Monday 29 March 2010

Murder She Writes

Cara Black released her 10th Aimée Leduc investigation, Murder in the Palais Royal, earlier this month. To coincide with this event I was recently able to grill her about the series and her Paris inspirations, and discovered how being a writer can be compared to being a private investigator.

A while ago on this blog I pondered the life of the private detective in Paris. Their world was a secret one I found impossible to penetrate until I discovered Cara Black and her Aimée Leduc alter-ego. Black has previously said that the crime novel is the perfect genre to allow her to explore the dark side of Paris, and she counts several of the city’s private detectives and police chiefs as friends. These contacts have enabled her to build her stories, one for each arrondissement in Paris, with inspiration from real-life cases. The perfect witness then to give me an insight into the mysterious profession of investigative sleuthing!

In your stories, Leduc Detectives are based in the Rue du Louvre. This however is also the address of perhaps the most famous real-life agency in the city, the similarly named Deluc Détective. Can you explain the links between the two and how you came to use this name and address?
Leduc Detective is indeed based on the Duluc Detective agency. It happened one day years ago when I was at the bus stop on Rue du Louvre. Across from me on the street was the wonderful neon thirties sign of Duluc and I’d been interviewing female detectives in Paris and thought why not this agency? I crossed the street, met Madame Duluc who inherited this agency from her father who himself had inherited it from his grandfather who’d started in the Suréte. She was very gracious and told me the history, the cases they work on and much more. I used the agency as a template for Leduc Detective; Aimée had a grandfather who'd started the agency and went from there. But when the publisher suggested we use another name for legal reasons I agreed.

What is the everyday business of Leduc Detectives?
Aimée and her partner, René Friant specialize in computer security, for firms who hire them. A lot of the work is routine, security based and for Aimée hum drum but it pays the bills. She’s a licencsed private detective who’d helped her father with criminal cases before his death in the Place Vendome explosion five years earlier. She’d turned from criminal cases when she inherited the agency, drafted her friend René from the Sorbonne, who’s a hacker extraordinaire and now he’s her partner in the firm.

As an American living in San Francisco, why did you choose to create a fictional heroine based in Paris?
I’ve loved Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and Leo Malet’s Detective Nestor Burma series for a long time. I wanted to see something contemporary set in Paris and wasn’t finding it. Though I’m not French I grew up in a Francophile family in California, my father loved good food and wine, my uncle had studied painting under Georges Braques in the 50’s and life in our house was very much of French appreciation. I went to a Catholic school with French nuns who taught us archaic French and felt a bond, some strange familiarity with all things French as I grew up. That’s partly why Aimée Leduc, my detective is half-American half-French because I knew I couldn’t write as a French woman. I can’t even tie my scarf properly.

What is it about Paris that inspires crime fiction?
The history maybe? For me, that’s a big part and my research gives me the chance and a nice excuse to go to Paris and scratch the surface. Dig deep and deeper to understand the quartier, the people who live there, the origins of the quartier such as Bastille with its old furniture making and artisanal roots. Paris holds so many secrets and stories that I want to keep discovering.

Each Aimée Leduc story concentrates on a different district in Paris. How do you go about researching the locations, and what kinds of things in particular are you looking for?
For me it’s about the place in Paris; capturing the ambiance, the streets, the rhythm and the flavor that makes it unique. Each part of Paris was once a village and that’s what I’m looking for. I talk with cafe owners, police, people at the Archives, research photos at the Carnavalet museum, take people out for wine and get them to talk. Talk about growing up in the district, or their mother who was born there. I’ve joined the Marais historic society and the Historic society of the 10th arrondissement and met people who share so kindly with me about the place, the way the things are and used to be. Often I’ve gotten lost and that’s the best because then I discover a corner of Paris, an alley, a place I’ve never been before and that becomes part of the book.

Credit: Laura Skayhan

Would you consider the research you do for the books as something akin to detective work?
Very much so and that’s a great question. It’s about solving a crime and everything it entails like a real investigation; the clues, the red herrings, the false trails, the witnesses, the evidence, the police whom I consulting the Archives, libraries, old newspapers, interviews with experts in the field a retired Brigade Criminelle inspector, a locksmith, a banking officer, To plot a crime novel it’s necessary to think like the investigator and be in the mind of the villain who orchestrates the events and masterminds the plot.

The private eye has traditionally been a laconic, anti-social male. Was the young and rather glamourous Aimée Leduc a reaction against this?
Yes in a way. I think I wrote what I wanted to read. I wasn’t finding any contemporary books with characters who lived in Paris. Or who were computer savy, vulnerable and had fashion sense. She’s battling the old boys network in the police, the ministry and those who brush her off as a woman. She’s in a trade which is less common for women, has trouble in relationships and is attracted to bad boys, has lost her family and has no ties except for her godfather who’s support is sporadic. She is in a way, a lone wolf, neither fish nor fowl, being half-French and an outsider.

What future locations do you have planned for Aimée in Paris?
I’ve written about ten arrondissements, I’ve got another ten to go...

Murder in the Palais Royal - an Aimée Leduc Investigation, published by Soho Crime, is available now.

Sunday 28 March 2010

Who Owns the Zoo?

It's like a jungle out there - or is it a zoo? Look across parts of the 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements and you will see Zoo or Belleville Zoo written on the walls, including a monumental example at its heart in the Forge de Belleville, but who uses the name, and what does it refer to?

The first to use this term were groups of kids in the area. Although they are not a gang as such, the tag markers are certainly territorial. It is easy to plot the limits of their zone by following the very basic tags, often written in felt-tip pen or chalk, across the area. If the tags are not marker enough, this website makes it even clearer; Ramponeau, Rue Piat, Rebeval, l'Orillon, the social housing projects in Belleville. This is a territory they rarely leave, so perhaps it is this sentiment of being caged and confined in a particular sector of the city which has lead to them labelling it as a zoo.

But can you own a tag or a name? In July 2009, a collective of several artists working together produced a monumental fresque at la Forge de Belleville. The day was documented here, and therefore we know who put this up and why. No mention is made of the history, of the groups of kids who already use the term. For this collective, Belleville Zoo is "une vérité, car ici la population est métissée, hétéroclite" (the truth, because the population here is mixed and heterogeneous). They appropriated the term, but used it for different reasons. Sitting above these giant letters are a gorilla and an elephant, a comic book celebration of the vibrancy of the area.

The local kids who live alongside this creation do not seem to mind that Belleville Zoo has been used by someone else. In fact they are probably happy to see their territory identified so clearly.

Also in La Forge de Belleville, and at several other locations around the east of Paris you can find examples of the most mysterious zoo of all - Zoo Project. The artist (or artists) behind these creations has never been identified, and the only communication made is through the paintings.

The creations are always large, always painted and almost always in black and white. The name was almost certainly chosen to describe the pictures which are often human bodies with bird or goat heads. The fact that many of these creations can be found within the boundaries of the Belleville Zoo seems to be a happy accident. (Many more Zoo Project creations can be seen here).

So who does own the zoo? Nobody of course! Belleville is the city melting pot, shared by all its inhabitants, but how much interaction is there really between the different populations? Perhaps the zoo is just the individual, invisible cages we all have.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Something for the Weekend (26th – 29th March)

Although we will lose an hour’s sleep this weekend in France, I have nevertheless made it a longer one than usual by including an event on Monday evening!

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

Les Lundis de Lutèce : 50 years of Motown !
On the last Monday of each month, Sylvanie de Lutèce takes over the Baron Samedi bar and gives a sparkling themed presentation on the history of Paris. This month is slightly different however, as she will be spinning through the history of Motown records in honour of its 50th birthday. Such a presentation would have to include music you would think and you would be right. Sylvanie is also an excellent DJ and will be performing afterwards, but during the presentation she will be accompanied by singers Rachel and Orlando from Brown Sugar. Details are still a little sketchy, but expect something soulful, funky…and informative!
Monday 29th at Le Baron Samedi from 7pm.
12 Rue des Goncourt, 75011 (M° Goncourt)

No Sarkozy Day
How do you turn a virtual protest into a real one? This is the challenge that a rag-bag group of bloggers and Facebook users have set themselves this Saturday across France. 300,000 or so people have signed up to the virtual group, but how many will turn up to the various flashmob style gatherings around the country?

The group were inspired by a similar anti-Berlusconi event that took place last December in Italy, even going as far as adopting the same violet colours. They would like to see themselves as part of a new pan-European form of political movement, organised by citizens outside of the traditional power groups such as the unions and political parties, but can this work in a country so used to organised and controlled demonstrations?
We'll see at 2pm on Saturday at the Place de la République if this virtual anti-Sarkozy movement will make a real splash and just a gentle ripple.

Crime et Chatiment
Popular opinion has it that Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on a law and order ticket, so he would surely approve of the Musée d’Orsay’s latest exhibition! Crime et Chatiment (Crime and Punishment – a title chosen as reference to this year's Russia celebrations in France) is a look at the way in which crime has been treated by the art world over a two hundred year period between the French Revolution and the abolition of the death penalty in France. Definitely one of the most interesting and thought provoking exhibitions of the year, but organisers have warned that it is not for the faint hearted!

Musée d'Orsay
Until June 27th

Opening days and times can be found here.

Grand Salon d'Art Abordable
If you have ever been tempted to invest in some art but felt intimidated by high prices and snobbish galleries, the Salon d'Art Abordable (affordable art) could be a good opportunity for you to have a relaxing browse. To describe the spirit of the event, the organisers have simply taken the dictionary defintion of the word 'abordable' : accessible facilement, accueillant, aimable, bon marché et raisonnable.
Is the art itself interesting and worth purchasing though? Judge for yourself:
La Bellevilloise
21 Rue Boyer, 75020 (M° Menilmontant)
Friday 2pm - 10pm, Saturday 10am - 10pm, Sunday 10am - 8pm
Note: Entrance is normally €5, but you can download a free entrance ticket for two here.

Lights Out for the Territory
A reminder that this Saturday between 8.30pm and 9.30pm is 'Earth Hour'. The exterior lights of many public buildings and monuments will be switched off by the city of Paris, and even the Eiffel Tower will go dark for five minutes. At the same time, 1600 candles will be lit beneath the old lady, which could be a sight worth seeing!

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Le Phare du Quartier

What is the best-preserved art deco building in Paris? Surprisingly, the answer may well be a little-known neighbourhood church in the 20th arrondissement. Spotlight on a fascinating structure that merits greater recognition.

Approaching from the south, the view up towards Saint Jean Bosco is misleadingly Mediterranean. With a backdrop of lustrous blue skies, the whitewashed reinforced concrete church gives the impression of being in the heart of a medina. The form of the spire, vaguely reminiscent of a minaret, has also given the church its nickname – le phare du quartier (the district lighthouse), an affectionate term for what has become a beacon in this multicultural area of Paris.

The decorative style of the church, labelled ‘gothic art-deco’ by the art historian Simon Texier, was the work of a little-known architect called Dumitru (Démetrius) Rotter. The church, funded by the Salesian sect, was originally conceived as just one element of a much larger project to provide education to the young disadvantaged of the area, but because of financial difficulties, only the church was ever built.

Instead, when built between 1933 and 1937, the final project divided the structure into two halves; an upstairs and a downstairs. The upstairs was to act as a traditional neighbourhood church, whereas the downstairs was designed to fulfill the Salesian educational role. Although to some extent this continues today, you are just as likely to find groups of multicultural and multi-faith kids enjoying an afternoon party in these converted function rooms.

Whereas many churches have decorative elements and bolted on extensions covering centuries and a multitude of styles, here is a building in which everything was planned and designed at the same time. Although the outside, with its claustra latticework, was clearly influenced by the Perret brothers' Notre Dame de la Consolation in Le Raincy (1922), the interior is far more original.

The similarities between Saint Jean Bosco (top) and Notre Dame de la Consolation (beneath) are very clear.

The level of preservation is remarkable, even down to the sculptured wooden chairs in the pews. It is a resolutely modern church, a rectangular box structure, but the angled concrete pillars, polychrome mosaics and elegant stained glass windows mask the simplicity of the building and give it a monumental air.

What is most striking is the coherency of the ensemble. This is largely due to the fact that one company, Maumejean frères, had responsibility for the design and construction of the majority of works present in the church. They not only produced most of the stained-glass windows, but also worked on the mosaics and the marble fonts and alters.

The play of light and colour inside the building is almost theatrical, thanks in large part to a zenithal band of stained-glass windows around the edge of the ceiling. This light sets off the mosaics perfectly, although the chosen subjects seem a little dubious to my eyes. I can’t help wondering what the local North African population, who sometimes use the function rooms below, would make of a rather bloodthirsty fresque celebrating military victories over Muslim forces. An understandable choice in an 18th century church perhaps, but not one built in the 1930s.

The craftsmanship throughout is wonderful, particularly on the stained-glass windows which are expressionistic and sometimes almost cubist. Valérie Gaudard in her 2009 essay on the church points out that these were amongst the last examples of pictorial arts being used in a religious structure in France before abstract modernism took over in the 1940s. Their artistic qualities and their well-preserved state are the reasons why the building was classified as a historical monument in 2001. They should also be reason enough for you to make a visit!

Saint Jean Bosco, 79 Rue Alexandre Dumas, 75020 (M° Alexandre Dumas)

Friday 19 March 2010

Obscura at the Musée Fragonard

The first international Obscura day on Saturday celebrated the strange and the wonderful around the world. In Paris, around 20 people met up to visit the impressive Musée Fragonard where anatomical curiosities mix with French architectural classicism.

Saturday is caught on the cusp of winter and spring, and the clouds don't know whether to let sun break through or throw down more rain. We were told to meet up at 2pm at the Musée Fragonard in Maisons Alfort, a short Metro trip from Paris, but it seems that people are having trouble finding the exact spot. I take what I presume to be a short cut through brick and stone stables, but when I see a 'Keep out - contagious disease' sign, I'm not sure I've made the right decision.

The stables are a surprise, but they shouldn't be. This is a vetinary school and a working animal hospital. As well as sick horses on site, there are also cats, dogs, reptiles and even cows, but these are the lucky ones. Alongside them, in the museum, are the bones, brains and disected innards of their bretheren and forefathers.

Inside, the guided tour begins. The museum is an integral part of the school and has been since 1765 when it was founded by Louis XV. Even today it is run by students, and it is one of them, a third year scholar called Marie-Aude, who shows us around.

As she points out immediately, this is an institution that has always had a rather awkward dual role. It was designed to educate undergraduates at the school, but Louis XV also wanted it to enlighten a wider audience from outside. To attract them through the doors though, it was clear that informative dissections would have to be balanced with examples of the outlandish and the freakish. The balance still exists, although students at the school today learn little from the exhibits, and its role is more of an artistic or historical one.

It is perhaps easier for us visitors to look at the rather gruesome cut-ups and jars of preserved objects from an aesthetic perspective too. The craft of the creators, men such as Petitcolin in the 19th century, is admirable in its meticulousness. Washed through and carefully blown dry stomachs and digestive tracts sit mounted in cabinets, impressive in their enormity. In another, the delicate bronchial trees of horses stand on shelves like a tiny petrified forest.

After the educational comes what Marie-Aude calls 'the monsters'. In fact, these are the abnormalities and deformities, mostly birth defects such as two-headed lambs and one-eyed pigs. These were displayed here clearly to impress, but they did initially help scientists to provide answers to age-old questions. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire for example used these examples to point out that most mythological beasts were probably just well-known species with certain abnormalities.

After being quickly whisked through a room of skeletons, we arrive at the secret heart of the museum. Honoré Fragonard, always the main draw, gave his name to the institution, but today his work is tucked away in a small darkened room known as the 'cabinet des curiosités'. Eternal revenge on a man whose renown had grown too large, it is made clear to us that we are entering a science-free zone.

Honoré Fragonard was a cousin of the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, but the creations he left behind were perhaps more revolutionary than those of his more illustrious relation. He was a scientific man, a qualified surgeon and a member of the world's first veterinary school in Lyon. He was brought to the new school at Alfort where he worked for six years preparing thousands of anatomical pieces. He had mastered a new technique for preserving flesh, but it was one that he was determined to keep to himself. Whether it was due to this secrecy or because his success inspired jealousy, he was eventually fired from the school in 1771, ostensibly for being 'mad' and scaring visitors.

He continued creating outside of the school, selling his works to the aristocracy. His pieces became more and more theatrical, with creations such as a cavalier mounted on horseback. The objects, known as his 'écorchés' (flayed figures) have miraculously survived for over 200 years, mostly, as Marie-Aude informs us, because of his choice of varnish. This was not only the same as the one used by his painter cousin, but also had the benefit of being an insect repellent!

The final resting place of his 21 remaining creations is perhaps the most atmospheric in the museum, and there is silence as our group observes the wild eyes of one of his cadavres. It is impressive stuff, but it is perhaps best not to ask where he found the bodies!

Our visit comes to an end here, alongside a ceiling-high cabinet of carefully labelled jars and tubes. We push back through the doors, back into the light, back into the enlightenment. We have learned things, thanks to the clear explanations of Marie-Aude, but above all we have been thoroughly impressed by the collection. Perhaps we'll all meet again for next year's Obscura Day!

Note: the museum is open to visitors on Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 2pm - 6pm, and on Saturdays and Sundays, from 1pm - 6pm.

Listen to a podcast from this event here:

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Something for the Weekend (19th – 21st March)

Spring has finally arrived, and in its step, a very busy weekend! As usual, suggestions for slightly offbeat activities can be found below.

Le Son de Nous
“Le Son de Nous” is a collaboration between Philippe Starck and Soundwalk, but also an unusual performance which will involve a great deal of audience participation. Billed as ‘a rare and unique view of the artist’ it is also an investigation into the sounds around us and a search for the sound that we lack. In the performance, Philippe Starck will share his passion for sound, while members of Soundwalk, accompanied by instrumentalists and sound technicians, will respond to Starck using sounds captured around the world over the course of the last decade.

Before this weekend's event, I asked three questions to Isabella Yeager from Soundwalk.

Who is Soundwalk and what do you do?
Soundwalk is a critically-acclaimed new media company based in New York and Paris which has quickly become the leading producer of audio tours. These are cutting-edge audio guides in which the listener is able to step into the life of a narrator as they guide you through their neighborhood streets and local hangouts. Soundwalks mix fiction and reality in a cinematic experience that gives the listener the feeling of actually being in a film. In addition to this, we also produce audio-branding, temporary installations and performances such as "Le Son du Nous" with Philippe Starck.

Why did you decide to work with Philippe Starck?
"Le Son du Nous" is in fact the third in a series of collaborations with Philippe Starck. Together, such as on our joint 24 hour sound mix compilation, we have experimented with the artistic capacities of modern technologies to redefine the way in which art is consumed, and to explore and comment upon man’s role in both the natural and manufactured soundscapes in which he exists. We admire the artist's work and are excited to be working with him again!

What can visitors expect to experience during the performance?
Those who attend "Le Son du Nous" this weekend can expect to see a performance that explores the role of sound in human bodies, structures, and history. Through the altering of reality, manipulation of audio, and musical interpretation, this performance will explore sound as a symbol of life – of the cycle of creation and destruction – and will guide us together to the discovery of a unique sound: the Sound of Us.

"Le Son de Nous"
Maison Des Arts Andre Malraux
Place Salvatore Allende, Creteil, M°
Friday 19th and Saturday 20th, 8.30pm
Tickets: 8 - 20€

Obscura Day: Le Musée Fragonard
A quick reminder that this Saturday is International Obscura Day, and that an event is being organised at the Musée Fragonard in Maisons Alfort. There are still a few tickets available for the guided tour of this fascinating and odd museum, so sign up quickly if you want to come along.

Jef l’Aerosol + Speedy Graphito
Cergie pointed out on her blog this week that veteran street artist Jef l’Aerosol will be ‘performing’ live in Paris on Saturday. You can catch him in the window of the Gallerie Lipao-Huang, 16 Rue Dauphine at 4pm.

Similarly, Speedy Graphito will be doing a live performance at the Hotel Marcel Dassault during the '40 ans d'art graffiti' auction this Saturday at 2pm.

Free Macarons
Meg Zimbeck has also pointed out that Saturday is Free Macaron Day across Paris. She provides a list of all the places you can pick up a free treat here.

France v England, 6 Nations Rugby Tournament
This rugby classic was an immediate sell-out, but there are still several places around the city where you will be able to soak up the atmosphere on Saturday evening. As well as the traditional bars and pubs, this year you will also be able watch the game in 3D at the Gaumont Aquaboulevard cinema!

La Nuit de l'Eau
If you want to visit the last remaining vestige of the 1924 Olympics in Paris, this Saturday evening could be the ideal moment! The Olympic swimming pool, today called the Piscine Georges Vallery, will be open until midnight for a special charity event in aid of Unicef.

Thursday 11 March 2010

The 1924 Paris Olympics (Part Two)

With the Olympic stadium being situated in a relatively remote western suburb (see Part One here), and events also taking place as far apart as Le Havre and Reims, the Paris Olympics of 1924 were seemingly connected to the city in name only. Paris did though experience a kind of Olympic fever, and three venues within the city itself were used during the games, but as we will see, there are few traces remaining today.

(Note: This post is a bit long, so if you would prefer to read a paper version, I've uploaded a PDF here!)

To try and get a feeling for the city in 1924 I first need to return to my favourite bench in Paris. From this position, I can not only look out across the city, but also physically connect with the games. The bench is situated on what today is known as the Butte Bergeyre, a compact community of 1930s housing, but the name is actually a reminder of what was situated here before.

Le Stade Bergeyre

Bergeyre was the name of rugby player killed during the First World War. In his honour, his name was given to a new stadium in Paris in 1918. It was situated here, where this bench sits today, on a plateau above the city and alongside the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. In 1920 it hosted a final of the Coupe de France football tournament, encouraging a poet of the time, Paul Souchon, to describe it thus: “C’est un plateau de gazon, une ile Claire et tranquille, que vient batter à l’horizon le flux de l’immense ville” (‘It’s a grass plateau, a light and calm island which sees the flow of the immense city beat against the horizon’)

The butte bergeyre from below, looking up at the bench

In 1924 it was used for six matches during the Olympic football tournament, an event which proved to be the most financially successful of all the activities at the games. There were on average around 8000 people at each match, but as the report for the Switzerland v Czechoslovakia game on the 30th May stated, ‘le Stade Bergeyre est plein et l’on refuse du monde’ (the Stade Bergeyre was full and people were turned away’).

Studying the photo above, taken in 1925, with a shadowy Sacre Coeur sitting in one corner, I can establish that the bench would have been situated behind the goal on the other side of the pitch. It is impossible to imagine a football stadium here on the Butte Bergeyre today, with flats, houses and streets replacing the pitch and stadium after its destruction in 1927. I look behind me, back at where the pitch would have been, and contemplate an Olympic venue which had a life span of just 9 years. So much for lasting legacies.

Le Vélodrome d'Hiver

If I look out towards the south from this bench I can see the Eiffel Tower. The view would have been much the same from the stadium, but one thing missing today is the Vélodrome d’Hiver. Standing near the foot of the tower, the ‘Vél d’Hiv’ was surprisingly not the venue for cycling events at the Olympics (they took place at the Vélodrome in Vincennes), but rather the boxing, weightlifting, wrestling and fencing events.

It is impossible to think of this venue today without thinking of what came later, a shameful stain on the history of France when 13,000 Parisian Jews were rounded up in 1942 and kept here for several days before being sent on to Concentration Camps and an almost certain death. Surprisingly though, the Vel d’Hiv was allowed to continue after the War as a sports and entertainment venue, and wasn’t demolished until 1959 when it became too expensive to maintain.

During the 1924 Olympics it was not a particularly successful venue. Although the Olympic committee noted that, for example, ‘Le Tournoi Olympique de Boxe fut tout à fait remarquable dans son ensemble’, they were referring more to the quality of the athletes rather than the venue or the organization. Little is said in the official report beyond the fact that conditions inside the venue were almost always very hot and heavy, but a clue that things might not have gone as well as expected is found in a letter of thanks from the Canadian CIO member. “The difficulties that arose in boxing, and wrestling were more largely those of the failure of police control, rather than to failure of the technique of the games”. What actually happened remains a mystery!

Time to leave my bench, walk down the steps to the Avenue Simon Bolivar and then on to the Porte des Lilas. Here I will find the last remaining sporting structure from the 1924 games in Paris, but again I will be disappointed.

Piscine des Tourelles

Along with the football tournament, the swimming event was the big winner of the 1924 Olympics. Importantly, the Piscine des Tourelles was the only venue that was specially built for the games, a revolutionary pool that was the first to limit the basin to 50m rather than the previously accepted 100m length for Olympic events, and with room for 10,000 spectators.

It was a magnificent structure, in brick on the outside with a white art deco interior, and was open to the elements. The sun shone for almost the entire week of the swimming event, which brought in large crowds and encouraged the sportsmen and women to many impressive performances. Chief among them was Johnny Weissmuller, who won two gold medals and who would later find international fame as Tarzan in several Hollywood films.

This video, filmed in 1931, shows how the pool looked at the time. What is interesting to note is just how choppy the water in the pool seems, and this can possibly explain to some extent the differences in performance between then and now. In 1924, Weissmuller won the 100m freestyle gold in 59 seconds. In 2008, the Frenchman Alain Bernard claimed gold with a time of 47.21 seconds!

So what is left of the pool today? It still stands in the same spot, but the exterior has changed completely. Redevelopment in the 1980s gave it a second skin of concrete cladding and additional office space, but the interior was largely untouched. Naturally though I was not able to go inside and take photos!

Alongside the swimming pool there is however a building from the era that survives. The Porte des Lilas Metro station was opened in 1922, in good time for the games, and still retains its art deco façade and attractive tiling.

The Olympic Legacy?

What was the legacy of the 1924 Olympics in Paris? In search of an answer I take the Line 11 Metro from Porte des Lilas down to Hotel de Ville. It was here on the 24th June that the city of Paris held a reception for the Olympic committee, an event which would be the consecration for the Baron Pierre de Coubertin and his Olympic games. Thirty years previously at la Sorbonne, the committee launched the new Olympics to much skepticism in France, but everybody reunited at the city hall on this day no longer doubted the success of the event.

All around them in Paris were signs of a popular fervour. Indeed, one of the achievements of these games was that they managed to reunite all members of society, from the very rich who bought Olympic themed jewellery from shops on the Rue de la Paix, to the working classes who attended the events en masse, as well as other events that had sprung up including the Exposition Internationale des Sports at a place called Magic City near the Pont de l'Alma.

At the reception, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin stood up and addressed the invited guests. It is easy to imagine his satisfaction as he began his speech. "J’ai connu, il y 35 ans, des gens qui me témoignaient quelque humeur parce que j’empruntais aux Anglais l’habitude, le goût des exercices sportifs et que je l’introduisais dans ce pays où je risquais, disaient-ils, d’abaisser le niveau des études" (I knew, 35 years ago, people who humoured me because I borrowed from the English the love of sporting exercises, and who believed that I risked bringing down the level of education (in France)).

De Courbertin had become obsessed by the British discipline of physical education at Public Schools, believing that this was behind the nation's success and empire expansion in the 19th century. The legacy that the Baron Pierre de Coubertin hoped to leave behind therefore was something similar in France, achieving a balance of the physical and the intellectual. As he made his speech, he firmly believed that the 1924 Olympics had been successfully in doing this.

86 years later, I am not convinced that this is the case. Paris is still very much an intellectual city where sport plays a very minor role. Indeed, in France as a whole, the pratice of certain sports, or even worse, the paying of money to watch them, is still frowned upon by the cultural elite. If the Baron Pierre de Courbertin were to return to Paris today, I am sure that he would not find it surprising that it is London and not Paris that will be hosting the Olympics in 2012.

Something for the Weekend (12th – 14th March)

It will still be wet and cold in Paris this weekend, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting out and about. As usual, here a few ideas of things to do.

If you have any events or activities you think should be promoted or which you would like to promote yourself, please add them in the comments. Let me know also if you have any events in the coming weekends you would like to promote.

Burlesque Bazar
This Sunday afternoon at the always interesting Bellevilloise will be a brunch brocante burlesque bazar! It's quite a mouthful, but what on earth is it? The Bellevilloise is now well associated with the burlesque, mostly through the annual festival in the autumn and through the girl-power striptease lessons each weekend, and this Sunday's event is another chance to promote the activities. You'll find burlesque professionals, vintage boutiques and other creators selling all the equipment you'd need to get started in the art, as well as food, drink a jazz DJ set and a live Swing concert.
La Bellevilloise 19-21 rue Boyer, 75020
Sunday 14th March, 12pm - 6pm
Entrance: €2

Vinyl, Disques et Pochettes d’artistes
When an album was played at 33 revolutions a minute and not streamed online, musicians and artists often had very close relationships. What would the Velvet Underground have been without Andy Warhol? The Maison Rouge near Bastille is celebrating this relationship by displaying the incredible collection of a Belgian vinyl fanatic, Guy Schraenen. Over the last thirty years Schraenen has accumulated over 1000 objects including around 800 singles and albums, but also catalogues, magazines, recordings and other creations, all of which involve a combination of music and other art forms.
Until 16th May
La Maison Rouge
10 boulevard de la bastille, 75012
Wednesday to Sunday, 11am - 7pm

Paris, Ville Rayonnante
The face of Paris today is mostly that of a 19th Century, with little remaining of its medieval heart. However, if there is one place that relics from this era survive it is in its churches. This exhibition at the Musée national du Moyen Age looks at what was built in the 13th century when the city was rapidly expanding, both in the civil and religious domains, and how this affected artforms such as sculpture and furniture making. Focussing on just a few decades in this period, it shows how Paris became the reference point in Europe, notably through the construction of Notre Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle.
Until 24th May
Musée national du Moyen Âge
6, place Paul Painlevé, 75005

Entrance: €8.50
Everyday except Tuesday, 9.15am - 5.45pm

Foire Nationale à la Brocante et aux jambons
What could make a more natural combination than antiques and ham? Lots of things probably, but this certainly seems to be a combination that pulls in the crowds. Celebrating its 80th edition on the site, but with a history that stretches back to the 15th century, the Foire nationale à la brocante et aux jambons is a colourful piece of French folklore situated on an island in the Seine that was previously popular with impressionist painters. Expect a wide mix of antiques, bric a brac, music and...well, ham!
More information can be found here

Ile de Chatou
Until Sunday 21st March
Daily from 10am - 7pm
Entrance: 5€
Rueil-Malmaison RER, then a free 'petit train' service to the site.

Salon Mer et Vigne
My attention has also been drawn to an interesting salon taking place from today until Sunday, the Salon Mer et Vigne at the Espace Champerret (Porte de Champerret). The salon features around 160 stands of regional French produce, including wine, oysters and foie gras!
Click on this link to download free entrance tickets.

Monday 8 March 2010

International Obscura Day

Saturday March the 20th has been designated International Obscura Day by the team at the Atlas Obscura website. It will be the opportunity to attend a selection of fascinating events around the world, including the curious Musée Fragonard in Paris. Here I speak to organiser Joshua Foer about the motivation behind Obscura day, and to Molly Guinness, organser of the Paris event.

Joshua Foer, along with Dylan Thuras, is the co-founder of Atlas Obscura, a website he describes as being “a user-generated guide to the world's wondrous, curious, and esoteric places”. The site is a series of recommendations from users of interesting and often overlooked sites around the world which may help visitors to gain more of an insight into a place than they would from standard tourist destinations.

To Joshua Foer though, this applies equally to our hometowns. “The idea behind the Atlas is that there is a whole lot of exploration left to be done. You don't have to strike out for the "Here be dragons" parts of the map to discover amazing places. They're all around us. Starting from a recognition of that fact can lead to a much richer experience of the places where we live”.

With this in mind, Foer and his team have decided to organise an International Obscura Day. “We want people going out and exploring these places” he explains. “Too often they are under-appreciated. We believe you don't have to go to the Grand Canyon to experience wonder. It's an experience that can be found all around us, if you only know where to look”. This event will not only help people to discover where to look, but will also help them to understand, as many of the places listed have some connection to the sciences.

The website looks to focus on “places that expand our sense of what is possible and tell us something about ourselves", and Foer definitely sees it as being educational. “Absolutely”, he tells me, “all science proceeds from wonder. First we wonder at, then we wonder about, and then we learn”. So what exactly will people be able to learn about on the 20th March?

There are so many incredible events happening all over the world, I wish I could be at all of them” says Foer. “Near Sydney in Australia, a group is going out to explore an abandoned railway tunnel filled with bioluminescent glowworms. In Niagara Falls, New York there will be a full day of re-enactments of classic scientific experiments using original, antique equipment. In Portland, Oregon, we will see a demonstration of Chernekov radiation at the world's only undergraduate-run nuclear reactor. In Tokyo, we'll be exploring the world's largest underground drainage system. In Tennessee, we'll be getting a tour of the world's largest treehouse from the minister who built it. In London, we'll be taking a walking tour of the lost River Fleet”.

Do you have any excuse for not attending one of these events?

See for more details on events near you. For those of you in Paris, see below!

Obscura Day at the Musée Fragonard, Maisons Alfort
Atlas Obscura have organised a guided tour for a maximum of 35 people at the Musée Fragonard situated inside the Ecole nationale vétérinaire in Maisons Alfort to the East of Paris. Molly Guinness, organiser of this event, told me a little about the museum and her reasons for choosing it for the Obscura Day.

Can you tell us a little bit about Honoré Fragonard and the museum?
Honoré Fragonard became famous, or infamous, at the veterinary school in Lyon, where he began working on a series of ‘flayed figures’ in the 18th century. These were carefully dissected animals which were posed and mounted using a very difficult and, to this day, secret process similar to that of plastinisation. The collection at the Fragonard Museum contains around twenty of these ‘écorchés’, which can really be classed as works of art!

Why have you chosen this museum for Obscura Day?
I've always been very keen on medical curiosities. From the artificial body parts at the Arts et Metiers museum to the Irish giant and the world's smallest woman at the Hunterian museum in London to shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford and the Catacombs in Rome. I'm not particularly proud of it, although I do feel ashamed about having enjoyed Gunter Von Haagen's Bodyworlds exhibition! It is also a museum that is not very well known in Paris, and also situated in a place that most people would never normally visit.

The museum is open to visitors on a regular basis. What will be special about the visit on the 20th?
It’s true that the museum is open regularly, but when does anyone really go so far as to book in for a guided tour? Also, being part of the Obscura day imbues it with an extra layer of excitement; the sense of taking part in such a huge event, where curious, imaginative and possibly also ghoulish people around the world are linked for one day. I hope it will attract a good crowd, too. I'm definitely planning to make a lot of new friends there!

To join the event at the Musée Fragonard, sign up here:

Friday 5 March 2010

The 1924 Paris Olympics (Part One)

When a city organises the Olympic Games today the most important word attached to the event is legacy. What will be left behind when the Olympic circus packs up and moves on to the next town? This was not a question that was asked in the early years, but surprisingly, several traces of the 1924 games in Paris are still visible. In this first post, a look at the Olympic Stadium in the north-western suburb of Colombes.

A Little Bit of History
Paris had previously organised the games in 1900, but given their length at the time (spread over nearly 6 months between May 14th and October 28th) it is impossible to look at them as resembling the modern event in any way. The 1924 games were different. Sport had become a universally popular activity, particularly as a spectator event, and around 1,000 journalists were present in Paris to report back around the world on the results as they happened.

44 nations and 3,089 athletes took part, and although the games are seen as being the first truly modern Olympics they were not completely so as only 135 of the competitors were women. Most of the athletes were hosted in the first ever Olympic village, a camp of temporary wooden constructions that had been put up alongside the stadium. The athletes here had access to a foreign exchange, a hairdressers, a post office and shops. They were also provided with three meals a day, although the British preferred to bring their own chef, and the Americans decided to organise their own camp next to the Château de Rocquencourt!

In the 1924 Olympics, medals were not only awarded for sporting achievements. There were also artistic competitions including literature, painting and architecture. It is interesting to note that three Soviet artists took part in these competitions despite the country not sending any athletes to the sporting event which they considered to be a “bourgeois festival”!

The Olympic Stadium
Originally a hippodrome holding horse-racing meetings, then a very minor stadium owned by a newspaper, the stadium was eventually converted into an Olympic sized venue with a capacity of 45,000 by the architect Louis Faure-Dujarric (who had previously been the captain of the local Racing Club rugby team).

Stadium capacity was later increased to over 60,000 when it was used as the venue for the 1938 World Cup Final between Italy and Hungary. It was also used for French international football and rugby matches up until the 1970s, with the all time record attendance coming on the 5th March 1969 when 63,638 spectators paid to watch a European Cup football game between Ajax Amsterdam and Benfica Lisbon.

During the 1924 Olympics, it was most famously the scene of victories for Paavo Nurmi, the 'flying Finn' who won five Gold medals, including two within an hour (the 1500 and 5000m events), and for the British victories in the 100 and 400 metres events which later became the subject of the Chariots of Fire film. Don't look too closely at the stadium when watching that film though - it was actually recorded at the Bebington Oval near Liverpool!

The Stadium Today
As I arrive at the stadium, the rain stops falling and the sun comes out from behind the clouds. The light is suddenly perfect, but the stadium is still a sad sight. Today it is used by the Racing Club football and rugby teams and is painted in their sky-blue and white stripes, but much of it is boarded up or crumbling into the ground.

Rather unexpectedly I am free to walk right into the stadium. I can stand on the racetrack and even walk out onto the pitch. Later someone challenges me when I start taking pictures, but when I explain that I'm interested in the crumbling remains of the Olympic stadium and not the Racing Club logos he is happy to let me carry on snapping. I'd previously studied many archive photos and seen that it is only the concrete terraces at either end of the stadium that remain from the Olympics. Although the stadium is still surrounded by open spaces and smaller sporting arenas, there are no traces left of the ramshackle wooden Olympic village.

Most of the terracing has been removed and today it is closed off to spectators. I'm surprised that any of it has survived at all, until I find some offices and changing rooms still in use beneath them.

The changing rooms are about as simple as it is possible to imagine, with long concrete troughs where football or rugby players stop to wash mud off their boots.

Behind the terraces is a rather odd looking building, and perhaps the only surviving structure that predates the Olympics. Used for many years, and almost certainly during the Olympics, as a 'buvette' or refreshment stand, it is today sadly boarded up and no longer in use. This building was part of the original hippodrome and was used as the pavillon de pesage, or the room where jockeys were weighed before being given permission to race.

Outside the Stadium: the Legacy?
Surprisingly the most visible remnants of the 1920s and the dominant Art Deco architecture of the period can be found in a pair of housing blocks just outside the stadium. Built between the Olympics in 1924 and the football World Cup in 1938, they are perhaps testimony to the increased importance these sporting events had brought to the area. Colombes had seen its transport links and other infrastructure improved, including a new train station which is still known as 'Le Stade' today.

Part Two: What is left from the 1924 Olympics in Paris itself?
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