Friday 29 May 2009

The Hidden Castle

On the hills of Menilmontant near to the summit of Paris sits a magnificent renovated country house called the Pavillon Carré de Baudouin. Hidden behind high walls and owned for over 150 years by nuns from the Saint Vincent de Paul charity, this building, sometimes also known as the Chateau de Menilmontant, is today freely open to visitors. Transformed into a gallery and arts centre, this summer it is featuring a selection of works and photos of three well known street artists in this part of the city, and the exhibition, house and gardens make for a fascinating visit.

One of the first owners, and the person who gave the building its name was Nicolas Carré de Baudouin. After inheriting the property in 1770 he asked the architect Pierre-Louis Moreau-Desproux to add a more regal façade and the two decided on neo-Palladian with four ionic columns. The house was a 'folie', a country house outside the city walls where fantastic parties were held with magnificent views back across Paris. Later the house was owned by the Goncourt family, and the two writer brothers, Jules and Edmond, apparently spent many happy childhood years here.

The 19th century brought more troubled times and in 1836 the house was sold to the Soeurs de Saint Vincent de Paul who built a second building along the garden and transformed it into an orphanage. A message is still clearly visible above the entrance to the new wing; Laissez Venir a Moi Les Petits Enfants (let the little children come to me). The building kept its religious purpose until 1992 when they decided to sell. The city of Paris stepped in to save a building which was now in a sad state, and spent 4 years and over 29 million Euros renovating the gardens and buildings.

The renovation, overseen by the architects Stéphane Bigoni and Antoine Mortemard, is magnificent and the building now houses large and pleasant galleries. From May to the end of August this year, it is the site of an exhibition celebrating the work of three of the best known street artists in Paris; Mesnager, Mosko et associés, and Nemo. Mesnager is famous for his simple white human forms, Mosko et associés for his animals and Nemo for his black sillouettes, and the three have been spread around the building, sometimes sharing walls and frames.

These figures can be seen on walls, shops and buildings around Paris, mostly in the Menilmontant area surrounding this house. It is interesting that the city of Paris have decided to celebrate them and to bring them indoors into this cosy environment. The three men clearly enjoy working together and part of the contract that brought them to this centre is that they should organise a series of workshops with local residents and groups of children. All of this contrasts very strongly with another site, La Forge, further down the hill in Belleville, subject of my next post.

Art Urbain
Pavillon Carré de Baudouin
119-121, rue de Ménilmontant, 75020

From the 15th of May to the 29th of August 2009
Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm
M° Gambetta

Thursday 28 May 2009

Gunpowder and Pity

According to Benjamin Franklin there are only two certainties in life, death and taxes. If we include another obvious first event, birth, we find two of the three certainties taking place in hospitals and the third paying for them. We begin our lives there and end our lives there, so shouldn't we make them into places to be celebrated and not feared between the two events? Fortunately in Paris there are several establishments that offer much of historical and architectural interest, principally the Hôpital Pitié Salpêtrière.

On a personal level, this institution is significant for me not as the place where Princess Diana and Josephine Baker took their last breaths, but as the place where my son took his first. On that hot afternoon I walked around the gardens, head-giddy through lack of sleep and sheer excitement. Now I was linked to the ground I was walking on and not just a visitor. A part of my flesh and blood was now a kicking and screaming part of this country, and that helped me to feel I belonged by extention. I was glad that it had happened at this place, a part of the city I’ve learned to love, and which will always have significance for my son too.

I am not a religious person, but in the days that followed I often went and sat in the St Louis chapel. This massive structure, designed by Libéral Bruant (who was also the architect of Les Invalides) was built in 1675, and the thick stone walls brought me shelter from the heat and a quiet place to reflect on the immense change in my life. I even lit a candle, asking for my son to be as strong and handsome as these walls. At the time all was happiness and fear, and I gave no thought to what else these walls had seen.

Later I learned that my son had been born in a place which quite literally had an explosive history. The name, Salpêtrière, stems from its past as a producer and storage area for saltpeter, which of course was used to make gunpowder. When it became impractical to store something so dangerous in the city, the site was transformed into dumping ground for small-time criminals or simply for those too poor to survive elsewhere. Although Louis XIV added a suitably regal entrance as well as the St Louis chapel in the 17th century, it was still a cruel and harsh environment. Prostitutes and the mentally weak were rounded up and thrown into large prison buildings or, worse, were chained up in individual box rooms. These still survive today, transformed into rather attractive looking offices.

The old single cell blocks where female prisoners considered to be insane were chained and locked up.

As I sat in one of the four chapels in the St Louis building I had no idea that these had been built to divided the sane from the insane, the inmates from the staff. Did I light a candle to the favoured or the downtrodden? Recently I have returned on many other occasions, most notably to find traces of the Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, and now have a far greater understanding of the importance and significance of these historical remains. My memories of this place are all joyous, but others throughout the ages have suffered immensely. In the 18th century, female prisoners here were forcibly married to male prisoners from the nearby Bicêtre hospital and sent out to populate French colonies in the Americas. During the revolution, in 1792, a group of men set out to release the unfairly imprisoned street girls, but although they managed to release 183 prostitutes, a kind of alcohol fuelled frenzy took over them, and they also massacred 45 innocent women for no discernable reason.

The Batiment de la Force, the principal prison building, and the site of the massacre. Interestingly, today it houses the hospital's psychiatric unit.

At the end of the 18th century, the site finally became a true place of medicine, and in a first timid gesture, straitjackets replaced iron shackles and prison cells. It became a site where people tried to understand, not condemn, and saw the birth of neurology and psychiatry. The hospital has grown since then (indeed, the Pitié part of the hospital was added at the beginning of the 20th century, and features many splendid brick buildings), and today is one of the largest institutions in Europe. Although the structures and facilities are state of the art today, many of the original structures remain, and it is a place littered with memories. Some immensely painful and some filled with indescribable joy.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

100th Post!

(100 Rue de Couronnes, 75020)

A blog is often a succession of numbers, but are they milestones or millstones? Post numbers are carefully counted, but figures also point out visitor totals, page views, comments and followers. I try not to look at these numbers too often, but perhaps we are all pre-programmed to find significance in such details. Society as a whole is dominated by numbers; unemployment totals, debt figures and people's wages are considered important news stories, homes are just a price per square foot and people are judged by their age. We are the digits of our telephones and the number of the street on which we live. If we have to be represented by this, what could be better than a round number and an attractive and welcoming entrance?

This post is also a big shout to Therese Cox and her excellent and very addictive blog, Ampersand Seven. Go visit and you'll see why!

Saturday 23 May 2009

L'Usine Spring Court

Backing on to the Manufacture de Saint Maur is another industrial space, the Usine Spring Court. An attractive mix of steel, glass and whitewashed brick, it at first seems to be a functioning factory, but push the entrance gate (in the Impasse Piver, 75011) and you'll be confronted by a spotless conversion job. Nothing solid is created here anymore, but it remains a centre of creation. In the place of rubber soles and canvas uppers, photographers now use the factory floors as studios.

It was an Alsacian, Théodore Grimmeisen, who created the first elements of this factory in 1870. These buildings are still visible as you enter and were used for the production of rubber stops and lids. Later his son would extend this production to include rubber footwear, but it wasn't until the grandson, Georges Grimmeisen, designed a revolutionary cotton canvas and vulcanised rubber tennis shoe in 1936 that the factory become internationally known. These shoes, the famous Spring Court brand, changed the lives of tennis players at the time, and launched a whole new type of footwear. Sports shoes became fashionable, so much so that John Lennon wore a pair on his wedding day and on the cover of the Beatles Abbey Road album!

As production increased, extra space was needed, and an extension was built at the rear. It is in these sections today that the majority of photo agencies and magazines are installed (the famous Magnum agency had their offices here for several years). The company may have been innovative, but they lacked the vision and marketing skills of German and American competitors, and in the 1980s the factory finally closed. The inheritor, another Théodore Grimmeisen, decided to continue making the shoes, but moved production to Thailand (where they use some of the original machinery). He then set about renovating the site and finding tenants for the newly created offices and studios. He wanted to rent only to companies related to creation and communication, and found no problems attracting interested groups.

Today the site looks almost like an industrial museum, where the pieces are still in place but there is not a sound to be heard nor a spot of oil or dirt to be seen. Even more astonishing though is the "L'Atelier des mélanges" restaurant which has been installed in an old chemistry laboratory. It operates as an upmarket canteen for the people working at the site, but prices are very reasonable and the position is magnificent, so if you are in the area one weekday lunchtime, it could be worth attempting to find a free table! If you have no luck there, head further in and visit the Spring Court factory shop where you can find the famous shoes at bargain prices.

In many ways the site is typical of industrial spaces in cities today, and it is the Manufacture de Saint Maur which is atypical. Given the success of this site, it would be tempting for developers to attempt something similar in the plot behind, but it is unlikely that it would have the same charm. The difference here at the Usine Spring Court is surely that the building still belongs to the same family who originally built the structures, and they look after site with love and care.

Friday 22 May 2009

La Manufacture de St Maur

Dotted around the lower levels of Belleville are many surviving 19th century industrial structures. This was an area of manual workers, of generally poor quality housing and, perhaps in compensation, a wide and varied selection of bars and dance halls. Many have been transformed today as the district has moved upmarket and manual work has moved to countries with lower labour costs, but others still struggle on. Two such structures, which stand back to back, perfectly demonstrate this very interesting contrast.

At number 168 Rue St Maur in the 11th arrondissement, a working establishment. A large porte cochère leads you through to a small, cobblestoned courtyard and a solid, attractive textile factory building. Above the gates as you enter it is still possible to make out the name of the establishment; Manufacture de St Maur. The original owners have long since left, but you can still hear the repetitive buzzing of sewing machines, and many of the original features remain.

On the left as you enter, the gatehouse. Built in a curious Normandy rustic, this is where visitors and delivery men would have first stopped.

On the right-hand side, one of the two entrances into the building. Set off to one side and featuring elegant curves, this entrance was probably the more prestigious and thus reserved for management and important visitors.

At the top of the main building and above the principal entrance, a clock surrounded by a sculptured portico. This not only gives a touch of splendour to the building, but would have also served a practical purpose, showing workers when they shifts began and ended. Beneath the clock, the year of construction in roman numerals. Quiz time; look carefully and tell me what year the building dates from!

Today this pinnacle no longer serves the same purpose and instead acts as a support for television arials. I'm not sure why there would be televisions inside this building today, although it is possible that it houses some offices. It seems to serve largely as a storage area, ironically for an importer of textiles from India, but some production clearly continues here. Part of the structure is also given over to a dance studio and sometime performance space.

Given the quality of the construction and its prized position today, it is almost certain that it will sometime slip into the world of gentrification and probably be transformed into more upmarket office space or loft appartments. The current construction crisis will put this on hold, but it will surely only delay the moment when the structure becomes similar to its neighbour, the Usine Spring Court (featured in my next post).

Wednesday 20 May 2009

What's in a Name?

As Jim and Mitch recently pointed out in their fascinating Designslinger blog, many residential buildings have very visible names on them. They are placed there for a variety of reasons, but as time goes by the reasons become less and less clear until they eventually become an additional mystery in the patchwork of the city. In Paris it is rare to see residential buildings given quaint, pretty names like those in Chicago featured on Designslinger, but occasionally names can still be seen, like on the building pictured above on the Passage Thière behind the Place de la Bastille.

With Parisian buildings often heavy with sculpture and decoration, it was perhaps felt unnecessary to weigh them down even further with names. In comparison, Chicago's sometimes austere structures perhaps needed softening with a picturesque and evocative title. The building I have featured here though is named for other reasons. The name, Leon Mager, signifies not only the person who paid for the construction but also acts as a clear entranceway to the factory owned and managed by the same person, which was situated in the courtyard behind.

Today the factory has all but disappeared but the impressive residential section is still firmly in place, as is of course the name. Curiously, the Leon Mager business still seems to be in existence, and although it continues to operate from the original address, it is simply named Mager today. The company website is designed to give the establishment a modern spin, and no mention is made of the history of the enterprise nor of the forefather who left his name so visibly on the face of the city.

Note: For more information on the architectural elements of this building, see the post I wrote on my Bricks in Paris blog. In some ways these two posts show why I felt it necessary to launch a spin-off blog; one to deal with the technical aspects of (brick!) buildings, and one to deal with the stories or curiosities I find around them. In today's day and age, recycling should also be something to be encouraged too!

Monday 18 May 2009

The Other Van Gogh

In a rather quaint looking cul-de-sac called the Cité Pigalle in the 9th arrondissement of Paris sits the Villa Van Gogh hotel. It looks rather idyllic as spring brings lush foliage to the trees in the street, but what actually is the connection to Van Gogh here? Walk a little further along, past the hotel, and look carefully through the thick tangles of bottle-green ivy and the answer can be seen on the wall of the building at number 8. This was Theo Van Gogh’s appartment, yet the sign gives more information about his brother Vincent, who stayed here only once for barely a week in 1890. We put the great and good on very large pedestals, but what happens to those who lived in their sometimes very dark shadows?

Jane Austen wrote in Mansfield Park that “the younger brother must help to pay for the pleasures of the elder”. This was certainly the case with the Van Goghs where Theo, four years younger than Vincent, not only helped but often fully supported his brother’s lifestyle. From 1880, until Vincent’s death in 1890, Theo regularly sent his brother both money and painting materials. He also used his position as an art dealer in Paris to try to find an audience and market for his brother’s creations. In many ways it was Theo who created the Van Gogh myth, sacrificing his own name to promote that of his brother, and eventually sacrificing himself when he believed that he had failed.

Theo first arrived in Paris in 1884. He was working for the French art dealers Goupil and Cie in The Hague, and had received a transfer to their head office in Paris following good work at the regional branch. Goupil and Cie specialised in traditional, classical artists, and Theo often antagonised his superiors by attempting to promote the new generation of Impressionist artists, his borther included, from the Paris dealership. Vincent first arrived in the city in March 1886, and Theo lodged him at his appartments, first on the Rue de Laval (today Rue Victor Massé), then on the Rue Lepic.

The building where Theo lived in the Cité Pigalle.

Much of what we know of the two brothers is through the many letters that they sent to each other, and as they lived together in Paris, this stretch of time has become the cloudiest period of their lives. We do know though that Vincent stayed in the city until 1888, and that although Theo worked tirelessly to introduce him to fellow artists or clients, he could not make him respected or successful. Vincent had become friends with Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac and Gaugin, but he did not like city life and eventually moved out Arles in the south of France where he intended to create a kind of artistic colony.

Theo stayed in Paris, married, then fathered a son he named Vincent Willem after his brother. He moved to a larger, smarter flat, the property mentioned previously at the Cité Pigalle. The two brothers’ paths would not cross again until May 1890, when Vincent arrived to stay with Theo and his family. He was irritable, telling his brother that he should not bring up a family in such a city, and stayed only three days before moving to Auvers sur Oise where he would die two months later. Visiting the grave of Vincent in the pretty cemetery in this quaint town throws up one final surprise in the story of the two brothers. Theo is buried alongside him, and died himself 6 months later aged only 33.

The final resting place of the brothers in Auvers sur Oise.

What happened in the 6 months between the two deaths? This is the question that a French author, Judith Perrignon, asked herself, and her imagined story, based on much documentary evidence, can be found in the book ‘C’était mon frère’. What we do know is that in reality Theo was as unstable as his brother. He eventually died in an asylum in Utrecht in the Netherlands, some say driven mad by feelings of guilt for his brother’s death, but almost certainly also through complications from the Syphilis he had contracted. It is said that he tried to kill his wife and young son, so perhaps it should be no surprise that he is also separated from them in death.

We are all unique individuals, yet we are connected to others through choice, and most importantly through the sometimes tainted links of blood and chains of DNA. The family protects but the family unit is also a nest of competition and feuds, forced as we are from a young age to be constantly compared to our siblings. Theo decided that his brother had the talent and he the business brain, and that together they could be successful. He believed that he had failed and had betrayed the family name, but the stone plaque we see on the wall at number 8 Cité Pigalle shows us that he had in fact succeeded.

Friday 15 May 2009

Louder than Words

In the Mouffetard area of Paris on the left bank I recently came across two compositions that seemed rather appropriate at the moment, although neither featured any words. My temptation therefore is to add no words of my own and just let the images speak for themselves, but I will quickly say why they appealed to me.

The first (above) was a large (perhaps 1 metre high) red question mark on a grey, stone wall. Graphically the juxtaposition of the colours was striking, but it is also the perfect representation of the general confusion we all feel at the moment. Credit crunches, swine flu, negative inflation, European elections...they all just deserve this big point d'interrogation!

Secondly, with all this confusion propagated by the media, perhaps the best thing to do is to just throw out the television. The anarchists who sprayed the wall behind would agree, but I doubt that they were the ones who positioned this machine so neatly next to these unfriendly looking railings.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

On The Other Side

I briefly mentioned the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad in my previous post, site of the Rotonde and Bassin de la Villette, and how the area which has seen so much of the city's history somehow remains unchanged. What interests me most today about this area though are the recent attempts to clean it up and integrate it into the rest of the city. What have we been able to learn from these attempts and how much responsibility should we assume for the environments in which we live?

Recently installed on the Place, the 25° Est bar and restaurant (photo above) seemingly offers an idyllic spot in the city. The two-levelled terrace is situated alongside a small basin of water, and gives views across the larger Bassin and back across the Place towards the Rotonde. After the installations of the two multiplex MK2 cinemas on either side of canal, it is another successful attempt to bring life back to this corner of Paris.

This most recent renovation though nearly did not take place. It should be noted that most of what is visible today was only put in place in the late 1980s, so was a complete overhaul already a necissity? The secondary problem was the fact that the architect of these changes, Bernard Huet, had died in 2001, and his family and friends were fighting to preserve his creation. It was a creation though that was seemingly in the wrong place and simply did not work.

At the beginning of this century, Stalingrad had an abysmal reputation in the city. Huet's creation had become a large empty space, a zone where people did not dare walk after dark, with its endless quiet corners and dimly lit tunnels. Crack dealers and addicts moved in and took over, and the Place was close to becoming lawless. It was the residents of the area though who fought back, organising protests and even policing the zone themselves, and who eventually forced the city to rethink the site. Despite protests from the Huet followers, significant changes were made, notably the closure of the tunnels and a decision to bring life back to the Place. The 25° Est moved in and the Rotonde will be changed from offices (therefore devoid of life in the evening) to a restaurant. And yet for all that, this is the view that clients at the 25° Est have today.

Huet provided benches alongside the canal, divided up into individual walled boxes, and these have been taken over by a community of homeless people. Who can blame them? Further along the Line 2 Metro route I had seen a bed under the rattling railway line which was just a wooden pallet and a blanket, and in comparison these units are almost luxurious. Who should assume most responsibility for this situation though - the architect for creating something that could be transformed in this manner and which probably wasn't a wise project for the location, or the politicians who do little to change a society in which so many people are forced to make any use they can of the city furniture?

Many of us sit a little awkwardly and guiltily today, trying to make the most of our leisure time and yet constantly aware of the misery around us, but why is it though that areas that try to make a difference in the city are the ones that suffer this misery the most? Why has this canal seen so many problems whilst the Seine in front of the Assemblée Nationale remains spotless for tourists? Why has the popular Square Villemin park in the 10th arrondissement become almost a refugee camp and not the Parc Monceau? Again, only our politicians have the answers!

Note: Having written this, it is now very interesting for me to see that the organisation fighting for more social housing, Les Enfants de Don Quichotte, has just set up a camp more or less opposite the Assemblée Nationale! I wonder though whether they will be allowed to stay there for as long as they did at the less noticeable Canal St Martin two years ago! (

Monday 11 May 2009

The Underground Overground

The Paris Metro system is clean, reliable and cheap, but for all that also rather dull. Being contained underground in almost its entirety and with stations looking very much alike, it cannot be said to have the vetust charm of the London Tube or the grandeur of the Moscow Metropoliten. However, there are sections worthy of investigation, with the most fascinating of all being the stretch of the Line 2 along the viaduct between the stations of Colonel Fabien and Anvers. From a seat in the Metro, in the stations themselves, along the route taken and under the viaduct, there is much of interest in this little visited arc of the city. We'll begin the ride at Colonel Fabien and head west.

Colonel Fabien
Colonel Fabien, whose real name was Pierre Georges, was a militant communist and resistant. He had earned his rank during a stint with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and was given the task of setting up a resisting military unit in Paris to combat the occupying forces. It was Georges himself who started this armed resistance by shooting a German officer dead at the Barbès-Rochechouart station. He was later captured by the French Police and handed over to the Germans, but managed to escape and played an active part of the liberation of Paris in 1944. Unfortunately, he did not survive to see the end of all hostilities as he was killed later that year whilst examining a land mine.

Given these connections, it is not surprising to find the headquarters of the French Communist party on this Place of the same name, comfortably housed in a building designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It also seems rather apt that both the Metro station and Place (pre-1945) were previously named Combat, a name actually derived from the fact that it was an area where people organised animal fights between 1778 and 1850.

As the Metro leaves this station, it slowly rises out towards the rooftops of the mostly modern buildings outside. The Metro is reflected in the glass windows of one such building, and you quickly get a glimpse of the Canal St Martin before you enter the Jaurès Metro station. As the iron posts of the viaduct get longer and higher, space is created underneath for sports, with New York style basketball courts, skate parks and football pitches running the length of the line between the two stations.

Named after a recently assassinated President, this is another station that changed name due to a war. Jean Jaurès was shot in the Croissant restaurant on the 31st of July 1914, and war with the Germans was declared on the 3rd of August, just three days later. It was a logical step therefore when on the 1st of August the name of this station was switched from the soon to be undesirable Rue d'Allemagne.

The Jaurès Metro station is also possibly the most attractive in the city thanks to the elegant glass canopy protecting the platforms, but most of all because of the stained glass windows of the artist Jacques-Antoine Ducatez. Installed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989, these windows represent the taking of the Bastille prison, and show the red, white and blue flags of the people marching towards the white castle.

Leaving the Jaurès station, the Metro now sweeps around a corner, giving majestic views along the Canal St Martin to the left, and its continuation, the Bassin de la Villette to the right. The Metro almost touches the roof of the Rotonde de la Villette, a building which was originally part of the walls of the tax-collecting Fermiers Généreux, reminding us that this Metro line actually stands in the footprint of these old city walls. This building predates the canal it looks out upon, and was one of the few barriers that was allowed still to stand after the French Revolution in 1789, then again during the Haussmannian reconstruction of the city in 1860. Today it sits empty, but is due to reopen in the near future as an arts centre and restaurant.

As the Metro sweeps around towards the Stalingrad station, you should get a perfect view up towards the Sacre Coeur.

The third Metro station on this stretch and the third to change name in wartime. Stalingrad was originally known as Aubervilliers on this line, but was renamed in 1946 in honour of the Russian victory at the battle of the same name.

On the right-hand side of this station almost the entire quarter is being renovated. To explore this regeneration more closely, leave the line at this station and walk along the Rue d'Aubervilliers up to the newly opened 104 Arts Centre. Not only will you see the interesting building that previously housed the municipal undertakers, but you'll also pass by a new park (the Jardins d'Eole) and get an interesting perspective on urbanism in a previously troubled and disadvantaged district.

Between Stalingrad and the next station, La Chapelle, the Metro line flies over the first set of railway lines, this time those between the Gare de l'Est and destinations in the east of the country and Germany.

La Chapelle
Opened in 1903, this station has always kept the same name. La Chapelle was previously a village between Belleville and Montmartre, and the name of this station is a reminder of a time when rural scenes could be seen on the other side of the Paris city walls. Today this station gives access to the Gare du Nord and the Eurostar, as well as the RER out to Charles de Gaulle airpot, but be prepared to walk a long way!

On the left-hand side of this station, back towards the city centre, many of the streets are now home to a large community from the Indian Subcontinent. This area provides a colourful and aromatic walk, with many excellent and very reasonable shops and restaurants. Indeed, if you ever want an Indian meal in Paris, come here and don't bother trying anywhere else!

As soon as the Metro leaves this station, it becomes a viaduct on top of a bridge over Europe's busiest railway station, the Gare du Nord. From the Metro you can see the long, snaking Eurostar and Thalys international trains, before the station disappears behind the walls of the Lariboisière Hospital. Opened in 1854, this hospital was originally built after a serious epidemic of cholera and was intended to become a model facility. It's chapel and attractive interior courtyard helped it to become recognised as historic monument in 1975.

Above the train lines of the Gare du Nord and underneath the viaduct is a concrete and weedy scrubland. The bridge constantly shakes as trains rumble underneath, whilst bumpter to bumper car traffic on either side sends out a stream of poisonous vapours. Wind whistles around the iron posts of the viaduct and every two minutes Metro trains screech past on the track above. Staying here for a short length of time would be enough to turn anybody mad, but on the ground in front of me is a wooden pallet and a blanket.

Further along towards Barbès, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the viaduct provides shelter to the market stall holders of the Marché de Barbès, reputed to be the cheapest in the city. On these two days, the normally quiet stretch becomes a riot of colour and noise, and it becomes difficult to make your way along the narrow passageway between the two rows of stalls. At the end of this market, around the entrance into the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station, groups of young men spend their days attempting to offload cheap, but possibly dangerous illegally imported cigarettes.

Barbès-Rochechouart is possibly the most active and lively Metro station in Paris. It is situated next to the Goutte d'Or, a district made famous by the work of Zola but better known today as being home to large communities of North and Sub-saharan Africans. The rather pretty name of the area (the drop of gold) clashes somewhat with the disheveled reality today, but it actually came from the colour of the wine that was produced here in the past. Around 30% of the population of this district are immigrants to France, making it one of the most cosmopolitan areas of the city, but also one of the most lively, with year-long festivals and events celebrating this diversity. The fact that it sits at the foot of Montmartre has also attracted the famous Bobos who can no longer afford the prices of flats on the hill itself.

As the Metro leaves the station, two buildings dominate. On the right-hand side, the well-known Tati store, screaming out its offer of the 'plus bas prix' (lowest prices) in garish neon if you pass by at night, or just endless rows of 1 Euro junk during daytime. On the left-hand side, one of the oldest cinema buildings still standing in Paris, the extravagantly decorated Louxor. Opened in 1921 and built in an Egyptian style that was very popular at the time, it had a long and successful spell in the city until it was transformed into a nightclub in the 1980s and finally closed in 1987. It was saved perhaps for reasons of historical interest, but also because it is situated in a spot that would be difficult to develop in an unpopular part of the city. It was recently bought by the city of Paris and is currently being transformed back into a cinema complex again.

The Metro now dives back underground, arriving at Anvers, the station which gives access to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur. Streams of tourists board the train here, taking the Line 2 back to safer central and western parts of the city, but do they know what they are missing on the other side?

Thursday 7 May 2009

What Lies Beneath

A common expression in France is that "Paris est un Gruyère", meaning that the city has been built over a terrain riddled with holes. This phrase is incorrect dairy-wise as Gruyère does not have holes, but geologically very accurate. Over the centuries parts of the city have regularly dropped down into the depths below, but is it still something the city’s inhabitants need to be concerned about today, and who needs to worry about this?

On the 17th December 1774, a 300 metre length of the Route d’Orléans near the Enfer (Hell) entrance into the city (today the place Denfert-Rochereau) fell into a 25 metre deep hole. Three years later, a house nearby fell 28 metres into the ground. Following these incidents, an engineering department was set up with the goal of investigating and mapping this subterranean landscape. This entity still exists today and is based in one of the original Enfer gateways, sitting directly above the entrance to the city catacombs.

What they found was that the city of Paris is built above a series of ancient mines, quarries and passageways that stretch across a total of 300km. Some of these are still visible, notably at the catacombs, but also in open air sites at the Parc de Buttes Chaumont and at the old brick making works at Vaugirard. The modern city though has added additional tunnels, with the Metro and RER systems cutting through these old passageways, alongside sewerage and gas pipelines.

Such ‘secret’ passageways have naturally attracted active groups of city explorers who ignore official rulings that ban them from entering these tunnels, and special teams in the city Police force whose role is to patrol the tunnels. Both groups sometimes make some very surprising finds, with the Police recently discovering an underground cinema and restaurant under the 16th Arrondissement.

The amateur groups, known as cataphiles, are secretive about their membership, places of exploration and most importantly, which entrances they use to access this underground world. Coming from a very wide range of backgrounds, from artists to professors of history, the motivations of each is also very disparate. Some descend below the city surfaces to explore, some to create, some simply to find silence. Many do so regularly, with first time visits very difficult to organise. Indeed, these people are well aware of the dangers, the greatest being simply getting lost in the endless networks of tunnels.

The official explorers of these tunnels are the employees of the Inspection générale des carrières. Somewhat exasperated with the amateur explorers who glamourise this universe, the inspectors are more concerned with mapping and predicting the dangers. The importance of their role is only noticeable when problems occur that they have not seen coming. In 1995 an entire street (Rue Papillon) was evacuated when a tunnel collapsed during construction work for a new RER train line, and more tragically, 21 people were killed in 1961 when six streets collapsed in the suburb of Clamart.

A scene underground in Paris.

An official service exists for inhabitants of Paris to see if their building is considered to be at risk or not
. If you are a property owner in the city, this information could be very important to you, as it has been decreed that individuals do not only own a share of the building in which they live but also a certain distance beneath the ground of the building. Landslides are still common beneath the surface of the city, and unless this problem can be attributed to public works, the building management group will probably have to pay for any damage caused to the structure.
This is an interesting issue in cities. In London where space is at a minimum, property owners have begun digging down into the land beneath their properties. When planning laws make extensions almost impossible to contemplate, the only way to build is down, and as The Times newspaper reports, people have been adding swimming pools and tennis courts beneath their houses.

In Paris, where the Metro runs only a few metres beneath the surface of the city, this would be impossible, but home owners should still check how risky the land beneath their property is. In any case, for somebody who is interested in the invisible side of cities, I find it fascinating to contemplate a world that is truly invisible and yet so important. Fortunately, my building is seemingly not at risk from a catastrophic dive down into an ancient underworld.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Play Time

A wonderful exhibition of the work of French director Jacques Tati is currently taking place at the Cinémathèque française, an event which has set me thinking about a rarely considered part of city life. What room is there for Play Time in our cities today, and how beneficial is it for our children? After the dark cloud of seeing parks in Paris closed at the first sign of snow this winter, I have been comforted to see light this spring; a fantastic new installation at the Parc de Belleville in Paris.

When watching the films of Jacques Tati, it is clear that he had a child’s eye view of the world. A theme running through his work is that the absurdities of the modern, adult world are gently mocked, but it is in his film Play Time that these absurdities become truly grotesque. Whilst his previous films had seen his characters coming across hazards in the country (Jour de Fête) or at the beach (Les Vacances de Mr Hulot), here the characters are trapped in a futuristic Paris of straight lines, glass buildings and busy roads. However, as the organisor of the exhibition, Macha Makeïeff puts it, "Tati imagine la modernité comme un vaste terrain de jeu" (Tati imagined modernity as one large playground). The adult world is filled with incredible machines signifying progress, but they certainly do not simplify life and seem ridiculous to children.

The American educator Fred Rogers said that “for children, play is serious learning”. But how can cities help children to learn if their play is controlled by adults who do not understand them, and through fear, constantly over-protect them? Paris contains precious few spaces where children are completely free to run, jump and climb, with adults constantly telling them to get down from walls and trees and off the lush, green grass. Is it though possible to design parts of the city that are truly child-friendly?

Research today suggests that risky, adventurous play helps children’s mental and social development
, and to encourage this in the UK, the government has created an entity known as Fair Play. The goal of this scheme is to change the landscape of towns and cities to make them more geared towards the needs of children, essentially to make sure “children's needs and children's play areas are at the heart of the planning process from start to finish”. Whilst no such scheme exists in France, a true representation of its spirit can be found at the Parc de Belleville.

Running up the steep 30° slope of the park, this construction of wood, rope and slides does not contain a single flat surface. Some parents still watch their offspring carefully, but the children are clearly delighted to scramble freely across the wooden boards, up rope ladders and down long slides. It is a large area, over 950m², seemingly containing many dangers, but in reality very carefully designed to encourage children to explore and take risks. As they jump or climb, it becomes clear that even if they fall the angle of the ground will always lead them down to a safe landing.

The installation, which cost over 1 million Euros, is geared towards 6-10 year olds, and is situated next to a forest of high-rise blocks of flats. Children more used to watching television or to being told to stop kicking footballs around the car-parks of their buildings now spend their afternoon running around the ondulations of this structure. Whether this truly has educational merit is another subject, but the benefits to a child’s health and self-confidence should be clearly seen. It may also make these children feel like they finally have a place to call their own in the city.

Friday 1 May 2009

En mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît

May is a very strange month in France. With three Bank Holidays making three long weekends I will probably be making fewer posts this month. However, I have recently decided to experiment with two new blogs, so I should still be very busy!

I have found that blogging takes up far more time than I ever thought possible, and I imagine that I am not the only person to wonder why I even do it at all. The final answer must be for my own amusement and as a new way to interact and learn about my surroundings. It also makes me feel part of a small community in some way, and such connections are important in life.

So why launch two new blogs? The first idea is a very simple one. I write about Paris and live here, so shouldn't I try to reach out to the local French speaking community too? I am far too lazy to try to translate each post I make, but I think I should at least make some effort in this direction. I have decided to republish some of my previous posts, but in much shorter forms, not directly translated, but trying to capture the same spirit in some way. I would do this very infrequently, perhaps once a week at most.

The second new blog is dedicated to my favourite subject; brick! I have often written about it on my main blog, but in such a way that I try to incorporate other aspects or parts of history into the story. This brick blog will be different though in that it will concentrate just on the building. I will try to discuss the period in which it was built, why brick was used and in what manner it was incorporated into the design. I think it has an interest as Paris is not a city that is immediately associated with the material, but which in fact contains many fascinating examples. Again, this will be updated just when I feel like it, but will also incorporate groups in Flickr and Facebook in an attempt to generate a kind of community flavour and share my passion!

Why tell you of this here? Well, firstly to give links to the sites, but secondly to ask for your opinions and previous experiences. Am I giving myself too much work? Do these blogs offer anything of interest to potential readers? Has anyone else tried to run several different blogs at once? Any suggestions on how to do so efficiently?

Finally, enjoy any weekends or holidays you have planned for May!
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