Thursday 30 July 2009

Accidental Art III

I have noticed this faceless figure in a life-belt popping up on walls with ever increasing frequency recently, but the juxtaposition here with these posters from a variety of left-wing political institutions is a real treat. The principal message says "the left will not rise again without you - join the Parti à Gauche". Alongside, the figure is at once hiding, protected, blind, imprisoned, safe. Truly mixed messages!

A little further long, a much more deliberate and irrevent symbol. I'm not sure what Leonardo da Vinci would have made of this representation of his Joconde, but the message here seems a little less enigmatic than his original creation!

Finally, I cannot publish this series of pictures without adding another drainpipe! Here it descends down a crumbling wall in which someone has carved a series of strange, primitive figures. In a similar colour, another face has been painted and stuck onto the pipe. It is surprising and wondrous find in the centre of Paris.

Coming soon: In the next few days I will publish my third Invisible Paris walk - this time suitably enough dedicated to street art!

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Another Bit of History Disappearing

Over the last few weeks I have watched history being washed away from the street in which I live. This may seem a strange thing to say when the result is a suberbly renovated ancient building, but the peeling away of layers of grime has also peeled away a layer of time. The walls of this structure are now magnolia white, but two timeworn handpainted advertising panels have disappeared forever.

The generally accepted term for these traces of promotional history is ghost signs. There are comparatively few around Paris, very largely for the reasons shown here. Enviromental regulations in Paris demand that homeowners sandblast the façades of their buildings on a regular basis (approximately every 20 years), and most painted elements have long since been removed. Paris is very much a stone city too, whereas many examples of surviving ghost signs around the world were painted on brick (indeed, another term for them is brickads).




This example in my street was therefore something of a rarity in Paris, making it even sadder when I saw it washed away forever. I wanted to tell the workers to do all they could to protect this piece of history, but I cannot blame them for doing their work nor the building owners who wanted a spotless façade after years of living in a decrepid, peeling structure. The building dates perhaps from the 18th century and is an admirable piece of living history itself, so did it need this somewhat gaudy commercial trace?

Why did I want to see this slogan cleaned up and preserved when many today are already protesting against the proliferation of advertising in public places? Firstly I was curious to see what the ad actually said. Although I only ever caught glimpses, I saw enough to discover that it was for a soap product that was used on clothes before the main wash (you may just make out "l'apprêt du linge" above). Secondly, it was the way the text had crept out from a previous covering of paint, and seemingly in immaculate condition. It was like seeing a viking longship appear on a beach after a heavy storm, and I was hoping that archeologists would appear with their delicate hands and gentle brushes and dig this relic out too.

Above all, it seemed to me that it would be an attractive addition to the cityscape, a reminder of the street's past and a splash of colour amongst a collection of whitewashed walls. Those with the power to make the decision chose otherwise, and the city council obviously judged it to be of very minor historical importance. It's just another little bit of history disappearing...

Sunday 26 July 2009

Breaking the Bank

Despite what we may have discovered recently, bankers making poor investment choices is not just a 21st century maladie. In 19th century Paris, one of the most distinguished and careful bankers of the period managed to lose over 6 million francs building a vanity house that would also nearly bankrupt his inheritants. The house still stands today, providing office space for new generations of the banking establishment, but who could have built such a house and why?

The answer is Emille Gaillard. Regent de la Banque de France (a member of the bank's administration), Gaillard was also the son and grandson of prestigious bankers. He was a passionate collector of renaissance art, and needed a large space in which to store and display his collection. He bought a patch of land in what was Malesherbes (today near the Parc Monceau), and decided to build a townhouse 'palace' that would rival some of his favourite chateaux along the Loire river.

It is said that there is no accounting for taste, but it is also true to say that accountants don't necessarily have good taste. Gaillard's house is an impressive, but also quite ridiculous neo-renaissance, gothic behemoth. Swaggering across the street and around a corner, it is a procession of twisting chimneys, bestial drainpipes and pointed arches.

Built between 1878 and 1885, it had a brief moment of glory during its inauguration when Gaillard threw a party the like of which Paris had rarely seen. Over 2000 people attended the event, celebrating not only the house but also the entrance into society of his daughter Jeanne. The guests came, naturally enough in renaissance costumes, but spent much of their time admiring the luxurious interiors and immense ballroom of the house.

Oversized and overambitious, the house was always going to be a heavy weight around the necks of Gaillard's offspring. He died in 1902, and the house was immediately put up for sale. It was estimated that he had spent over 11 million francs on the project, but the asking price was a mere 1.8 million francs - and yet still there were no buyers! It wasn't until 1919 that it would be sold, ironically to the Banque de France, Gaillard's former employers.

90 years later, it is still in the hands of this French instititution, but recent reports suggest that they too would now like to be rid of the place. The original decoration is still in impressive condition and the ballroom has not been touched, but once again, potential purchasers are thin on the ground. Another recent suggestion has been to transform the structure into a museum, perhaps around the theme of finance and banking. This would seem to be a very good idea, but the first installation should be a warning against the dangers of extravagance!

Note: You may well note that the structure is in brick. For more information on the more technical aspects of the construction and the architect concerned, see my bricksinparis blog.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Ice Cold in Paris

I was trying to re-create the buildings I had seen that stood like frozen compositions”.

The sentence struck me immediately, and instantly sparked a flood of questions in my brain. It appeared in a press release I’d received, a musician talking about his new album and the inspiration he’d taken from Paris. This was problematic though. It was not so much this communication that bothered me, but more the technique that was being used by the artist’s promotions agency. I was keen to find out more about this musician and his album, but each time I searched I was continuously directed towards other blogs. Blogs on cigars, blogs on Cuba and blogs on Paris. The same press release repeated twenty times and numerous competitions to win copies of the album. How could I find answers to my questions without becoming just another blog-cog?

The first step was to listen to the music. Paris to Cuba’ by multi-instrumentalist Mario Grigorov, with vocals by Melissa Newman. The packaging is tempting and the title is seductive, but I vowed that I would only take the subject further if I liked what I heard and caught a glimpse of Paris reverberating in the notes. I listened several times. The music was cool, summery, imaginative, pretty, but I was hearing more twists of Cuba than splashes of Paris. New Orleans sometimes, Chicago or Miami, but then I get to the 6th track, Magic Circus, and suddenly I can see my home city. I decided that I would need to communicate with Mario Grigorov and find out exactly what he was trying to create or re-create.

Grigorov is an interesting man. Born in Bulgaria to a family of musicians, he spent several years growing up in Iran where his father played in a symphony orchestra. He then spent time in Austria and Australia learning his trade before finally making his home in Los Angeles. He is a classical pianist, but also a fan of jazz and a composer of film scores, but where does his interest in Paris come from and what is his vision of the city?

I ask him what in particular in the city has inspired him. “Its the way the magnetic forces are lined up in that place” he replies. This rather West Coast philosophy is a little disconcerting, but his next comment appeals more to me, chronicler of the invisible; “there always seems to be more there than meets the eye” he continues, “so many layers of culture and beauty”.

He tells me that he was a regular visitor in the 90s, often following his wife who worked in the fashion industry. “I like the old town best” he says, without elucidating any further. I ask if he has any French influences and he cites Debussy and Ravel, two names that I do not find very surprising given their surface prettiness and more complicated, churning undercurrents. I’m still no closer to understanding why this world citizen is particularly inspired by Paris and its architecture though.

I ask about his past and how his frequent moves and changes of culture have affected him and influenced his music. “It was not by choice I lived in so many places” he says. Nevertheless he adds that “it made me who I am today and I hope that reflects in my music”. This album is a very deliberate contrasting of two cities and cultures, but he mentions that he was not trying to pick out specific musical styles but rather to express a mood and an emotion that he believes the two places share. When I tell him that this intrigues me and ask if he has found the French to be closed towards other cultures and over-protective of their own, he is not drawn into a debate. “I never felt lack of openness” he replies, “I usually ignore that emotion in people anyhow”.

Most of the album winds around Latino-tinged rhythms, but what is the story behind the most Parisian track, Magic Circus? Here an accordion and a violin send us down narrow passages, and there is a vague feeling of menace in the air. Coming from an experienced soundtrack composer, it is easy to manage it being the backdrop to an imaginary film noir. It is a well-known fact though that if you want to keep your own impressions of a piece of music you should not ask the composer what they had in mind. “When I came up with the harmony on the piano it reminded me of Marcel Marceau doing his Clown interpretations” he informs me.

Finally we come to the most important point for me. I tell him how intrigued I am by his comments on using architecture to express moods, and how he believes that music can recreate buildings. I ask what is special about the buildings of Paris in this respect and Grigorov immediately opens up and becomes more expressive. “The buildings there were built with such a fear of human grotesqueness” he says. Parisian architecture “makes me feel pleasant and content” he adds, before continuing on the theme. “All architecture is a frozen composition” he states. “When you treat a building as a piece of art or sculpture, and as your eyes move from one end of the building to another, there is a certain visual feast that reminds me of a well produced composition

He is hoping to come and play some concerts in the city next summer, but until then we will have to make do with just the album. It will be part of my summer soundtrack and I find his city-as-sound ambitions to be very laudable. However there is a part of me that feels that he has only scratched across the surface of Paris, taking only bricks from the most visible and obvious of the city’s many frozen compositions. I think of a similar project, Barry Adamson’s ‘Moss Side Story
, an album that painted a very truthful, grimy and threatening picture of Manchester, and can’t help feeling that there is something missing from Grigorov’s portrait in comparison.

It proves one point perhaps though. Although buildings may well be frozen compositions, solid structures that we may all see the same way with our eyes, how they affect us emotionally and how we hear them will never be the same.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

A Fantasy Dinner Party

I received an interesting challenge this week from Badaude, a fellow Paris-based blogger. On her blog, Badaude had imagined a fantasy gathering of artists with connections to Paris and took this very mixed group on a twenty-first century night out. She then challenged three other Paris bloggers to imagine something similar - given a completely free choice, which artists would we select to accompany us on a night out, and where would we take them? Such conundrums are always fun, but this one would also give me the opportunity to write about some real events that have always fascinated me, and mix them with others that I would have the freedom to invent.

My chosen date is February 1855. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins are in Paris with the intention of heading on to Bordeaux where Dickens has ‘business’. They will never make it there because Paris is experiencing a vicious cold snap and snow lays thick on the streets. They are staying in the Hotel Meurice, in an apartment which is “thickly carpeted and as warm as any apartment in Paris can be in such weather”. Wilkie Collins, always a sickly man, has once again been ill, but as Dickens explained in one of his many letters, he is “perfectly cheerful under the stoppage of his wine”.

It is here that I will meet them. As I walk along the corridors trying too find their room, I may come across other ghosts from the past. Queen Victoria perhaps who once stayed here, or better still, Salvador Dali who used to spend at least one month per year at this hotel. His behaviour was often predictably eccentric; on one occasion he asked staff to bring a herd of sheep to his room, then shot at them with a pistol after they had been delivered.

I knock at their door and Dickens answers. Wilkie Collins is standing in front of the fire looking rather unwell, but both men are dressed in coats and boots and are ready to accompany me outside. We descend the stairs then head out northwards on foot. “Where are we going?” asks Dickens. “To eat and drink and meet an old friend of yours” I reply. Collins pulls up his coat collars and says nothing.

We walk through the rapidly changing streets of Paris. Wide boulevards are beginning to replace medieval remnants of the city, and gas lights are now flickering their reflections across the heavy snow. Dickens has visited the city several times before and is always fascinated by the light and life of the place. He has joyfully labelled it ‘wicked’ several times before in letters to Collins, and Collins is naturally eager to sample this debauchery. “I think you will very much appreciate where we are going” I tell them, as if able to read their thoughts.

A few minutes later we arrive at the Boulevard des Italiens. In front of us, the garish golden façade of the fashionable Maison Doree restaurant. “Bonjour Mr Dickens et Mr Collins” says a voice at the entrance. A door opens and throws light out across the face of my third guest. “Mr Charles Baudelaire. Bonjour” replies Dickens, recognising him from one of his previous visits to the city. I take the three guests through the public part of the establishment up towards the private rooms. “Let me introduce you to our final dinner guest” I announce as I open the door to our individual room.

Sitting in the corner is a rather scruffy looking individual with a thick, white beard. As he looks up, the three men cry out as one, “Victor Hugo!”. “Bonjour mes amis” he replies, “your friend here managed to smuggle me in to the city, but just for one evening. Tomorrow I must go back to Guernsey before word gets out that I have returned from exile, but tonight let’s just eat, drink and be merry!”. We have 80,000 different wines to choose from, and Baudelaire and Collins have both been looking keenly at the many females wandering around the corridors. “This is the best of times” says Dickens, “it makes one feel so glad to be alive”. At that moment a waiter who looks strangely like Samuel Beckett arrives. “I wouldn’t go that far Mr Dickens” he says.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Paris Brutal t-il?

Almost all architectural styles are visible in Paris, but I've long wondered if there are any authentic examples of the truly brutal. Coming from the United Kingdom I share my birthplace with a style of architecture that was harsh and cold, and which marked my upbringing. On Saturday afternoons we parked the family car in damp multi-story car parks then trudged around windswept concrete shopping centres watching the rain form large patches of moisture on the blank, grey exteriors.

I've since come to associate these images with the United Kingdom and had found nothing similar in Paris - until one day when I was walking across the 13th arrondissement and discovered this office block at 64-68 Rue du Dessous des Berges. The rarity of such structures could be considered surprising, as although the school of architecture was British-based, the origin of the term brutalism comes from the French béton brut, or "raw concrete". It was the English architects Alison and Peter Smithson who first coined the term in 1954, and two of their influences were also French based; one that could be safely mentioned, Le Corbusier and his love of concrete, and one that was almost unmentionable - the German sea-defences that had been built along the western coast of France.

In France where cooking is king, it is hard to imagine a material being left completely raw. And yet here is a building that is truly coarse and unrefined. This is perhaps not true brutalism as it is just too much of a regular block form, but it does have several design tricks that make it lean towards that school. The two basement levels are cut away from the street level enabling light to seep into a small plant-filled courtyard. The main building above is supported by pilotis or stilts from this level, and the only entrance into the building is through a bizarre, almost children's game-like tunnel which flies over the courtyard below.

Mostly though it is its use of plain, raw concrete that suprises in this city. Like many buildings of a similar 60s/70s vintage, especially in damper, northern climates, the concrete has suffered and is streaked and specked. The letters spelling out the address have slipped off the wall one-by-one, and yet as I walk by new residents are moving in. It is an address that is still obviously in demand and for me, oddly comforting to come across something so reminiscent of my youth.

Are there any other examples of brutalism in Paris? In reality it is a city that had no use for the style. Large parts of Britain were flattened during the war and quickly and cheaply rebuilt afterwards whilst Paris was very largely spared during the conflict. Large-scale construction projects were mostly limited to the suburbs, and it would be in some of these new towns that I would need to go if I really wanted to track down the brutal. However, whilst it can be comforting to return to your hometown, sometimes you find that after discovering new places, the previously familiar in fact becomes banal and ugly in comparison. Finding this building is sufficient for me!

Thursday 9 July 2009

Free Walk Two: Contemporary Architecture

I'm going to be away for a week on vacation and so am leaving you with another gift - the second free Invisible Paris download! My first dealt mainly with history, but this second guided tour will take you around the present and into the future!

Paris is internationally admired for its uniform, strictly controlled architecture, but this 19th century neo-classical model is also one that has prevented a certain audacity since. Look carefully though and you’ll find a sprinkling of areas, mainly at the edges of the city, where an interesting and varied selection of buildings has been allowed to develop.

This walk concentrates on two of these areas, taking you away from the comforting, unchallenging forms of Haussmannian Paris. These riverside districts have been in permanent mutation for the past 30 years, and represent zones where new and daring structures are springing from the ground. Previously given over to industry, these areas are today seeing regeneration towards new uses and are providing a whole new focal point for Paris. Featuring not only architecture in a traditional sense but also parks, bridges, boats, galleries, shops and libraries, this is a walk which offers you many opportunities to pop in and pop out at your own leisure - or you can choose just one location and simply relax and admire the rest!

Once more, I have also tried to make it a document that is attractive to look at and interesting to read for people who have no plans to visit the city or use their feet! Please download and circulate, and please don't hesitate to give me any feedback you may have.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Rights, Rites and Secrecy

In the city where the déclaration des droits de l'homme was pronounced and adopted sits a strange and intimidating building. The declaration famously stated that 'tous les Hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droit' (all men are born and remain free and equal in rights), but what about women? Written large on the facade of this building is seemingly a riposte to this statement - but what is this structure?

Built in a strange mixture of Greek neo-classical with Egyptian touches, this structure on the Rue Jules Breton in the 13th arrondissement belongs to Le Droit Humain. Their motto is written across the width of the facade; "Dans l'humanité la femme a les mêmes devoirs que l'homme. Elle doit avoir les mêmes droits dans la famille et dans la societé" (In humanity women have the same obligations as men. They should have the same rights in the family and in society). An interesting and thoroughly modern message, especially on a construction from the early 20th century, but who are Le Droit Humain? Above the entrance door is a clue.

Ordo Ab Chao. Order from chaos - the international motto of freemasonry. This building is clearly therefore a masonic lodge or temple, but what is the connection with feminism? The answer is one woman; Maria Deraismes. She was the first woman to be ordained in a masonic ceremony in France in 1882, but after this caused a split in the lodge where she had been ordained she soon found herself removed. After spending a decade essentially as a one-person lodge, she decided one day to invite a group of several highly educated women to her home, amongst which were active feminists and respected scientists. She then slowly initiated them through the symbolic grades, and together they formed a new lodge; Le Droit Humain. They were later joined by a man, Georges Martin, and the lodge became mixed. It was later Martin who ordered the construction of this temple.

The lodge continues today and the building is still used, but such is the complexity of such organisations that it is very difficult to know on what basis it currently operates. The official website preaches a message of openness, but the building itself could not be more impenetrable. The solid, windowless brick wall behind seven thick columns gives it more the air of a fortification than a temple, and it is very unlikely that the casual visitor would be welcomed inside. Indeed, the famous secretiveness of masonry here becomes almost mystical;

"Masonic Meetings begin and end with a symbolical ceremony, but that which takes place inside the Temple cannot be revealed by articles, because it is inherent to an initiatory experience which cannot be expressed in words"

What becomes striking therefore is the inherent contradictions and incongruities an organisation that declares an openness to the world but then practices rites behind locked doors. This building nevertheless remains a very graphic reminder of the battle for equality, and although we may never know what takes place inside, we do at least know that it was here that several small steps were taken towards the recognition of the role women could play in all sectors of society.

Friday 3 July 2009

The Bièvre Uncovered

The quay alongside the Pont d’Austerlitz is a sad affair. Trapped between a busy main road and a rusting Salvation Army hulk this riverside location sees few visitors. As Metro trains rattle overhead and weeds rustle gently in the winds, it is difficult to imagine that this is the point where two rivers previously met. The Seine continues to flow by, lifting and dropping the creaking derelict boat, but its little cousin, the Bièvre has long since been covered over and diverted down long tunnels to a sewage works in the suburb of Achères.

I won’t try to tell the full story of the River Bièvre nor attempt a description of where it used to run through the city. My interest is focussed more on the emotional issues connected to this subject. Why has this river taken on almost mythical proportions in Paris today, and what are the dangers to a city of covering over a river blocking the flow to its natural receptor? We have accepted the concretisation of our cities, of seeing trees and fields make way for houses and roads, but the disappearance of a river into the city sewers still seems like an aberration. Local residents have called for the unearthing of the Bièvre, but will this banished Parisian river ever see the skies above the city again?

The first thing to point out is that it is still a living waterway. It still has the same source near Versailles and still flows gently through the more rural outskirts of Paris. As it approaches the city though it becomes harder to spot before disappearing underground completely beyond the Parc Heller in Anthony. Never much larger than a narrow stream, the river nevertheless previously wound its way through the streets and gardens of the 5th and 13th arrondissements of Paris, serving trade and industry, before finally joining the Seine beyond the Jardin des Plantes.

What trace would I be able to find of this river today? I decided to choose one part of the city where the river previously flowed and, like a man carrying a divining rod, try to dowse out sources of water. The natural place to begin the hunt seemed to be the Square René Le Gall in the 13th arrondissement, previously the gardens of the Manufacture des Gobelins and known as the ‘ile aux Singes’ (Monkey island) at the time of the Bièvre.

Transformed into a neo-classical style park in 1938, almost at the same period as the neighbouring Mobilier National building, it is still quite easy to imagine how this stretch of land used to be. It was a place of leisure for the workers of the Manufacture des Gobelins (where cloth and tapestries were made), and filled with spots where they could dance and drink beer. The garden was an island between two stretches of the Bièvre, and monkeys skipped about freely amongst the revellers. The water of the Bièvre were used in the manufacturing process in the factory above, and the workers beer-rich urine was believed to improve its quality!

Today, a line of poplar trees marks out the Bièvre’s ancient path, and an artificial bubbling brook has been added to give an impression of the river. It is a pleasant bucolic spot, and it is easy to imagine the river resurfacing here. Indeed, it is one of four spots chosen in Paris where this could become a reality, and the point where what is left of the river is closest to the surface. Leaving the park, it is easy at first to follow the Bièvre’s path as the streets have kept the same sweeping movement of the river. The Rue Croulebarbe and the Rue Barbier de Mets were once the banks of the river, and a row of buildings still stand witness to this period. This is what is known as the ilot de la Reine Blanche, a series of houses and buildings where fabrics were cut and dyed, all naturally taking advantage of the river that flowed by.

I follow the narrow streets up to the Avenue des Gobelins, but here the 19th century Haussmannian infrastructure makes me lose track of the river. At some point it snaked past the Jardin des Plantes then took a last dive into the Seine. In truth it's hard to imagine the river ever making a comeback in such a dense urban environment. The Bièvre was eliminated from the city when it became a foul smelling danger to people, thick with industry waste and the blood of animals, so would it be realistic to bring it back today as a simple trick of urbanists?

In reality it will never happen. The face of the city has changed and the course of the river has been wiped away. The Paris administrators did look into the possibility of opening up four stretches in the city, but found that even this would cost them 100 million Euros. A purification station would need to be built at the entrance of the city and the underground stream would need to be carefully untangled from sewer pipes and Metro tunnels. It has been condemned to stay out of site and serve only to wash away our waste. In its place, the city of Paris chose the much cheaper solution of placing some metallic markers on the ground along the river's path. For the rest, you'll need to use your imagination.

Note: This subject is a vast topic. I will try to come back to it again in the future, hopefully if I can talk to somebody who would like to bring the river back or from the group of artists that celebrate this heritage (the Lez'arts de la Bièvre). I will also try to create a Paris 'Bièvre' walk - that will be made available for free of course!

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Free Paris Walking Tours!

The first freely downloadable Invisible Paris walk is now available – as well as a completely new dedicated website (!

The first walk, a 20 page PDF document, is entitled From Sainte Rita to Saint Lazare : A trip into the female experience of the city, and runs from Pigalle to the old Hôpital St Lazare. This area is rich with images and anecdotes on the female condition, mixing art, religion and work. It investigates places linked to women, where women have tried to live freely or where women were forced to do things against their will. Naturally this often involves discussion of men too, and their role in the repression or liberation of women, as well as how they chose to represent them.

Why am I creating these walks though? Well, I enjoy running this blog and researching different parts of Paris, but it started to feel as if the information only had a very short life-span. Blogs are hungry creatures and need regular feeding, but the accumulation of information means that posts are quickly relegated to the hard-to-find archives. A solution to this problem therefore was to group together the posts as walking tours, and liberate them from the blog format.

This was the theory anyway. In reality, this has taken me a lot longer than I thought it would to put together, but I still think that the effort was worthwhile. It was quite easy to find a cluster of posts that were linked by theme and geographical location, but a walk also involves directions, maps and supplementary information between the principal spots, and this is the time-consuming part!

I also felt that readers of this blog may want another resource, especially if they are planning a trip to Paris. I have tried to make these walk documents something that will be interesting to read and look at even if you never visit Paris, but the main goal is that they be used to help show a slightly different side of the city to visitors and residents.

Forthcoming walks (currently being polished up!) will include Street Art and Contemporary Architecture. Others will follow if these are popular and when I have a little bit more time!

Anyway, I hope as many as you as possible choose to download the PDF walk documents, even if it is just for a little light reading. Please feel free also to share them with friends and family, as an additional goal of the document is to attract new visitors to this blog. Finally, if you do download one please don’t hesitate to give me any feedback, corrections or suggestions you may have. Happy reading and walking!
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