Saturday 17 January 2009

Le Cinquante

After four months of posting on this blog, a small personal landmark - a fiftieth post! Where better to go and celebrate than "Le Cinquante", a very friendly bar situated in the Rue de Lancry - at number 50 of course! Sitting with a beer at one of the 1950's style formica tables I can reflect on the blog. In this period of sales and cutbacks, should I now offer a 50% reduction, or should I take the cereal box approach and offer another 50% extra free? It's 50/50, but then I notice the posters and pictures around the bar and decide on another approach - a quick investigation into the decade that inspired this bar and the traces that it has left on the city today.

On Sundays from 6pm, a space is cleared in "Le Cinquante" bar and a guitar appears. Before long, everyone inside is singing along to a selection of French classics from the 1950s. Brel, then Piaf, on to Brassens then Montand and Gainsbourg...soon you can imagine yourself back in this golden age - if it wasn't for the lack of smoke in the establishment! It's fun, but I'm more interested in the architecture and urbanism of this decade. What is quickly evident though is how few structures there are from this period in Paris, which is somewhat surprising for a city that was home to architects such as Le Corbusier, Perret, De Mailly and Pingusson.

I can see 50s everwhere, but I can't find the 50s anywhere.

Across much of Europe, the 1950s was marked by the new. Mass destruction during the folly of the previous decade had left many major cities in ruin, but Paris had the good fortune to be spared. Whilst much was lost in the rebuilt cities, it did offer a fantastic opportunity to recreate basic infrastructures. In France, it was principally the port cities that were regenerated, notably Le Havre and Marseille. Whilst we can be thankful that Paris wasn't burnt to the ground (which Hitler had ordered), it did mean that the terrible living conditions in the city lasted longer than they perhaps should have.

In the early 1950s, much of Paris was in an unacceptable state. It was estimated in 1954 that 1/5th of all properties in France had no mains water, 2/3rds had no toilet and three-quarters had no bathroom*. In Paris, the areas around Les Halles and Beaubourg housed many families in such conditions, and shanty town camps or bidonvilles could be found on the edges of the city or alongside the railway lines.

Finally, it was the incredibly harsh winter of 53/54 that was to provoke change. The newspapers were full of stories of people dying in the streets, and one child died in one of the miserable, old appartment buildings. Something had to be done to house people decently, but with France being France, the results of the laws voted at this time were mostly not seen until the 1960s, and almost all of the new housing construction was high-rise towers in the towns in the suburbs of the city. It is mainly for this reason that there is such a shortage of 1950s constructions in Paris.

A renovated old building in the Rue d'Argout

Whilst I would not argue that Paris would be a better, more attractive city today had the architects of the time had their way, I do think that many parts of Paris would surely be improved if they had been rebuilt in the 1950s. In the centre of the city, the renovated old buildings are much in demand today, but in other zones, such as the 13th, 15th and 19th arrondissements, hesitations in the 1950s meant that when construction did finally start, in the 1960s and 70s, cheaper, less refined buildings were put up. In Le Havre and Marseille, the elegant urban planning of Auguste Perret and Fernand Pouillon were true modernist success stories, with the architecture of Le Havre being listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

Ah yes, the UNESCO building in Paris. Finally a structure in the city that was built in the 1950s! The modernist block, which is shaped like a letter Y or a three-sided star looks somewhat out of place in Paris, alone as it is. The only other contemporary building that I can think of for it is the CNIT structure which launched the development of La Defense. Both were prestige projects, and were not the housing that the city desperately needed. Had the city been regenerated in this decade, and had housing been constructed in the centre and not in the suburbs, it is likely that not only would there be prestigious architecture, but many of the social problems facing the country today would have been avoided as well.

Photo taken from Wikimedia


PeterParis said...

I believe that the last five lines in your text contains a very good question! Of course, most of the older buildings which were left are today equipped with modern facilities (and have become expensive), but you are right, we have a segregation problem here (like with the schools); very few young couples can today afford to live in Paris, unles both work and have a decent salary and that is today a real issue (... and will probalbly be even more so soon).

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the half-century. Quite an achievement and rest assured we're not just talking quantity but quality here!!

Cergie said...

50 pour toi depuis trois mois, 645 messages pour moi depuis avril 2006...
Te voilà un fringant cinquantenaire.
Les années pèsent énormément plus sur les blogs que sur les immeubles. Le Corbusier et sa villa Savoie n’ont pas pris une ride depuis 1930. Tandis que les blogs... Trois ans que je vais atteindre c’est déjà beaucoup ; les messages s’espacent, de tous les jours on passe à trois / semaine, peut-être deux ensuite, et petit à petit le blog s’évanouit, se dissipe, se dissoud, avant de peut-être renaître plus tard de l’envie ?
L’envie je te la souhaite longtemps, Adam ; encore au moins trois ans et 600 nouveaux messages !

Starman said...

I prefer the 13th and 15th. Especially, la quartier de La Butte aux Cailles in the 13th, and the area around Parc Georges Brassens in the 15th.

Gina V said...

Congratulations, Adam! I have been most impressed by how prolific you are with your posts and how engaging they are in their freshness of viewpoints, especially on a city as profusely written about already as Paris! Keep writing - we'll keep reading! And like I said before, they should be all bound up into a big bold book!
Re this post...even as Paris [fortunately] did not undergo any wholesale utopian transformation in the 1950's,some of the radical master plans put forward by postwar technocrats were really questionable at best! The rigid abstractness of their urbanistic concepts would have surely destroyed the beauty and vitality of what we know and love of Paris today.

CarolineLD said...

Congratulations on your 50th post! I'm really enjoying discovering them all.

Adam said...

Thanks for the comments. I still maintain that parts of the 13th arrondissement near the Place d'Italie would look better today with some of Le Corbusier's 'Unités d'habitation' rather than the high-rise towers there are there today. The 1950s were a golden age of modernist architecture, but their vision was corrupted by the architects who followed in the 60s and 70s.

However, I think it is probably just as well thatthis project of Le Corbusier in 1937 was never built.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your 50th post, that's a milestone indeed, especially considering the quality writing and research that goes into each of your posts.

Of course you know why Caen, Le Havre and Marseille hold so many buildings from the fifties - they needed rebuilding after the massive bombings that took place during the liberation of France in 1944. Paris by comparison was relatively spared...

And the bird's eye view of the snowy street on my blog was taken from my living room window - another of my numerous "view from my window" photos, but an unusual one. The street doesn't have much appeal at other times...

Squirrel said...

I can't believe I didn't congratulate you earlier when I first read this post.

Congratulations. You have a high quality blog, here !

I sound like the senior senator from Nebraska, dont' I ?
That's a high quality blog you got there, son! Good Work!

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