Wednesday 29 April 2009

Morbid Fascination

The Appeal Court in Paris has decided today (Thursday 30th April) to permenantly shut down the controversial ‘Our Body’ exhibition in the city. Several groups had protested about the ethics of displaying sliced and preserved dead bodies, particularly as it is suspected that several may be executed Chinese prisoners. Last Tuesday, the Judge Louis-Marie Raingeard decided to order the closure of this event, subject to this appeal.

Whilst I had no personal desire to visit the exhibition, particularly with its 15 Euro entry fee, I find the decision of the French justice to be very interesting. As one of the defence lawyers pointed out, this exhibition has already toured the world and has been seen by over 30 million people “sans qu'à aucun moment, aucune justice du monde n'ait songé à en interdire l'accès à quiconque” (without at any moment any judicial system even dreaming of preventing anyone from visiting).

So what makes France different from the rest of the world? Interestingly, the public prosecutor’s argument was the following ; “Dans notre société, il y a des tabous, des domaines dans lesquels on n'a pas le droit de pénétrer, des transgressions qu'il n'est pas possible d'autoriser" (in our society there are taboos, areas where we should not penetrate and infringements that it is not possible to authorise). It seems that the Judge accepted this argument, which the defence had criticised as being almost a religious decision, explaining that “The appropriate place for the corpse, according to the law, is the cemetery".

The organisers of the event had previously highlighted its scientific and educational nature, and the fact that all of the people featured in the exhbition had agreed to their bodies being used in such a manner prior to death. But how much of this is science and how much voyeursim? This is a question that the French authorities had already had to answer, over 100 years ago when the most popular free show in the city was a trip to the Morgue.

The viewing room of the Paris Morgue in the 19th Century.

Vanessa R. Schwartz’s book “Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris" deals with this subject in fascinating detail (the chapter on the morgue is available as a preview in Google Books). The Morgue, situated at the tip of the Ile de la Cité, was open to anybody who wished to visit, ostensibly to permit the identification of bodies, but in reality for reasons of titilation and fascination. It is reported that hundreds of thousands of people passed through the doors, including tourists and people from all social classes. Indeed, the fact that members of the public had to mingle in one single spot in front of the large department store style windows led to one witness labelling it as a “temple of equality”. To this extent, people were as equal in front of death as they are after it.

The Institut Medico-Legal today.

The building was pulled down in 1914 and a new one built, sandwiched today between the line 5 of the Metro and the busy road alongside the Seine. An unassuming brick building, its name has also been changed to disguise its activity, and it is now known simply as the ‘Institut Medico-Legal’. Its role is still to investigate deaths that occur on the city streets, in suspicious circumstances or when the deceased is unidentified, but visits to the building are very strictly controlled today. This is not to say however that people’s attitudes have changed too. The popularity of the ‘Our Body’ exhibition worldwide would seem to suggest that people are as fascinated as ever with the subject, but is this something we should attempt to satisfy or to supress? In France now they have twice chosen interdiction, which in these two cases was probably the correct decision. The public interest should be geared towards education, not slightly dubious forms of entertainment.

Note: Due to time restrictions, I have not been able to take my own photographs for this post. The poster comes from the official exhibition website, the picture of the old morgue from the Morbid Anatomy blog, and the photo of the Institut Medico-Legal today from this website. I will try to change these images in the coming days, but in the meantime, if anybody objects I will remove them immediately.

Monday 27 April 2009

Accidental Art II

I have a strange confession to make. I've become obsessed with posts and drainpipes. The first one that caught my eye was simply an interesting composition, a striking mixture of colours and textures, but since then my eyes have been tuned to the possibilities of such objects. What has struck me is how essential they have become in the city, not just for the passage of water, but also as a means for people to communicate with each other.

The photo above is of a post opposite the Divan Du Monde nightclub and concert venue. Once more, it was the composition that first struck me. In a colourful city, here was something that had become almost accidentally monochrome. Although it is painted black and stood in front of a dark wall, even the stickers placed on the post have seen their colours absorbed into the sombre surroundings. Looking more closely, what I noticed next was how old these stickers were. Nowhere do we see the name of a group, but just ghostly figures of waving musicians who have perhaps long since argued and gone seperate ways. At the bottom, one date; December 2003. Six years of concerts have passed since the sticker was placed on the post, and whilst other groups and stickers have come and gone, this one has now almost merged into the post itself. Great songs and musicians become part of history. Others simply become torn traces scattered around the city.

Depending on where the post is situated, the messages seem to differ; some promote events, some offer services, and some simply to protest. Most of these messages are ephemeral and clearly readable, proposing something and offering a tear-off phone number for curious passers-by to call. What I have become most interested in though are the fragments, the parts that have stayed clinging to the post when somebody tried to remove the message. Above, once more the post wants to be part of the background, to be invisible against the sandstone wall behind, but here a single eye and a very insincere smile catch my attention. Could that be the President? Had it been a caricature with a smart message I probably wouldn't have been interested, but this rather creepy image seems to say so much more. He's watching us and has something planned that we probably won't like. And that makes him smile.

Friday 24 April 2009

God is in the Details

On opposite corners of the Rue de la Victoire two unlikely neighbours stand facing each other. Rejected, forgotten and closed to casual visitors, these two very different structures pass the time exchanging tales of former glories. As they see pedestrians scuttle past their locked and guarded entrances, they can only wonder when times and fashions will enable them to open their doors wide once more.

At number 37 Rue de la Victoire, a teal-blue refurbished cruise liner sits waiting for passengers and a chance to set sail again. Created in 1958 by the architects Jean Balladur and Benjamin Lebeigle, this lightweight, elegantly curved creation was a revolution when it arrived in the city. This was the first entirely moduble building in Paris with no internal structural posts. Built around a steel skeleton, with a flexible skin of glass and steel stretched across the frame, it was nevertheless inside that the difference could truly be appreciated. The Caisse Centrale de Réassurance, who moved into the structure, were able to appropriate the space as they wished, throwing up temporary non-supporting dividing walls wherever they were needed.

Reflected in the glass façade of this building is the far more imposing structure of the Grande Synagogue de Paris. Built between 1867 and 1874 by the architect Alfred-Philibert Aldrophe in Romanesque/Byzantine style, this is a building that had a slightly more troubled beginning. As part of Haussmann’s 19th century regeneration of Paris, it was planned that the city’s 20,000 strong Jewish community would have a building of their own to be proud of. Paid for by both the city of Paris and the Rothschild family, it was to have its entrance on the new, wider Rue de Chateaudun, but the Empress Eugénie judged it to be inappropriate to place a Jewish place of worship between the Trinité and Notre Dame de Lorette churches. The original plan was therefore turned around 180°, and the entrance was finally situated on the quiet Rue de la Victoire backstreet.

A common expression in Paris at the time of the Synagogue’s construction was “triste comme la Victoire” (as sad as la Victoire), emphasising the quiet and unfashionable aspect of this district. It was also to brighten up this area that Balladur and Lebeigle chose an unusual and colourful shiplike structure for their creation. Balladur had been taught by Sartre at the Lycée Condorcet and was influenced by both Le Corbusier and the German king of minimal, Mies Van Der Rohe. The theories of both architects found their way into this construction. From Van Der Rohe, the skin and bones, the lightness and the clarity. From Le Corbusier, the usage of his modulor system. All of the measurements in this building, from the staircase in the entrance to the balconies on the higher levels were calculated according to Le Corbusier’s theory. This openness and minimalism is certainly not reflected in the heavy stone temple opposite.

Across the façade of the building is an inscription in Hebrew taken from Genesis; “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven”. Missing is the phrase which comes just before this which reads ‘how dreadful (awe inspiring) is this place’. The Grande Synagogue de Paris has become the centre of the Jewish faith in Paris, but its impenitrability has also turned it into a kind of fortress. It is the second biggest such structure in Europe, with space for over 5,000 people, but whilst the outside is solid and well protected, the insides are supposedly light and simply decorated. Unfortunately, although it is possible to visit the building today, you will need an official invitation to enter if you are not a member of the local Jewish community. It is not clear whether this is to protect the integrity of the building and the strict rules of the faith or simply for more mundane security reasons, although the permenant police guards around the building point towards the latter.

Turning back towards number 37, the rather sad, empty state of this building is due to the vagaries of fashion rather than questions of security. Following a recent renovation it is in as perfect condition today as it was when inaugurated 50 years ago, but it is now struggling to find new residents. Such buildings have become commonplace, and what was innovative has slowly become charmingly retro. It is though still a remarkable building, with stacked balconies on the higher levels leading up towards a rooftop terrace that gives wonderful views across the city as well as the impression of standing on the bow of a ship.

When describing his buildings, Van Der Rohe said that God was in the details. For Le Corbusier, the details were natural and mathematical. Following Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man theories, he stated that buildings should have a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale”. But what about the human mind? Balladur may have looked across at the Synagogue opposite his building when it was finished and remembered that Sartre had only become his teacher because the wartime Vichy government had made it impossible for his school to continue employing the Jewish teacher he replaced. When we look carefully today at his building we can see that many details are reflected in the windows. Some of them are tiny, and some unimaginably large.

Thursday 23 April 2009


Several months ago I wrote briefly about Guy Debord, psychogeography and the Situationist International group, and how they viewed the city. Debord was obsessed with the power of images, and a man who had been behind the most well-known slogans written across Paris in the 1968 uprisings. It seemed somehow entirely appropriate therefore to see his image stencilled onto a wall beneath the colourful drips and swirls of tags and graffiti.

Somewhere in the East of Paris an artist has created a stencil of the radical thinker Guy Debord and is now decorating walls and doors with his image. This figure is sometimes accompanied by a message, “Deux bords pour un dérive” (two sides for a drift), a rather non-sensical play on words on Debord’s name and theories. Debord both criticised and used text and images to inspire change, but what would he have thought about seeing his image become spectacle?

Debord’s most well-known work, “Society of the Spectacle” was published in 1967, and has been credited by many as a major inspiration behind the 1968 Paris uprising. In very broad terms, this book deals with post-war modernism, and how images in the media create a spectacle that produces alienation and division in society. Debord not only criticised though, but also proposed ways to break down or away from this society, with the most well-known strategy being the ‘dérive’ or drift.

Images though are not simply physical representations, but can also be generated by words. Debord quotes the sociologist Chombart de Lauwe who noted that “an urban neighborhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it”. Studies had shown that individuals in cities often become trapped in banal triangles of work/home/leisure, and rarely deviate from these points. The solution to break out of this trap, and by extension to change people’s perception of their living environment would be to embark on a drift.

In practical terms, the drift would be a way to escape from the physical limits of the city. Built-up environments are necessarilly restrictive for Situationists, being designed to direct and control inhabitants. As Debord wrote, “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. If everybody drifted on a regular basis, psychogeographical barriers would be broken down and the city would change. As the famous 1968 phrase summarised, ‘Sous les pavés la plage’ (Beneath the pavements, the beach).

Today’s stencil artist clearly feels that this is an image that can still inspire today, but does it still have relevance? Debord once wrote that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation”, and it is ironic that this should apply to the man himself today. Debord’s drifts took in many bars and too much alcohol, a factor that is said to have contributed to his suicide in 1994, and the images of uprising and the slogans used in 1968 have since become something akin to capitalist commodities.

Simply choosing Debord’s profile seems to me to be approaching idolatry, rather like wearing a t-shirt with the face of Che Guevara on it. The message is an empty one, particularly for this face which is little known. However, this is an image that may provoke thought and reflection, and a single thought still has the capacity to grow into something more powerful. At the very least, it may encourage people to investigate a very original and fascinating personality.

Note: If you are interested in learning more about Debord, psychogeography and the Situationists, Ken Knabb's Bureau of Public Secrets website contains translations and discussions of all major texts:

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Desperately Seeking Charcot (3)

In the name of the father
Part 1: The House
Part 2: In the name of the son

I’m standing in front of the Charcot mausoleum in the Cimitière de Montmartre. My only company here is a couple of chattering magpies, and all is silence apart from a distant hum of traffic and the breaths of wind passing through the fresh, green leaves of a plane tree. It is a rather austere monument, perhaps not what may be expected for two national heroes, but understandable when we consider that they are in fact invited guests in the tomb of another family. The Laurent-Richard name is more prominent than that of the Charcots, emphasing that Jean-Martin, the father, had married into a clan more powerful and wealthy than his own.

Both Charcot men had died as celebrated figures, and both today lay side by side in this peaceful location. My previous post dealt with Jean-Baptiste, the son, and his path to this final resting place, but I have written little so far about his father. Jean-Baptiste had struggled throughout his life to make the Charcot name his own, but what exactly was the weighty heritage of this exceptional father, and what traces of this man remain in the city today? This end point seemed like a good a place as any to begin.

Jean-Martin Charcot was born in 1825 in the family home at 27 Rue Bleue in the 9th Arrondissement, not far from where his son was later to live. His father owned a carriage building business in the Rue du Faubourg Poissonerie and he was baptised in the Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle church. Although his father was little more than a member of the petit bourgeoisie with four sons to support, he nevertheless had sufficient means to send his eldest, Jean-Martin, to the exclusive Pension Sabatier school situated at 9 Rue Richer, a few steps from his home. Here Jean-Martin would learn the classical subjects that would enable him to enter medical school.

Art or medicine? Charcot hesitated.

Charcot though hesitated for a long time between an artistic and medical career. As he was later to say, "si j’ai eu des médecins parmi mes ancêtres, j’ai eu aussi quelques peintres. Entre les deux, mon cœur balance" (If I had doctors in my family, I also had some painters. My heart is torn between the two). In 1843, though Charcot had decided and began his medical training at the school in the Rue de l’Ecole de Médicine, a building which still stands today as the Université Rene Descartes. He was a good student, but not brilliant, and his medical career was slow to take off. After spending several years bumbling around the lower levels of his profession, it was not until 1862 that he would become the holder of a post at the Salpêtrière hospital.

Part of Charcot's library.

It is at this point that the life of Charcot becomes exceptional. Firmly installed at the Salpêtrière and already specialising in avant-garde studies on neurolgical issues, he now began organising what would become his famous Tuesday morning lectures. His personal life changed too, and in 1864 he married a rich widow, Augustine Victoire Durvis (Laurent) with whom he would have two children. Her finances meant that he would now have the necessary means to support his ambition.

“Un Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière” (André Brouillet)

Two places in Paris become important in his life from this period until his death. The Parisot division of the Hopital Salpetrière and the family home, the Hôtel de Varengeville on the Boulevard St Germain. Charcot ran an entire section at the hospital (the newly created School of Neurology) and had a large room in which he would give his lectures. Almost anybody could attend these sessions, and the atmosphere of these extraordinary events was captured by the artist André Brouillet in his painting “Un Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière” in 1887*. The walls of this room were covered with photos and paintings of women in trances or suffering from hysteria, mostly for reasons connected to religion. Charcot though was later to be the first person to show that hysteria did not only affect women.

These buildings were sadly demolished in the 1970s, but there are still traces of Charcot in the hospital. A lecture theatre was built in place of Charcot’s rooms, and above this stands a library of neurological and psychological texts which has also become a kind of shrine to the Doctor. The library he had built up at his home is now situtated here, as are his desks, tables and chairs. It is open to the public, but it is rather strange to see these artifacts in and around 1970s concrete.

In 1884, he moved his family to the Hôtel de Varengeville** on the Boulevard Saint Germain. This illustrious eighteenth century rococco palace was a place he could now show off his art collections and intellect, and each Tuesday evening he invited a selection of artists, writers, politicians and statesman for dinner. The most famous visitor of all was perhaps Sigmund Freud who was extemely impressed by the man and his “magic castle”. Freud was later to confess to his wife in a letter that he had been so nervous before his first visit that he took a little cocaine beforehand ‘to loosen (his) tongue’.

By all accounts, Charcot was a charming and persuasive man, but also a domineering and despotic figure. His lectures were almost theatre, with Charcot controlling them like a showman (probably to the detriment of the medicine) whilst his dinners were apparently impressive and stimulating. What was it like to grow up in this environment though? Charcot senior had little pressure on his shoulders when growing up, but his son would have to live with a crushing weight. We can understand Jean-Baptiste’s careful steps in his father’s footprints in his early years, pursuing the same studies through fear of this dominant figure and the comments of the many illustrious visitors to his home. It is to his credit though that he managed such a radical change in his life after the release of his father’s death, and that he succeeded in ensuring that there would always be two Jean Charcots.

*The original of this painting can be seen in a corridor of the René Descartes University near the entrance to the Musée d'Histoire de la Médecine (12 rue de l'École de Médecine), where Charcot had begun his medical studies. The painting shows one of his most famous patients, Blanche Wittman being hypnotised during a hysterical attack. Looking on are some of the most famous names in medicine of the time. Freud always kept a copy of this picture at his desk, and named his first son Jean-Martin after this doctor who had impressed him so much.

**The house today is the Maison de l’Amerique Latine
where you can eat and drink at the chic restaurant and bar. If you are true fan of Charcot, you can even celebrate your wedding here!

Note: I am not qualified to write of Jean-Martin Charcot’s substantial achievements in medicine, and in any case this has been amply documented elsewhere. My primary interest here has simply been to look at the man and father he was, and investigate where he lived, learned and worked in the city.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Desperately Seeking Charcot (2)

As the bells of the nearby Trinité church chime in the year 1907, the Cléry family in their home in the Rue de la Tour des Dames are busily preparing a forthcoming marriage. On the 24th of the month, their daughter Marguerite will be marrying a Charcot; Jean-Baptiste, the famous Antarctic explorer! Although she will not be his first wife, it is still an honour to form an attachment with such an illustrious family. After the wedding, Jean-Baptiste will join the clan, bringing his lovely daughter Marion with him to this house.

Jean-Baptiste Charcot was a happy man that year, but it was difficult for him to keep his feet on dry land in a big city. In June he learned that one of his fellow sailors on his most recent expedition was planning a new voyage of his own to Australia in a boat he’d named the Jean-Baptiste Charcot. Sitting at a writing desk in his new home Charcot quickly wrote a letter
of thanks and encouragement to his friend. “Non seulement je vous autorise à donner mon nom à votre bateau mais je vous remercie très vivement d’y avoir songé" (Not only do I give you persmission to use my name for your boat but I also thank you heartily for having thought about doing so). The letter was full of nuggets of advice to the younger man, and it was clear that Jean-Baptiste himself was itching to set sail again.

Jean-Baptiste Charcot was a man who constantly needed projects in his life and who lived as much for the sea as for his new family. His wandering soul had already cost him one wife, Jeanne Hugo the Granddaughter of Victor who filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion during his first polar expedition. Jeanne had previously been the wife of his friend, Leon Daudet, with Charcot marrying her a year after she had divorced from him. Daudet didn’t take this news well at first, and they fought a duel outside a theatre after a rather heated discussion.

Charcot's divorce reported in the New York Times in 1905, showing how well-known he had become. It is interesting to read also that he was believed to be missing, something that surely would have been convenient for his wife Jeanne.

Comfortably installed with his lovely new wife, pregnant now with their first child, Charcot could afford a smile as he looked back on these difficult times. Jeanne was also the name of his elder sister, and after returning from his heroic and successful voyage of discovery to the Antarctic, he was obliged to move in with her. She had also recently experienced disappointment in love, suffering a divorce of her own. Her husband had been the powerful press baron Alfred Edwards, but she would be just a chapter in the life of this man who was to marry five times.

The house at number 11 Rue de la Tour des Dames.

With Marguerite, Jean-Baptiste knew it would be different. She accepted him as he was and was keen to accompany him as much as she could. After their first child, Monique, was born on the 8th of December of the same year, Charcot began preparing for his second voyage to the Antarctic. The first aboard the ‘Français’ between 1903 and 1905 had been a huge success and had brought Charcot fame, perhaps now enabling him to finally escape from the shadow of his father, the world-renowned neurologist Jean-Martin. The second trip would be on his own boat, a ship he’d named the 'Pourquoi Pas'. Nobody really remembered where this name had come from. Had it been used dismissively by his father when he had announced that he wanted to be an explorer and not a doctor? In any case, he had become a doctor like his father wanted, but he had not forgotten his dreams, and the name of this boat was the proof of that. The death of his father had been a tragic event, but it had also cut the chains holding him back and had provided him with 400,000 gold Francs to set sail in his new direction.

What he knew was that he would make the Charcot name his own. As a child at school he had always been concerned that “qu’etant le fils de papa, on ne me prenne pour un fils à papa” (as the boy of my daddy that they would also see me as a daddy’s boy). To escape from this shadow he excelled in all he did, going as far as playing in a French national rugby final. As long as his father lived he followed loyally in his path, but now he would really create his own destiny.

On the 19th November 1908, both Jean-Baptiste and Marguerite had left their home in Paris and were about to leave Le Havre on the Pourquoi Pas. The two daughters of Jean-Baptiste would stay in the family home with the Clérys and Marguerite, known now to everybody as Meg, would accompany her husband as far as Puntas Arenas in Chile, in an official role as painter and observer.

Meg would be back in Paris in early 1909, but Jean-Baptiste did not return until the following year. It had been another successful mission, but Jean-Baptiste came back much weakened after having suffered from scurvy. In 1911 though there was another happy event, the birth of their second and Jean-Baptiste’s third child; another girl, Martine, named surely after her Grandfather.

The Commandant Jean-Baptiste Charcot aboard the Pourquoi Pas.

After this period it would seem that the Cléry-Charcots lived in a variety of places but not often in Paris. There was still the Charcot family home in Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris, and his role in the French navy meant that he was often in St Malo and Cherbourg. In the First World War he was based in the UK and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross by the British Government after commanding a Q-Boat for them. The family also later bought another house, a wooden holiday retreat in Aix Les Bains.

In 1931, Meg finally inherited the house in the Rue de la Tour des Dames, but it is not clear whether they lived there or not. By 1936, Charcot was planning his last trip, this time north to Iceland. He was 69 now, and as he explained, “Le Pourquoi Pas, il est vieux, moi aussi et surtout, tout le monde s’en fout" (The Pourquoi Pas is old and so am I, and above all, nobody cares anymore). It was an ordinary, unexceptional project, but it seemed fated to go wrong. Charcot had previously said to a young sailor that “si c’etait pas pour ma famille, j’aimerais mieux crever en mer” (if it wasn’t for my family I’d rather die at sea). On the 16th of September, the Pourquoi Pas was caught in a violent tempest and quickly sunk. There was just one survivor amongst the crew, and the last thing he remembered of Charcot was seeing him set free the caged seagull which had been the ship’s mascot. Charcot’s body was recovered and he was given a state funeral back in Paris then buried in the Montmartre Cemetery. He now lays alongside his father Jean-Martin and mother Augustine, his loving, loyal second wife Meg, his daughter Marion and their youngest daughter Martine.

Additional Notes:
Marguerite (Meg) Cléry-Charcot sold the house to the Caisse Régionale de Secours Mutuels Agricoles de l’Ile de France in 1939 for 760,000 Francs. It was at this point, one hundred years after it had been built, that it was transformed into offices.

Jean-Baptiste Charcot outlived his first daughter Marion who died in 1927 aged only 32.

Marguerite (Meg) Cléry-Charcot died in 1960 aged 86. She had been made Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur after her husband’s death. A member of the Charcot family still lives in the house in Neuilly, and still uses the house in Aix Les Bains. The house in Aix Les Bains is also apparently available for holiday rentals, although no mention is made of the Charcot connection!

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Desperately Seeking Charcot (1)

I love a good mystery, especially one that sends me inwards and outwards on twisting paths of discovery. This one started last November when I wrote about a house on the Rue de la Tour des Dames that I found interesting and attractive, but for which I had little information. One reader suggested that it had belonged to Dr Charcot, a famous name which immediately caught my attention, but which I found impossible to confirm. Later, I was contacted by the Head of the CLEISS agency, currently housed in the building, who invited me to take a tour around the inside of the structure. Would a visit to the house clear up the mystery?

What is the history of this house and did a Charcot live here? From this point on, the story becomes a tale of two Charcots, both called Jean and both Doctors. Jean-Martin, the father, is arguably better known today than his son, Jean-Baptiste, certainly in the field of medicine. Was this his house? The information I had confirmed a home in Neuilly and a residence on the Boulevard Saint Germain, but no mention of a dwelling in the Rue de la Tour des Dames. However, a quick check of the bible of Paris history, Hillairet’s 'Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris' confirms that this house ‘fut habité après son marriage par le docteur Charcot’ (was lived in after his marriage by the Doctor Charcot). But which Doctor Charcot?

Jean-Yves Hocquet met me at the entrance to the house one lunchtime and very kindly gave me a tour around the property. The portes cochères lead through to a garden and stables, today converted into a car park and additional offices, with the rear of the house featuring an attractive veranda. The Flemish theme seen in the brick and gables of the exterior is continued inside, with dark, mahogony wood prevailing on staircases and window frames. All the original rooms are today used as offices, but the original features, marble fireplaces and painted ceilings, are still visible behind the desks, computers and photocopiers. It's an interesting 19th century dwelling, but with little exceptional on display.

Mr Hocquet also confirmed a Charcot connection at the property, but could not give me any dates, and there was no traces of the Charcot name anywhere to be seen inside the house. It was fascinating to see inside a private building when many of my observations are necessarily limited to the exterior only, but sometimes the guts tell us little more than the skeleton has already revealed, and that was the case here. It was time to find another way to solve the mystery.

The Archives de Paris, Boulevard Sérurier, 75019

With books and websites there is always a concern about the reliability of the information. Are the writers merely passing on erroneous details from other writers? The only place that could truly offer an answer to my question was the Archives de Paris, a building which stores two centuries of documents on individuals, buildings and taxation. It is also a fascinating place to spend an afternoon, pouring over and touching heavy, official documents from previous centuries, trying to make sense of the often tiny, dense text inscribed on the pages.

I first find a trace of the building in a taxation document from the 1850s. It was seemingly built and owned by the Comte Leblanc de Chateauvillard, who himself lived at 60, Rue St Lazare which bordered the property to the rear. Apparently it was not always a salubrious building. A note in the document reads "Cette maison construite en 1833 est très mal tenue. Il n’y a point de concierge et les locataires demanagent la plupart du temps sans payer leur loyer" (This building built in 1833 is in a very poor state. There is no housekeeper and the tenants move out most of the time without paying their rent). By the 1876 survey though the situation was more stable. It was now in the hands of the Cléry family who lived in the house themselves, and a housekeeper is listed in the document. A much later document though, this time from the mid-twentieth century, gives me the answer I was looking for. One of the Cléry offspring, Marguerite, who would later inherit the house, changed her name to Charcot. But which Charcot had she married?

See also: Desperately Seeking Charcot (2)

Sunday 12 April 2009

The Rue Denoyez

At the Cafe des Delices on the corner of the Rue Denoyez and the Rue Lemon, a man stands in the doorway and surveys the scene in front of him. How quickly things change he must think to himself as he draws on his cigarette. Today marks the beginning of another chapter for this street, the opening of the Piscine Alfred Nakache. The project of a piscine in the Rue Denoyez* had certainly raised a few eyebrows when it was first mentioned! It will surely bring many more people to this passageway that has now become one of the most photographed in the city.

A few short years ago nobody walked around here. The shop units were locked up and shuttered down and the street was little more than a thoroughfare of crumbling walls and broken windows. These were the walls that saw another era though (c.1830), a time when this was a passage just outside the old city limits where people came to drink and dance. Mr Denoyez owned a tavern here, just alongside another famous venue, the Ramponeau caberet. Whilst Paris struggled under high taxation, low prices here ensured that the venues were always full.

The new swimming pool behind the Cafe des Delices.

In recent times though this had become very much a street in decline. The Cafe des Delices was one of the only fountains of life, a place where Jewish Tunisian men have long gathered to drink coffee, play cards, or watch football matches on a flickering television screen. Alongside, no star hotels with rooms rented out on long term deals to families with no other options and shop units offering low cost long distance telephone lines. But then the artists started to arrive.

One at first, a sculptor or painter perhaps, squatting a disused shop unit. Others followed and soon they were painting the units in bright colours and pasting shells and tiles on the walls outside. In the heart of Belleville this was nothing exceptional, but curious locals began passing down here again, stopping from time to time to look in the windows. It wasn't until the grafitti artists arrived though that the street refound a name.

Grouped around the Frichez Nous La Paix collective, a huge wall at the top of the street has been given over to these artists. This wall is not just any wall though, but the side of the Aux Folies bar on the Rue de Belleville, a venue that has seen generations of artists visit the cafe and sun-trap terrace. The wall is a constantly evolving mural, with multi-coloured pictures and names now hundreds of sprayed layers deep. Even a tree, which has forced its way up through a crack, and dustbin find themselves incorporated into the creations.

The street from this point up has now become a succession of brightly coloured facades, giving the illusion of a souk. It's lively and friendly, but as I take a photo of one unit a man appears and tells me to come and look inside. In truth they are a little tired of the procession of photographers, people who click but don't stop. "This is the real Belleville" he tells me, pointing out a scruffy, dimly-lit interior of exposed wooden beams. The establishment seems to be a clandestine café, sparsely furnished with second-hand chairs and tables and with plastic bottles of Coca-Cola on the counter. I'm not sure what he means by the real Belleville though. Clearly the building is old, but is this any more representative of the district than the Café des Delices opposite?

The Frichez Nous La Paix shop unit displays the tags of all the artists who have contributed to the wall opposite.

In reality, this street has become all the Bellevilles. The Chinese community gather where it touches the Rue de Belleville, whilst African communities are centred more on the Ramponeau side of the street. Tunisians with both Jewish and Muslim ancestries have lived side by side here for 50 years in a quiet and mutual respect whilst more recently young artists and middle-class families have moved in. The beauty of the warren of streets that make up this district, the modern blocks and ancient houses is that none of them can claim to be the real Belleville.

*Denoyez sounds like 'the drowned' in French. A funny name for a street with a swimming pool!

Wednesday 8 April 2009

The Folly of an Architect

Most of the posts on this blog have been about buildings I like, often little-known structures that I think deserve to be seen. It is my opinion that almost all buildings have qualities that can be appreciated, even if the overall result is unattractive or disappointing. It is rare indeed that I feel only antipathy when observing a building, but that is certainly the case with the edifice at number 21 Rue de Châteaudun, probably my least favourite building in the city.

For a building to be truly offensive, I think that it must play an everyday role in your life. Perhaps it is a poorly designed office building in which you work, or maybe a new construction built within view of your living space. Number 21 Rue de Châteaudun is a building that I often walk past, perhaps 2 or 3 times a week, and it always manages to catch my spirit and drag it down to the ground.

I am not even sure who I should be blaming for this. What I do know is that the building was originally designed by the architect Raymond Février in 1933 in an aggressive, triumphalist style. This is surprising when we consider that Février, with his brother Jules, had previously been responsible for one of Madrid's better known buildings, the classical French romanesque Edificio Metrópolis, erected in 1907.

Jules died in 1937 aged 95, but I have no information about the age of Raymond when he designed the Parisian structure. Clearly he had changed his approach though, and was now more influenced by American modernist styles. Fortunately, this was not a style of architecture that caught on amongst his peers in the city, perhaps being interrupted then influenced by the Second World War. This design, finished just 6 years before war broke out, would become deeply unfashionable after the armistice, with its hints of totalitarian swagger.

Designed apparently for the 'La Paternelle' insurance company, it is the kind of building where you could imagine a Ministry of Truth being based. It has no visible entrance, no welcoming lobby and no obvious purpose. It is easy to imagine shadowy, faceless bureaucrats lined up at desks, passing their day erasing the unpersons. Indeed, it is somewhat reminiscent of the Senate House in London (1937), inspiration for George Orwell's 1984. It is on a smaller scale, but the whitewashed walls with phallic soaring columns and sunken, dark windows are clearly of the same era. These are imposing, threatening buildings, designed to make the outsider feel excluded and the insider more powerful.

Février's is not the only name etched onto the building however, as the architects Jérôme Delaage and Fernand Tsaropoulos were to add their own 60 years later. Delaage and Tsaropoulos are responsible for most of the few high-rise blocks that have managed to make their way into the city, notably at the Square Vitruve and on the Front de Seine. Working on massive, imperial structures with little in the way of decoration, they would clearly have been pleased to be involved in the restructuration of the edifice on the Rue de Châteaudun. The building today still looks crisp and well-kept, but tellingly one of the few design features, a clock on the façade, no longer works. It is not clear how Delaage and Tsaropoulos altered the original structure, but they certainly felt that they had made sufficient changes to warrant adding their names to Février's.

Interestingly, Delaage and Tsaropoulos were recently involved in another vanity case. The residents living in one of their constructions, the Tour Espace 2000 on the Front de Seine, had voted and then paid for a change of colour of the tower. When Delaage and Tsaropoulos saw the colour change however, which they described now as being 'caca d'oie' (Goose shit) rather than the original 'brun foncé..(comme)..un bloc vertical de mégalithe noir' (dark brown, like a black standing stone), they decided to take the residents' group to court. Last summer, the two architects won their case, pocketing 30,000 Euros and the right to force back the original colour of the building. The judge concluded that the darker colour, chosen deliberately to echo Stanley Kubrick's Space Odyssey, was an integral part of the creation and could not be changed without the permission of the 'creators'. It is not clear whether the estate of Kubrick was consulted, but it does seem that this team of architects considers their art to be more important than the everyday experience of those who live in or around their creations.

Note: The photo of the Tour Espace 2000 in the linked page was taken in 2005, so must be the changed colour as the repainting was done in 2003. This photo seems to show the colour transformation taking place.

Monday 6 April 2009

One-Two-Two Rue de Provence

Despite its name, the Rue de Provence behind the Grands Magasins is far from being a luminous and balmy passageway. Originally a rustic path alongside an open sewer, it is now a banal commercial thoroughfare, with the sewer having simply been covered over with bitumen. How strange to think that at number 122 used to stand one of the most exclusive and fashionable destinations in the city, the One-Two-Two bordel. This has always been an area linked to prostitution, with 19th century scenes described in the works of Gaston Leroux and Balzac. Mostly though this has been of the seedy kind that still exists today, but the One-Two-Two establishment was of a different style altogether. It was a venue that attracted Counts, Princes, actors and politicians, men and women.

The first three floors of the building were the original townhouse of the Maréchal Murat, a Napoleanic war hero who was later declared King of Naples. It was purchased in the early 1930s by Marcel Jamat who then immediately set out on a large-scale rebuild, adding an extra four floors and an extravagant interior. Jamet wanted a place that would fulfill almost any fantasy or fetish, with each room decorated according to a particular theme. There was a lavish Rome themed room, a mysterious African room, recreations of luxurious yachts, Indian colonial scenes and even a rural countryside room complete with straw.

The Yacht room in the One-Two-Two (picture taken from here. There are several other pictures of the establishment at this site, but many not safe for work!)

These were just the more mainstream areas though. For more extreme fetishes, clients had to continue climbing the stairs. As Fabienne Jamet, wife of Marcel and maitresse of the establishment, said, “Plus on allait vers le ciel, plus on se rapprochait de l'enfer“ (The closer one got to the sky, the closer one got to Hell). On the higher levels were the torture rooms, places where visitors could be humiliated or even reenact the crucifixion! All this took place behind firmly closed shutters, creating a world where natural night was banished.

It was not necessarilly these facilities that made the establishment famous however. These rooms were used mostly in the afternoon by anonymous clients, but in the evenings it was a fashionable place to be seen. Visitors would congregate in the Boeuf à la Ficelle restaurant, with visitors known to have include Jean Gabin, Charlie Chaplin, Marlène Dietrich, Cary Grant, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. This was not just any restaurant however, with diners enjoying caviar and champagne served by girls wearing only high heels and a camelia in their hair. Later they would retire to the Salon Miami and enjoy brandies and cigars and simply talk to the working girls. As one of them later recalled, "on nous payait pour bavarder, un peu comme des geishas" (we were paid for talking, a little like Geishas).

Number 122 Rue de Provence today. Jamet's additional four floors are clearly visible above the original townhouse.

On an average day, 50 girls would be working with an additional 40 people employed for auxiliary tasks. There were people to cut the girls' hair and give them manicures or pedicures. Doctors came every two weeks to inspect them, an essential part of being able to run a brothel in the city. Everything was clean, scrubbed and disinfected, but it would never be possible to remove the internal scars of the girls. They had been chosen because good fortune had given them exceptional or fashionable body forms, and whilst conditions in the establishment may have the best in Paris, a working day was still 14 hours, and the outside world was still a place of sordid housing, and partners who were often pimps or who simply drank or gambled away their earnings.

The fame of the establishment lasted barely fifteen years. In 1946 a shamed post-war France voted to close down all brothels and the One-Two-Two was given 6 months to open the shutters and shut the doors. In reality, it had been tainted by the war when German officers became the only clients. The building still stands today, unchanged, but the torture rooms have been replaced by Solicitors. We can now look inside the windows and imagine who passed through here but it is very difficult to picture the scene with today’s décor. The glimour of glamour that the Rue de Provence once had is now past, and once more it is little more than a covered sewer.

Saturday 4 April 2009

The 4am Project

What’s your view at 4am? This is the question asked by Karen Strunks, freelance photographer and organiser of the 4am Project. She has decided "to gather a collection of photos from around the world at the magical time of see what you see at that moment in time on that one day". 4am on the 4th day of the 4th month.

4am is the dead hour, the time of the day that sees the highest percentage of deaths. These are mostly people who take their last breath in the deepest part of their sleep, so perhaps I'm better off outside in the streets than in my warm bed. 4am - a very strange time in Paris. Paris is not a 24 hour city, and this is almost certainly the quietest moment of the day. At 6am, the Metro begins again and cars start filling the streets. The boulangerie spills light out into the street and the city wakes up again, but at 4am everything is shut and quiet. What could be more invisible than the city at this time?

At least that's what I thought. The reality is a brightly illuminated world, steady with a trickle of laughing groups wandering home and a constant rumble of taxis. A blackbird begins the dawn chorus whilst poor unfortunates get what sleep they can in doorways. It is surprisingly warm, 13° which I'm happy about, but not as much as the man under his thin blanket.

At the Marché du Boulevard de la Villette, one brave market stand holder is setting up for the day. Around him, the only other people are the Chinese walkers, young women selling the only commodity they have left. Shady looking men approach but it is certainly not a scene I want to catch on camera. Back to Belleville, and a city of Paris electronic information board. I need to get the photo whilst 4.00 is displayed. As 3.59 ticks over, the message turns to a warning about high pollution levels. Time to get a quick picture then hop back into bed - although I'm not sure where it is safest to breathe anymore!

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Houses of Gold, Glass and Straw

The original Domus Aurea or Golden House was Nero’s party villa in ancient Rome, but in terms of exuberance and extravagance it was nearly rivalled by the 19th century Maison Dorée in Paris. Parts of both constructions still exist today, standing simply as pillaged shells. In Rome, the walls are fenced off to tourists whilst in Paris the interior has been fenced in by a bank.

Nero’s Domus Aurea was a party villa, famously containing 300 rooms but not a single sleeping area. It was clearly an inspiration to the similarly named establishment in Paris, a building which itself was a rabbit warren of rooms. Nero’s house survived only for a decade after his death and was quickly stripped of its luxurious marble, jewel and ivory interiors, before eventually being buried under tonnes of earth. The surviving walls didn’t see daylight again until the 16th century, but the spirit of the villa slept a while longer, until the middle of the 19th century when the Restaurant de la Maison d’Or opened in Paris, suitably enough on the Boulevard des Italiens.

To describe the establishment as just a restaurant would not do it justice, and soon it became known simply as the Maison Dorée. The name came from the gold plated sculpted exterior, but it also described the stench of money that lay stagnant in the air. It was a place with two faces. Looking out towards the Boulevard was the terrace of the restaurant, a venue that was open to everybody so long as they could afford the extortionate prices. It was the second entrance on the Rue Laffite though that would be the source of the myths, giving access to only a select few who ate in private ‘cabinets’. The most popular was the number 6, where Princes and Counts would entertain friends and ‘grisettes’ and take their choice from amongst the 80,000 bottles of wine that were stored in the cellars.

The Maison Dorée and Boulevard des Italiens in the 19th century

When the Domus Aurea was rediscovered in the 16th century the first people to visit were the artists, including Raphael and Michelangelo. The Maison Dorée would also become the haunt of choice for artists, with Zola, Gaugin, Proust, Balzac and Verdi being regular visitors. It was linked to the Impressionist movement as well, with the 8th and final Salon des Impressionists being organised here in 1886. Perhaps being linked with a movement in decline did not help the establishment, and with the Grands Boulevards also declining in popularity amongst the wealthy it would not be long before the restaurant itself would shut down forever.

It seems almost appropriate that a building so connected to money should eventually become the offices of a bank. For most of the 20th century though it was a simple Post Office, and it wasn’t until 1975, after a complete redesign and an incorporation of modern elements by the architect Pierre Dufau that it would be incorporated into the BNP banking empire. BNP have taken the name and the cultural heritage but today the building celebrates only wealth.

The façade is one of the only survivors of Pre-Haussmanian Paris on the Grands Boulevards, but today it is just that – a façade. Behind the showy, golden exterior the more recent building is more typical of the banking environment. Until very recently this has been an opaque world that needed to remain secretive to function, and the reflective glass windows that throw our regards back out towards the street are the perfect metaphor. The general public has also recently discovered that banks, like the Maison Dorée, have two faces. A familiar one on the High Street and the more shady profile where individuals made fortunes but also almost brought down the world’s economy. Joining the two worlds, the friendly façade and the secretive windows is a stretch of solid stone. It may have represented the solidity of banks when built, but seems superfluous today now we know that banking establishments are simply more extravagant versions of the youngest pig’s house of straw.

The BNP empire has survived relatively unscathed for the moment, but the name ‘Maison Dorée’ is surely an embarassment in today’s climate. Hopefully it will stay though, and serve as a reminder that the love and celebration of wealth is always destined to end in shame and decay.
Twitter Instagram Write Bookmark this page More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Premium Wordpress Themes