Friday 27 February 2009

The Big Top and the Belle Epoque

Walking around Pigalle in the Parisian twilight I'm reminded of a quotation from Walt Whitman; "The past - the dark unfathomed retrospect! The past! the infinite greatness of the past!". The present here is a neon seediness, but the past, oh how glamourous we imagine it to have been! The image we retain, the colour, the sounds, the laughter is pure belle époque, but even this was a term created in retrospect. It was only the horrors of the First World War that could make consumption and syphilis seem beautiful.

I am curious therefore when I see an advert for 'Diana Moreno, le cirque de la belle époque'. What exactly is a belle époque circus? We know that the circus was an extremely popular diversion in Paris in the 19th century, with traces remaining notably in the paintings of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat. It was a form of entertainment that had grown out of equestrian events, with different acts added only when it became clear that new audiences did not appreciate how difficult it was to dress horses. The equestrian element had though made the circus an event that was popular with the nobility, and the belle époque circus was still a show that attracted spectators from a wide range of backgrounds.

Perhaps the most famous of all the circuses of this era was the Fernando (later named Médrano). This permenant structure was situated on the corner of the Boulevard de Rochechouart and the Rue des Martyrs, and it was here that many of the painters sketched and found their inspiration. It was also a place that Picasso liked to frequent, with one contemporary saying "je n'ai jamais vu Picasso rire d'aussi bon coeur qu'à Médrano, il s'y amusait comme un enfant" (I've never seen Picasso laugh so heartily than at Médrano, he enjoyed himself like a child). The structure survived for 99 years, from 1874 to 1973. It was only in the last 10 years of its existence that it was owned by the Bouglione family, and yet it is this name that the developers gave to the block of apartments that replaced the circus. The past is infinite, but memories are short.

The Medrano circus before and today

The paintings of the period give a good idea of what took place in the circuses of the time. Degas portrayed Mademoiselle La La being suspended above the audience with only her teeth clenching onto the rope. Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec showed horses, clowns and acrobats, whilst Renoir pictured child performers. Is this what I should expect to see at the Diana Moreno circus?

A Toulouse-Lautrec sketch

If the truth be told, I've never been a fan of the circus. I suppose I was born at the wrong time, during a period when it was in decline. By the time it was given a renaissance by the new circus, the animal free spectacles of Archaos and the Cirque du Soleil I was too old. As this was a belle époque circus though, I knew I'd be seeing animals and I wasn't too comfortable with that. The website highlights the family aspect of the troupe, explaining that "même les animaux sont considérés comme des membres de la famille" (even the animals are considered to be members of the family), but I doubt that they truly get to sit at the same table to eat.

Tickets for the show are cheap on the internet, so I set out one Saturday afternoon to attempt the experience. The first thing to note is how far the circus tent is from the heart of the city, its rightful place in the 19th century. Here I leave the Metro then walk for fifteen minutes past warehouses, football pitches and over the motorway before finally spying the top of the tent behind corrugated fencing. Inside though, the decoration is cosy, 'handmade' according to the website, and welcoming. The tent is filled with the scent of animals, and dry ice announces the imminent start of the show.

For 10 Euros, I am impressed by the length of the spectacle, which stretches over nearly two hours. The children around me are also thrilled by the sights and sounds, the clowns, the acrobats and especially the animals. The show starts with eight tigers and continues with horses, llamas, yaks, doves, goats and dogs. It does all seem quaint and old-fashioned, but I am disturbed most by an obstacle course set up for a troupe of panicking ducks who are chased around the ring with sticks.

The show does entertain, but I see little of the glamour of the belle epoque. There is a certain amateurish quality to the show, which introduces a little nervous edginess. Could one of the horses jump over the small barrier and could the trapezeist slip from her rope? It is clear nevertheless that these are hard-working, talented people - the clown is also an acrobat and set shifter, whilst the female ringmaster is also a trapeze artist. There are no more than 100 spectators in attendance and to survive the family troupe have to be multi-functional. Even the grandparents seem to have been roped in to sell tickets and sweep up, whilst a girl who can be no older than six gives a five minute performance. It is difficult to imagine Degas being moved to paint this scene or Picasso laughing like a child at the show, but then in retrospect, we imagine everything to have been greater in the past.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Saints and Sinners (Part 2)

What do cities do with the places which throughout history have been the scene of suffering and humiliation? The city of Paris has been pondering this question since 1999, when the Hopital St Lazare was finally shut down, bringing to an end almost 900 years of treatment, punishment and isolation. How can this site be renovated and brought back into the heart of the city, and how can they remove the scars, wipe away the pain and tidy up the memories?

This site is a tale of two saints and a whole cast of sinners. It is a tale of decay, death and rebirth. It is a tale of a constant tearing down of walls, then the building of new structures with fresh purposes in their place. It is a tale mostly of women with many unhappy endings, but hopefully a tale which will end with a final note of optimism.

The first saint is Lazare, the name given to the site, today a hotchpotch collection of buildings behind the Square Alban Satragne. The second saint is Vincent de Paul who created a mission here and who today quietly surveys the scene from an adjoining wall. The use of the name Lazare for this spot dates back to the 11th century, but did they know how prophetic it would prove? The name was chosen as it was originally a shelter for lepers, for whom Lazare (Lazarus) is the patron saint, but with the subsequent history of the site, the constant destruction and rebuilding, the name has assumed a second resonance.

Walking around the crumbling buildings today gives a haunting insight into a past that Paris would very much like to forget. There are few places in a modern city where we get to see a ghost town, but here the jumble of structures from the last two hundred years are all empty and crumbling into ruin. The majority of buildings are still standing, mostly 20th century hospital structures, but the scars are still on display; broken windows and walls that have turned green with age. Renovation in the area has so far largely been confined to a zone outside the site, with a new school and playground in place, but even here there is a sense of unease. The playground contains three cowering pigs hiding from a wicked witch whilst a wooden cat silently overlooks the scene.

For around 500 years up until the French Revolution this site had seen only the calm treatment of the sick, but with the uprisings sparking mass arrests, every spare space in the city was required to house prisoners. The structure became the St Lazare Prison, with a famous early guest in 1794 being the Marquis de Sade. He was only held here for around two months though and was also someone who had seen the inside of almost every prison in the city! More poignantly, it was also here that the poet André Chénier wrote the poem ‘La Jeune Captive’ a handful of days before his eventual execution and only 19 days before the fall of Robespierre and the end of the terror.

Religious influence had been banished from the site during the revolution, but by the 19th century the site had assumed a bizarre triple role. It was transformed into a prison for women, but also contained a hospital wing and a Chapel. Nuns ran the service, but it was difficult to make any clear distinction between treatment and punishment. This period was famously chronicled by the writer and singer Aristide Bruant in a song called ‘A Saint Lazare’ written from the perspective of one of the female prisoners here. She sings;

"C'est la misère. Ici tout l'monde est décavé" (It’s pitiable. Everyone here is ruined)

Conditions were harsh inside, but they were little better outside the walls. Working class women in the 19th century had tough lives ridden through with malnourishment and alcoholism which often led to the reasons for their being locked up, the petty crimes and casual prostitution that they resorted to simply to survive. The hospital wing was used mostly for sick prostitutes, but how to tell the difference between this and the prison? They never left and had few visitors, and were kept here mostly to protect the city. They were the lepers of the period.

Other female prisoners were more political, notably the anarchist and communard Louise Michel who was here in 1883, and later Mata Hari in 1917. The latter underwent what was said to be a humiliating interrogation here during which she confessed to receiving money from German officers in Madrid. Whether this was a simple form of prostitution or the spying she was tried for is not clear, but it was rendered irrelevant by her execution later that year.

Louis-Pierre Baltard’s Chapel still survives today (the father of Victor, the creator of the market halls of Les Halles), but the majority of the other buildings date from the most recent incarnation of the site, the hospital which was re-established in 1935. Even when the site became a hospital again, the calm did not return. The hospital had a curious speciality, as it was here that the city prostitutes were taken for obligatory medical check-ups. Even after this law was removed (1946), a service ‘Saint Lazare’ still existed, and it was here that prostitutes were taken after being rounded up by the police (until 1975).

Today the site is silent but it is easy to imagine the sounds of tears and screaming breaking through the thick, stone walls. To the credit of the city, they have not taken the easy path of destruction and rebuilding, but are attempting to recreate a more positive environment within these haunted walls. The Chapel will become a performance space and galleries will be placed in the wings. There will also be a creche, an infant school, a gymnasium, park and a library. This may not be able to right the wrongs of the past, but it does provide hope for the future.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Saints and Sinners (Part 1)

In every city there are corners masking history we would like to overlook and buildings suppressing stories we would like to forget. At the Faubourg St Denis near Gare de l'Est, it is easy to walk past the rather sad looking Square Alban Satragne without giving it a second thought, until you look at the wall in front of you and notice a large pair of eyes. You may choose to cross the road or walk towards the Square, but each time you glance back, the eyes are still following you. Now you cannot help but ask questions - who is this man, and what does he want to tell me?

Placed on this wall in 1987 by the artist Jean-Pierre Yvaral, this work of art is a portrait of St Vincent de Paul. It is a fantastically clever installation, not painted or stencilled but in fact a very careful arrangement of blades of metal. Yvaral was fascinated by the possibilities offered to artists by the digital age, and he used computers to experiment with form and structure. In this example, machines could define the necessary form to make the installation work, then ensure that the blades were cut to exactly the right shape. It is only when you get very close to the installation that you see how it was constructed and the eyes stop following you! (Try looking at this point on Google Street View - roughly 105 Rue du Faubourg St Denis).

(Photos taken from La Panse de l'Ours)

Who though was Saint Vincent de Paul, and why was this wall chosen? The name Vincent de Paul is one that pops up regularly in the city; a chapel in the 6th arrondissement, a hospital in the 14th, but here he overlooks what was his home. This spot was previously a marshland, a boggy wasteland alongside an old stretch of the Seine, and had since the early middle ages provided a refuge for lepers. Comfortably for the residents of Paris, it was situated just the other side of the city walls, but slowly it fell into abandon. Vincent de Paul was therefore able to purchase the land and remaining buildings in 1632 for a good price and create his own mission, known as the Lazaristes, looking after the sick and needy.

Vincent de Paul was involved in the creation of many charitible bodies, and he quickly grew in renown, so much so that the king Louis XIII requested his presence on his death bed and was to die in his arms. With so many good deeds to his name, he was made a Saint 70 years after his death, in 1737. His creation at this spot remained a hospital after his death until the French revolution when it was requisitioned and turned into a prison. Later, and until 1999, it was turned back into a hospital, but today, it is simply a ramshackle collection of buildings waiting to be renovated or pulled down. That history though is another story or collection of stories!

Next: Prisons, prayers and prostitutes.

Note: Google Street View gives a very good idea of this interesting area. If it does not display below, search for 105 Rue du Faubourg St Denis.

View Larger Map

Thursday 19 February 2009

Blinded by the Sun

The winter has been unusually harsh in Paris and those who have not slipped away to snow-heavy mountain slopes are now waiting impatiently for the return of the warm rays of the spring sun. The days are stretching longer, but February still brings drizzle to smear the streets and chilly winds that force us to keep scarves tightened. The inhabitants of the city try to find light and warmth where they can, and for a slice of both, I decide to push open the door of "Le Soleil de Paris".

I have often walked past this restaurant without feeling the need to enter, but this time the glow from the interior pulls me inside. It should be noted that there are two interesting things about this place; firstly that it is run by Asian owners who serve up traditional French bistrot cuisine, and secondly that it is a true monument to kitsch.

Paris is not short of Asian restaurants, a legacy of colonial interests notably in Vietnam, but it is rare to find restaurateurs in this community moving into more traditional French fare. It remains obvious that this establishment was one that previously served Chinese food, with several elements betraying the culinary changes. The door handles still show Chinese characters, the name of the restaurant features a reference to one of the primary elements and most clearly of all, the extraordinary decor inside has not changed.

Le Soleil is a well chosen name for an establishment that gives you the impression of being seated inside the heart of a star. Every centimetre of wall and column inside this restaurant is caked in reflective gold tiling, whilst the ceiling is a series of mirrored squares. Dotted around the room are rows of potted fake flowers and chinese knick-knacks, whilst the salt and pepper pots on the table are a pair of dice. When the menu is brought to the table though, the ordinariness of the choices is striking.

Whilst more upmarket French restaurants are quick to flaunt the Asian twists to their cuisine there is no hint of any Chinese influence in these dishes beyond a slice of orange on the edge of each plate. In truth, the food is standard fare, but no worse than that at many of the more expensive Parisian brasseries in the area. The interest comes not from what is served on your plate but from the sight of your lunch reflected in gold on the walls and ceiling. The mirrors can also help us to reflect on the journey that took these people from East to West, and from rice to potato.

Further Information:
47 Rue De Provence, Paris 75009
Lunch Menu, Starter/Main/Dessert €14.40

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Grisettes and Lorettes

Near the bottom of the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, at the point where the Canal St Martin dives undergound, a curious scene has been played out for the last 100 years. On one side of the street sits the bust of the 19th century actor Fréderick Lemaitre, eyes and nose lifted towards the sky in defiance or perhaps contempt. Who is he trying to avoid? The answer is seemingly on the opposite side of the street where another statue is stood, this time of a young girl known simply as ‘La Grisette’. With a basket of flowers in her hands and a bun in her hair, she looks imploringly across the road towards the actor.

The path of true love never did run smooth, but what caused these two to fall into an eternity of loathing? The answer is possibly inscribed on the plinths - La Grisette, 1830, and Fréderick Lemaitre, 1800 – 1876. In Paris in the first half of the 19th century, the situation between men and women was a critical one. At the beginning of the century, there were 115 women for every 100 men, but by 1830 this figure was radically altered. With the influx of males to the city from rural areas attracted by work in the new industries there were now 90 women for every 100 men. Women were suddenly in a position of power, and in more ways than one they intended to make men pay.

Two female myths grew out of this period – the Grisette and the Lorette. The Grisette here in statue form, (made by the sculptor Jean Descomps in 1909) is simply a representation of a certain kind of female city inhabitant, typically a young factory worker or itinerant street vendor. The chosen position here was not an accidental one as many such girls would have lived in this area, selling food or flowers in the surrounding streets or working in one the factories along the canal. The actor Lemaitre (sculpted here by Pierre Granet in 1898) was also a regular of this neighbourhood, featuring mainly in hysterical crime plays on the Boulevards nearby. These two must surely have bumped into each other on numerous occasions.

In the popular consciousness of the time though, la Grisette was more than just a hard working girl. It is the French comic author Paul de Kock who has been credited with the creation of the Grisette myth, turning this innocent image into something far more alluring and exotic. As de Kock wrote, la Grisette;

“..est à la fois si folle, si gaie, si vive, si légère, si tendre, si romanesque, si mélancolique, si passionnée; cette femme…qui dépense en une soirée le fruit de huit jours de travail. Cette femme, mélange bizarre de vertus, de vices, de sensibilité, de caprices, de malices, d’inconséquences, de rires et de larmes“(1).
(..who is at once so mad, so gay, so lively, so superficial, so tender, so romantic, so melancholic, so passionate; this woman who spends the profits of eight days of work in one evening. This woman, a strange mixture of virtues, vices, sensibility, whims, mischievousness, inconsistencies, laughter and tears).

The Grisette was a girl who spent more than she earned, but who had an elder male ‘friend’, a shopkeeper or wholesaler who would pay her debts. Her other male friend, a much younger painter or student, was the weekend friend, her passion and the one who would take her to fashionable balls and restaurants. In many ways, she was the inspiration for Emile Zola’s Nana and Victor Hugo’s Fantine.

The actor Frederick Lemaitre was probably keen to avoid this girl because he set his sights higher, possibly towards the Lorettes, but who exactly were these ladies? This time they were the invention of an illustrator, Gavarni, who imagined them as fashionable young women, free from the pressures of men and financial worries. He named them after the district in which they were most commonly to be seen, behind the Notre Dame de Lorette church. Baudelaire later tried to describe Gavarni’s vision in one of his essays:

La Lorette est une personne libre. Elle va et elle vient. Elle tient maison ouverte. Elle n'a pas de maître; elle fréquente les artistes et les journalistes".
(The Lorette is somebody who is free. She comes and goes. She has an open house. She doesn’t have a master; she frequents artists and journalists.)

One of Gavarni's sketches. The accompanying text image read "Mon adoré, dis-moi ton petit nom" (My darling, tell me your pet name)

The crucial point and the one true element that separated the Lorette from the Grisette was the notion of independence. The Grisette had to work and to work hard, whilst other ladies were financially tied to one particular man. The Lorette though was not a kept lady, but one who managed to maintain several relationships at once with men who did not have the means to pay for exclusivity. The Lorette was free to follow trends and be seen at the most fashionable events. As the writer La Bédollière described(3), the swish of silk as she walked and the careful adjusting of clothing as she passed a mirror made her easy to recognise.

The once fashionable Rue St Lazare, home of the Lorettes.

The somewhat light-hearted image of these ladies did though hide a much darker side, touched on with Hugo's Fantine. She is abandoned by her aristocratic lover and is eventually forced into prostitution. This was clearly a route some of the grisettes took, but the Lorettes had another enemy - age. La Bédollière gave a list of the current situations of a selection of Lorettes twenty years later, the majority of whom were said to have died an early death. Others now worked in toilets, were cleaners or had gone mad. This list was surely humourous, but it was probably not too far from the truth either. As the 19th century progressed, the population ratios swang back towards a majority of women and the golden age of these women had passed. Those who had survived through this period and had not found a reliable husband were left to age painfully and desperately in an increasingly harsh city. It is no wonder then that La Grisette should still be looking so imploringly over towards a potential helping hand.

(1) Paul de Cock, “La Première Amie” (1842)
(2) Baudelaire, “Quelques caricaturistes français” (1857)
(3) Émile de La Bédollière, “Le Nouveau Paris, histoire de ses 20 arrondissements“ (1860)

Sunday 15 February 2009

The Art of Decay

Crossing an iron bridge over the disused Petite Ceinture railway line I meet a young gymnast offering a grotesque, weather-beaten form. Missing a head and a foot and dripping papier maché flesh on to the bridge below, she is still desperately hanging on to her hoop, terrified that if she lets go she'll collapse and be washed away in the rain. How carefully she has chosen this place to slowly decay, above a railway line that has not been in operation for over 70 years.

Several steps further down I see that the girl has a twin, a sister who chose a more protected spot beneath a tree and who still has all her members. She has a hand over her eyes, looking out towards the trains that never arrive. How long have these girls been waiting here through cold winter days and nights, twisting and spinning and arched at painful angles?

We are used to seeing art in pristine condition, protected from heat and light and restored back to its original state, but should art not also have a natural lifespan? How can something be said to live if it cannot die? Here in a natural environment, these sculptures have gone from perfect, white sun-touched shapes in summer to ghostly almost lifeless forms in winter, but it is now that their true message can be understood.

Alongside, steel tracks are frozen into silence. These lines were put into place in 1854, a monumental effort that involved the digging out of long strips of cuttings and the construction of hundreds of metres of tunnels. This line, which is coiled around the city like the girls' hoops, was initially successful but was rapidly rendered obsolete by the arrival of the bus, the Metro and the motor car. In 1930 it was found to represent only 1% of all passenger transport in the city and was swiftly shut down.

The line remains in place, absurdly maintained and ready to resume service, but this would be an expensive solution and of use to nobody. The original stations have been sold, and today house upmarket bars and restaurants, whilst offices and hotels (the Mama Shelter, pictured above) use the decor as a backdrop of fashionable industrial bohemia.

The girls and the train track continue their silent spirals, waiting for the revolution that will take them back to the past. If both were restored back to their original condition, would either be as beautiful as they are today? Sometimes we should just let things die so that they can finally begin to live again.

Thursday 12 February 2009

A Tale of Two Tragedies (Part 2)

In the summer of 1903, workmen were busy applying finishing touches to the Notre Dame de la Consolation church, the permenant memorial to the victims of the Bazar de la Charité fire. Situated on the Rue Jean Goujon, a prestigious address between the Seine and the Champs Elysées, the classical and baroque elements would soon fit suitably into the elegant surroundings and provide an admirable commemoration of the tragedy. As the men were putting statues into place, polishing the marble and chiseling out biblical texts, little did they expect that the cruel hand of fate was about to strike again in the city.

It was Monday the 10th of August. Across the city in the working-class areas to the north, wooden Metro trains were thundering along a recently opened branch linking Barbès and Nation. The Metro system had only opened three years earlier, and this stretch of line had been freshly inaugerated at the beginning of the year. The initial curiosity value of this underground railway system had worn off, and the typical user, particularly in this part of the city, was the clerk or workman. It was now a system of transport like any other, but the speed it swept through the congested city made it a popular, constantly crowded one.

Throughout the day, drivers of one particular engine had noticed recurring problems. The motor was seemingly overheating, sending out sporadic sparks, flames and smoke. At the terminus at either end, repairs were made and the engine was sent on its way again. In the early evening, at Barbes station, the problems suddenly became worse and a small fire broke out. The electric current was cut, and the fire was quickly put out, but a decision was made to take the engine out of service and the passengers were asked to leave the train. The empty train continued on its way, but was forced to stop at another station as fire had broken out again. It was eventually decided that another train following behind should be taken out of service too and should be used to push the damaged train back to the Nation terminus. The passengers of the two trains were now thickly massed on the platforms, becoming increasingly concerned and annoyed about when they would finish their journey.

The two trains continued towards the terminus, but the problem had not been solved and small fires continued to break out. The drivers simply jumped down at each station, asked for an extinguisher then continued on towards Nation. When they arrived at Menilmontant though that the inevitable happened, and the fire really took hold. Being made of wood, the carriages were quick to burn, and the station was rapidly filled with smoke. Seven victims of the accident would later be found here.

The real centre of this tragedy though was one station further back, at Couronnes. It seems that the possible dangers were not taken seriously and traffic was allowed to continue. A train following along behind the two others had picked up the unhappy travellers and had now arrived at Couronnes station. It is estimated that 300 people were in these four carriages, and when they were asked to leave another train many became angry. Some refused to leave whilst others complained loudly and demanded a refund on their ticket. They seemed little aware of the fire raging along the track until the lights went out and smoke began billowing in from the tunnel.

Couronnes station today. The victims were found on the opposite platform.

It wasn’t until 4 o’clock the following morning that the full picture of horror was unveiled. The firemen and Metro workers imagined only material damage and a handful of victims at Menilmontant, but they had seemingly overlooked the train behind which had been forced to stop at Couronnes. Newspapers(1) reported later that the horrific find was all the more surprising because nobody enquired about missing friends or relatives despite the hordes of curious onlookers outside the stations. It was to be a full eight hours after the event that rescuers were finally able to enter the Couronnes station, and they were shocked to find 75 victims, desperate people who had tried to flee the smoke in the dark and ended up in a heap at the wrong end of the station.

Whilst the Bazar de la Charité catastrophe nearly put paid the nascent cinema industry, the Couronnes incident forced the city of Paris to question its new underground railway system. The system survived but major changes were made throughout the structure, notably ensuring that lights would not cut out in an emergency and that more than one exit should be available (there is still just a single exit at Couronnes).

There is no chapel or monument to the victims of this tragedy, just a brown and orange sign put up by the city in the 1980s. The victims were largely faceless and anonymous, with an estimated 95% being of working class origin. There were no tales of heroism among the victims reported, and only the bravery of the firemen was highlighted, men who had repeatedly risked asphyxiation throughout the night on hopeless searches for survivors.

The 1980s 'Histoire de Paris' sign outside the station.

The Bazar de la Charité incident had shocked and appalled the public, so much so that the generous public donations that followed enabled the construction of the Notre Dame de la Consolation church. It would be unfair to say that the inhabitants of Paris did not react to the Couronnes disaster, but perhaps this time the needs of the families of the victims were different. When money was collected following this catastrophe, no memorial was built, but the hard up families all received a generous sum, whilst the city of Paris looked after funeral expenses.

It is said(2) that the author and poet Louis Aragon was obsessed by the subject of accidents and by these two events in general. He was born the year of the Bazar de la Charité fire and was only 6 when the Couronnes accident occurred, events that must have left a deep scar at a delicate time. There were many links between the two events, with both notably involving fire and new technology. What differed however was the victims’ backgrounds, a factor that established how the public at large reacted to the event. The most important link between the two events though, and what surely affected Aragon the most was the arbitrary nature of accidents and the fact that they can strike anybody at anytime.

1. The Gaulois front page and some of the description of events was taken from a PDF produced by a family investigating their family tree. It seems that a relative of theirs was one of the unfortunate victims of the accident.

2. Marie-Christine MOURIER, "Aragon et l'accident, entre obsession et création".

Tuesday 10 February 2009

A Tale of Two Tragedies

It is the lot of all cities that occasionally tragedy will strike. Whilst some cities are prey to natural disasters, such as rising tides or thundering underground plate movements, other cities are shaken by accidents and human incompetence. When such events occur, the city stops and weeps, but the natural kinetics of human life ensure that the city always goes on. What is of interest to future generations though is how such events are recorded, commemorated and remembered.

I was inspired to write this piece after reading the fascinating series on the Watts Memorial Park in London on Caroline's Miscellany blog. London found a place to celebrate simple acts of heroism, but has there been any such place in Paris? I could not think of one until I remembered the Notre Dame de la Consolation church in the Rue Jean-Goujon (75008), a structure that was built as a permenant memorial to a terrible event that had struck on the same spot 6 years beforehand.

Beneath the dome of Albert-Désiré Guilbert's church are heroic sculptures by Horace Daillion, a date, the 4th of May 1897, and a quotation from Thessalonians ("ne vous attristez pas comme ceux qui n'ont pas d'esperance" – “Do not grieve like those who have no hope”). Inside, the temple is dimly lit and thick with silence. There are few windows to bring in air and light, only heavy, baroque sculptures, marble columns and a monumental painted ceiling. There is little sign of the tragedy in what is today a simple church which has been adopted by the Parisian Italian community. To one side though, in the murky depths of the confessional, stands an iron gateway held together by a cheap bicycle lock. Beyond this a strip of light leads the way to the true monument, a pathway in cross form telling the story of what happened on that fateful day.

This monument is only open to visitors once a month so remains an intensely private and secret space. The images and memorials contained within have so far remained frustratingly out of my reach, but the story is one that has been amply documented elsewhere. In 1897 a large wooden hanger stood where the church is situated today. It had recently been rented by an organisation called the Bazar de la Charité, a group which organised periodic charity events. On this occasion, 22 medieval style wooden boutiques had been set up along the 80 metre space, and these were looked after mostly by members of the Parisian aristocracy. Adding to the celebratory atmosphere, the event also featured a cinematography show, an early precursor to cinema, featuring films created by the Lumière brothers.

The Bazar de la Charité just before the fire

On the 4th of May, the second day of a planned five day event, the sales attracted over 1000 visitors, again mostly members of the aristocracy. It was an immense success, but people were soon complaining about the overheated atmosphere whilst the cinematographers were worried that there was not enough space for their equipment in the small area they had been given. At about four o'clock in the afternoon, their concerns were sadly proved to be accurate as the machinery caught fire and quickly spread throughout the building. The wooden structure was soon alight, and the curtains, lace and ribbons around the stalls became streaks of flame. It apparently only took 15 minutes for the entire building to be reduced to ashes. When the dust settled and all the remains had been sifted through, 130 people were found to have lost their lives.

The most famous of all the victims was the Duchess of Alençon, younger sister of the Empress of Austria, better known as Sissi. Being the most widely known to the general public, stories of her heroism were widely reported in the press. It is reported that she said "Ne vous occupez pas de moi. Je partirai la dernière" ('Don't worry about me - I'll leave last') to one lady who managed to escape, and when a nun collapsed at her feet and cried "Ô Madame, quelle mort !" ('O Madam, what a way to die'), she calmy replied "Oui, mais dans quelques minutes, pensez que nous verrons Dieu!" ('Yes, but in a few minutes we will see God'). It is then said that she quietly shielded the head of another lady to protect her eyes from the terrible sight of their final moments of life. Whether these stories are true or were simply an attempt to create a myth around the most prestigious guest at the event will never be known.

What does seem truly incredible today though is the fact that 123 of the 130 victims were women, despite there being an estimated 200 men present at the time the fire broke out. Whilst it is true that many of the ladies were stuck behind their stalls and were hampered by their bulky clothing, the fact that there were so few male victims did not go unnoticed at the time. As one female journalist, Séverine, noted in Le Journal shortly after the event, only about 10 of these men were seen to help at all. "Le reste détala, non seulement ne sauvant personne, mais encore se frayant un passage dans la chair féminine, à coups de pieds, à coups de poings, à coups de talons, à coups de canne" ('The rest ran away, not only not saving anybody, but also pushing their way past female flesh, kicking, punching, pushing with their heels and sticks'). Incredibly, other contemporary newspapers lead with images of heroic men!

Memorials to the victims of a tragedy are essential for the city's cathartic process, but would we not learn more if memorials were also built to reflect the cowardly behaviour of men?

Coming Next:
A lower class of tragedy

Sunday 8 February 2009

Another Brick in the School

At the dawning of the 20th century Paris was waking up to a changed landscape. As the new social housing arrived in previously sparsely populated parts of the city, more infrastructure became essential to serve the new communities, in particular schools. As was the case with the HBMs (Habitations à Bon Marché), it is interesting once again to note that they often incorporated original and decorative designs. One of the most unusual and fascinating of all such structures in Paris can be seen near Sauvage's appartment block.

The plot is in a rhomboid form, and comprises two different, but connected schools. The schools are linked by a surprisingly bucolic playground in which a copse of mature trees can be seen reaching above the buildings. What is of most interest however is the external skin of the buildings. The school is contained within a continuous brick wall which runs around four streets, but for most of its length, this is no standard brick wall.

Before examining this particular school further, a word about education in general at the time. Whilst the hygienists had ensured a revolution in social housing at the end of the 19th century, reformers had also succeeded in making major changes in the world of education. The most important advance was the Ferry law of 1882
which made schools secular, free and obligatory for all children between the ages of 6 and 13. It also insisted on military exercises for boys and needlework for girls, but this aspect has largely been forgotten today!

The crucial element of the law was the separation of church and state, something which still provokes debate today but of which the French are on the whole intensely proud. As the church had previously been the major provider of education to the young in Paris and France as a whole, it meant that the state now had to undertake a large building project for new schools. They were now to become the major driving force of social mobility, an equal chance for both sexes and all social classes to improve themselves and the means by which the poorest members of society could dream of a different future. Was it to inspire this nascent generation that so many of the new schools incorporated triumphant, decorative touches?

The principal features of the twin Rouanet Infant and Junior schools are the curved, art deco style facade of the infant school, the large layered chimney that sprouts up behind this and the intricate brickwork design along the majority of the walls. It is this brickwork though which is the most striking and unusual, with the large three-story street facing walls being covered in a diamond criss-cross pattern. If this pattern seems familiar, it is because it is seemingly based on a medieval design known as the Diapper style. Traditionally, as can be seen on Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, this design was created using different coloured bricks, but the twist on this school building is that the effect is three-dimensional, with the diamond forms jutting out from the flat wall.

A Diapper pattern wall at Hampton Court, England

The Diapper pattern, Rue Championnet, Paris 18eme

The newly educated young were being taught to think for themselves, but this also meant that they could learn to get organised and protest. Seemingly to push them further still, a zone was created for the display of posters and messages on one side of this school unit. This space is still in use today, offering a thick, colourful noise of mixed messages - a new album, an upcoming concert, a meeting to discuss the crisis, Asian furniture bargains and a celebration of 10 years of revolution in Venezuela. It's a chaotic collage, where the voices mirror the muddled unintelligable din of the children in the playground behind.

Note: The three items in this series of posts are in the same district of Paris and easily visited in one go.

A: The school buildings are near Rue Championnet
The collection of HBMs are near Rue André Messager
C: Sauvage's interesting HBM is on Rue des Amiraux

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Hygienic Housing (Part 2)

What is the connection between the designer of the most elegant brothel in Paris and an organ player at Versailles Cathedral? The answer is Henri Sauvage and Charles Sarazin, a two-man design team who together worked on one of the most original building designs ever constructed in Paris. What is even more exceptional about their construction is that it was built as an HBM (Habitation à Bon Marché), and was created to serve the needs of the poorest members of society.

As noted previously, most of the HBM constructions in Paris were built in a ring around the city. They were generally solid, brick-built buildings, drawn to a similar plan and therefore looked largely alike. However, in smaller units where space was at a minimum, occasional more original designs managed to make it off of the drawing board, and this was certainly the case at the Rue des Amiraux, behind Montmartre.

The arrival of city authorities in the provision of social housing, and the large investments that went with this had inspired architects and designers to outdo each other with new ideas in an attempt to win the hefty contracts. The guiding principles behind the constructions, to house the working classes decently and to promote a healthy living environment and lifestyle, already gave ample inspiration to the architects, but this particular development zone, requiring a building to fill a ‘U’ shape with three facades on two different streets, was an awkward one that needed something ingenious.

Sauvage and Sarazin knew they had the solution, having already completed a similar building (Rue Vavin, 75006) which was the prototype of the construction they planned to build here. The design was in a pyramid shape, with each floor having stepping terraces and large windows that were designed to let in as much sun and air as possible. The most interesting aspect of the design was that the shape left a large internal space, an area that could be used for the encouragement of a ‘healthy lifestyle’. Sauvage wanted a cinema to fill the gap, but the city of Paris insisted on a swimming pool. The design was accepted and the building was opened in 1925.

Original designs from Henri Sauvage

The two men were intensely proud of their revolutionary design. They were so sure were they that it would be copied that they patented the design and created a company to deal with the expected flood of commands, something that never materialised. This is surprising in many ways. The building is still stunning today, dressed in pristine white tiles, with long running balconies interspersed with tall stairways and lift-shafts. Being built largely around a framework of large posts and reinforced concrete it was also a very lightweight structure which required minimal foundations, something that made it relatively cheap to build too. The Paris Metro style tiling ensures that the building is washed clean with each rainfall and it looks to be a thoroughly healthy environment, especially with the swimming pool which today is a municipal facility. It remains a mystery to this day why this was the last such building ever constructed.

The second question to answer is how the designer of a brothel could also be involved in the hygienist movement. Interesting as it may sound today, the two were in fact closely linked. Brothels were legal operations in the early decades of the 20th century, with Sauvage’s creation, Le Sphinx being given permission to open "dans un but de santé publique" (in the interests of public health). Each establishment was closely monitored, with all visitors carefully listed, and regular health checks being obligatory for all who worked inside.

Sauvage himself was a very interesting character. Initially a follower of the Art Nouveau movement and a friend of Guimard, his works were in fact precursors of the modernist movement, albeit with persistent decorative touches. He was an eclectic designer and architect, working on hotels, car parks, and part of the famous Samaritaine shop, always in changing styles that made him very difficult to classify. He died relatively young, aged 58, just two years after his most famous construction was finally terminated. Wild he may have been, but his legacy in the city is a gift of eternal elegance.

On the same theme:
- The story behind the HBMs in Paris
- An unusual school unit

Monday 2 February 2009

Hygienic Housing (Part 1)

Visitors to Paris today will enter through one of the 66 gateways without even noticing that they have broken through the city defences. The Portes which previously protected the city are today largely symbolic, offering apparently little of attraction to the casual visitor, but take a glance as you rush through to the centre of the city and you will see a snapshot of Parisian social history. This tree-lined belt around the city that you will rapidly jump across is where the city poor were finally able to clear their lungs and live decently.

Paris at the end of the 19th century was not a place to be poor and needy. The state had minimal involvement in the lives of individuals, providing neither mass housing nor schooling and very little in the way of other facilities. In these times of ‘Laissez-faire’, individual cities and towns around France were not even allowed to be involved in the provision of housing, with this role being played only by unscrupulous private promoters or generous employers.

It was the adoption of the Siegfied law in 1894 that was to change the living conditions of thousands of Parisians, and also to a lesser extent the face of the city. Named after the originator of the law, Jules Siegfried, a politician and industrialist, it enabled city authorities to intervene in the housing market and begin building low-rent housing for the neediest inhabitants. In Paris, the result of this law was the construction of the HBMs (Habitations à Bon Marché), a huge project of ‘hygienic housing’ which would fill the gaps around the gateways which circled the city.

The design of these units mirrored the Garden Cities that were springing up across the channel in England. In many ways, the theories behind the constructions were the same, as were the reasons for building them. In England, it was Sir Ebenezer Howard who promoted the concept of hygienic housing in a series of revolutionary and influential books and articles. His writings spoke of “pure air and water”, of “bright homes and gardens”, but also of “no sweating” and “no smoke”. A vital element of these constructions was an interest in giving residents "things to do", and libraries, galeries and sports facilities were often built at the same time as the housing. Radical ideas, but certainly not the initiatives of early Socialists. In fact, these social visionaries were often closely linked to the temperance movement, and "things to do" meant less time for drinking. By building a healthier, more active workforce, the idea was to feed capitalism rather than reject or replace it.

An HBM building near the Rue André Messager, 75018.

The major constructions in Paris arrived 30 years after the adoption of the Siegfried law, at the end of the First World War, when the outdated ‘Enceinte de Thiers’ defences around the city were ripped out. This ‘enceinte’ was simply a continuous stone wall around the city, with openings at the Portes, and a zone of 30 or 40 metres behind the wall which was kept clear for patrols and for the installation of additional defences. It had been built in the mid-19th century, but the First World War showed that a stone wall and patch of no-mans land offered little protection against long-range German artillery. The city authorities decided that it was wasted space that could be used for other things, notably housing.

HBM as Garden City, Rue André Messager, 75018

This HBM housing is today worthy of a visit. The buildings were generally attractively designed, in brick, with decorative touches in ceramic. Built in blocks or ‘ilots’, these spaces are miniature parks of grass, with large mature trees stretching between the buildings. Curved concrete balconies jut out from some of the appartments, but as all were designed to offer a maximum circulation of air, they must still provide quality accommodation today. Walk around the ring of the city and you will see that these units are invariably interspersed with sporting facilities which were built at the same time, offering tennis courts, football pitches and running tracks. It is still an idyllic vision of how a city could be, spoilt somewhat today by the thunder of the Périphérique motorway behind, but the sense of space is real. Perhaps nowhere in Paris is truly hygienic, but these units were clearly an improvement on the tiny, squalid boxes in which the poor were previously stacked in the centre of Paris.

On the same theme:

- The most original HBM in Paris
- An unusual school unit

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