seem to already be in mourning, with the father carrying a bouquet of flowers, hand upon heart, and the mother clasping her hands together. They seem elderly, certainly older than they would have been in 1914, and probably closer to their physical appearance in 1926.

It is the son, Everit, however who is the principal, central focus of the composition. At first glance he seems triumphant and unconcerned, with his arms held aloft whilst people at his feet weep and embrace. Look more closely though, and you’ll notice the flowers sticking out of the rifle in his hand and his head thrown back. With the knowledge of what became of Everit in mind, you may notice that his arms form a cross, and that he seems almost to be a Christ-like, sacrificial figure.

Everit Herter, like his father and mother before him, had chosen an artistic path, and had studied to be a painter. His privileged background offered him no protection, and indeed it was almost a rite of passage for the wealthy young men of his generation to sign up for this ‘just’ cause. His father had spent several years in France, and perhaps this explains why Everit signed up with the French army. Tragically, Everit was killed only months before the armistice. He was one of the wasted generation, but a spark of that youth is forever immortalised through the defiant figure depicted in this painting.

Friday 7 November 2008

The Poetry of Pavements

Paris city pavement, so abused and trampled underfoot. We walk on you, head in the clouds, rushing to school, running for a bus or just dragging our tired, old bones back home. We look at our watches, glimpse into shop windows and just try to avoid colliding with each other, but we never look down at you, poor pavement at our feet.

In the city, your surface is an obstacle course of chewing gum, strewn motorbikes and canine waste. If we look carefully though, we’ll see that you also proudly present to us a curious world of markings, messages and symbols. You are not just a street for feet, but also a roof over a land of tunnels, gas pipes and electric cables. The windows to this world are the messages that engineers pass on to each other, making you also a kind of urban macadam blackboard. These messages are often just date-stamps, but sometimes the symbols have a graphic, almost mysterious beauty.

The bright colours and bold forms of these symbols almost seem to be designed to attract the eyes of children. What do you look like to children? I grew up in a small-town suburb on a quiet side road and had time to investigate you in minute detail. I could crouch down and watch the nests ants had built in you, or just sit and pick at bits of you when you melted on hot summer days. Is it possible to do this in the rush of a city? I wandered around your dull, quiet lengths, seeing significance in everything I passed. Markings on the trees that pushed through you were actually messages being passed between smugglers, and the sticks scattered along you were leading me towards their lair. Do city children read similar messages in the markings we have left on you?

It was not intended, but you have always been a playground for children. In urban environments, you are the track on which we make our first tentative revolutions on bikes, stabilisers removed and parents running behind. We skip on you, and chalk out the shapes of our games. You are a safe zone next to the danger of the road, but in Paris, you seem to be just too busy for children. Cities give little opportunity for adventure, but children could adopt you and include you in their imagined outdoor worlds. Instead they are encouraged to stay indoors, look at you from above and explore virtual digital worlds.

Yet in Paris, you are still awash with life. You are a gathering space for bored teenagers and an observation point for clients at bars and restaurants. You are the working territory of people selling their bodies and people selling illicit substances. You are a giant canvas for artists. You are where we are stopped and asked for money or opinions. You provide additional browsing space for shops and give a home to phone booths and letter boxes. You are one of the last free territories for smokers, who are now forced outside to stand on you in guilty groups. On rainy evenings you are our reflection, a watery neon mirror. You even provide a bed for the night for those who have run out of other choices. You are the city, and we should not forget you.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

15-20 Vision

At the scrubby Bastille end of the Viaduc des Arts is Europe’s biggest Eye Hospital, the Quinze-Vingts. Looking across the underground car parks and rubbish strewn concrete wastelands to the untidy collection of buildings that make up this institution, a silly pun pops into my head. Is this sight for sore eyes or a site that has become an eyesore? For those in Paris with ocular defects at least, it is an electric blue beacon of light.

The hospital is trapped in a vicious triangle between the Viaduc des Arts and the Opéra Bastille, and finding the entrance is difficult even for those with perfect vision. Cities do their best to get us lost, bombarding us with a quantity of visual stimuli that is too great for our eyes and brains to cope with. Just to advance along a street we need to constantly filter what we see, but this process of filtering means that much of our environment becomes invisible.

I eventually find the entrance on the Rue de Charenton, curiously an ancient stone gateway, which leads me through to pure 1960s brutalism. I have found the hospital, but still don’t see the logic in the cryptic name of the establishment. Later I discover that it is in fact a remnant of a bizarre system of medieval counting, representing three hundred (15x20), the number of beds planned for the original hospital building.

This is an institution that can look back at a very long history. Louis IX (Saint Louis) created the original Quinze-Vingts hospital in 1260, partly to look after the blind people of Paris but principally for another reason. This was a time of crusades, and many of the soldiers returning with him from the Orient were suffering from one particular affliction - blindness. The defending Saracen armies had chosen a gruesome message to send to others who were thinking of enforcing the message of Christianity. Captured invaders would have their eyes gouged, but their lives spared. Christ may be the light and the way, but those who came to attack wouldn't be able to see it.

The hospital eventually moved to its current plot in 1780, but most of the buildings on site today date from the 1950s and 60s. The architects of this post-war rebuild apparently decided to make the hospital as visible as possible in its landscape, dressing the buildings in cornflower blues and concrete honeycombs. A classical statue of Louis IX on an art-deco pedestal faces away from the hospital, and these are indeed not buildings to be admired from the outside. This is an establishment for tired eyes though, and a clever system of blinds and shuttering ensure that it is a healing one.

On the eastern side of the plot, new University and Research buildings are springing up. Today's architects seem to have a different view to their predecessors, and these are sleek, glazed structures. The most spectacular is the recently opened Institut de la Vision, an ironic name for a building that wants to be invisible. The blue reflections of the older buildings merge into reflections of a cloudy white haze, as the building disappears into the sky.

Looking back to the Eye Hospital, I can't help but think of the Day of the Triffids, a story which asks how long we would survive as a species if our sight was snatched away from us overnight. Sight is our most abused sense, but also the most abusive, limiting the power of the four others. Inside the buildings of this hospital, the afflicted are perhaps being protected from the destructive spectacles of the outside world. Without eyes, we lose the superficiality of sight and are forced to concentrate on other stimuli. Without sight, we learn to listen more, and when we listen we think more clearly. To see is to understand, but what use are our eyes if we don't make the effort to understand what we see?

Saturday 1 November 2008

Statue at Liberty

(Bd de Clichy, 75018)
A plinth without a statue is a sad sight, but on the Boulevard de Clichy there is one which has been transformed into a curious piece of street furniture. This plinth features a metal staircase leading towards a plexiglas box perched up on top. This strange set up is in fact an unofficial art installation, a creation to tempt passers-by to climb up and be famous for 15 seconds. The city of Paris though has sealed off access to the box and has yet to decide what action it will take, but the debate it has stirred is simply another installment in the bizarre history of Charles Fourier and his statue. Who was this rather controversial character though and why did he disappear from the plinth?

Charles Fourier, though little known today, is considered to be an early socialist, utopist and feminist. He was born in 1772 in Besançon, but he formulated most of his theories whilst working as a travelling salesman throughout France. With no formal classical education, Fourier was the archetypal self-made man, and his ideas sprang from the many encounters he made on the road as well as what he was able to read in his spare time. By the time of his death in 1837, he had managed to create several volumes of work, most notably his theory of the ‘quatre mouvements’ (four movements).

Today, his rather precise findings and recommendations make him seem more like a guru than a philosopher. He described how each individual in society should live, notably in four-level appartment buildings with the richest at the top and the poorest at the bottom. His links to early socialists came from his recommendation that every worker should have a decent wage, and that those doing the most indecent jobs should be paid the most. He is also considered by many to be the originator of the word feminism, which came from his insistence that society could only advance if women were able to play a fully active part. His radical free-thinking however upset many groups, with his theories on Jewish people and his avocation of complete sexual freedom being the most divisive.

His findings did however find a wide audience, notably in America where branches of his ‘cult’ quickly developed, and there was a particularly well-known attempt to build a Fourieresque society in Utopia, Ohio. His renown grew throughout the 19th century, and in an era of statuemania, a group of his followers set out to create a permanent memorial in Paris. After many years of discussions and fund-raising, the Fourier group eventually gathered enough money together, and his bronze was added to the Place de Clichy streetscape in 1899.

The statue though was never particularly successful. It was disliked by the local community and was not recognised by the majority of the Fourier followers who preferred to gather around his tomb in the nearby Montmartre cemetery. It was a rather large, gloomy representation of the man, and featured a long and obscure inscription that people struggled to understand. The statue nevertheless survived until 1941 when the invading German army requisitioned the bronze from many of the statues around Paris in order to make ammunition. Fourier was taken away, never to be seen again.

Since this time there have been many debates about the statue-less plinth, but as time has gone on, Fourier has become less and less important. Following the 1968 uprisings however, a group of situationists, attracted perhaps by Fourier’s radical free-thinking, created a plaster copy of the original statue and quickly erected it one night. This was no mean feat considering that even this copy weighed over 100kg! It lasted three days before it was pulled down again, and the plinth remained headless until 2007 when an art collective, known as Aéroporté decided that the space had been empty long enough.

Aéroporté describe themselves as civil disobedients and agitators, and believe that art can only advance a city if it is installed spontaneously. Once in place, a debate will then be held on the merits of the piece and how it lives and adapts in its environment. Aéroporté have no particular view on Fourier, but simply feel that 60 years without a decision on what would replace him was too long, and that a solution needed to be imposed. It is far from certain that they will be successful in this particular case, given the fact that the plinth is classed as a historical monument, and that it is unlikely to ever receive the relevant safety certificates for its intended purpose.

Fourier is not well-respected enough today to merit a statue, and given the cost of replacing a bronze effigy, it is unlikely that the statue will ever reappear. Aéroporté have proposed a solution, but do cities need to have all of their spaces filled? Rather than push people towards a desire to be immortalised, would it not be better simply to leave an empty space to remind people of the ephemeral nature of fame?
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