Sunday 31 October 2010

The Rue de l'Estrapade

Paris street names hide many stories, but few can be as gruesome as the Rue de l'Estrapade. Tucked away behind the Pantheon in the 5th arrondissement, the street today is quiet, studious and respectable, but until the 17th century it was the scene of a quite horrific form of torture - the infamous estrapade (or strappado)!

In Paris, this form of torture - which consists of tying a victim's hands behind their back then suspending them from a post by their wrists - was used mainly on the city's Protestant population. Few survived the punishment, being repeatedly hoisted back up to the top of the post then dropped down again, in full view of the baying crowds.

Shortly after the estrapade was declared illegal in France, the writer and philosopher Denis Diderot moved into a house at the number three of this street where he worked on his Encyclopédie. His encyclopedia contains a description for the words tortur and estrapade, which he points out "n'est plus d'usage, au moins en France".

Whether any traces of the torture were left in the street at the time of Diderot is not noted, but nothing survives today. Anyone walking this way now would find no descriptions of the street name, and no reminders in the road's buildings and commerces. If the passer-by then sat down to eat at the 'L'Estrapade' restaurant at number 15, they would probably not even stop to reflect after finding a plat named 'Suicide au chocolat' on the menu.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Behind the facade

Paris is said to be a city of pretention, where appearances are more important than the realities of the interior. Whilst this may be true for a certain number of the city's inhabitants, it is also often true for the city's buildings. Here is an interesting example on the Boulevard Pereire.

From the Boulevard, this structure looks like a respectable Haussmannian stone building. It is
a little featureless and dull, but also clean, neat and comfortably bourgeois. Take the Rue Bayen though, and a surprise awaits. The rear of the building is completely different! From this perspective, the building is pure red-brick proletarian (although with lines and forms that I personally find more attractive).

Return to the Boulevard and take a step backwards and the full picture becomes clear. The bourgeois respectability seems to be in fact little more than a clip on stone facade.

In fact, such masquerades are comparitively common in Paris, but often much more difficult to spot. As Bernard Marrey writes in 'La Brique à Paris', "si les façades sur rue cherchent...à exprimer une 'position sociale' supérieure, la façade sur cour ne cherche rien, sinon, parfois le simple plaisir d'être entre soi" (if the street-facing facades try to express a superior social position, the courtyard facade has no such desire, if not just the simple pleasure of being with its own kind).

Marrey also points out that, as is the case here on the Boulevard Pereire, that residents had separate entrances, and that those who had an apartment with the stone facade would also surely have other different touches, such as an elegant staircase. They may live in the same physical building with those facing the rear, but they couldn't risk meeting on the stairs!

Friday 22 October 2010

Something for the Week (22nd – 31st October)

It’s the half-term holidays and, strikes permitting, I’ll be away for the week. For this reason, I’ve left you not with a weekend selection, but with some suggestions for two weekends and the week in between.

See the Paris Weekends blog for the list of suggestions.

Monday 18 October 2010

Panic Underground

The train, already rolling along at snail pace, finally shrieks to a determined stop. Outside, the deep darkness of the tunnel, heavy and silent. The carriage is crowded, more so than normal on this day of delays, and one or two people let out a sigh. Others, used to such incidents, continue reading books and newspapers.

Without the sound of the train’s electricity, other sounds fill the gap. The buzzing of music seeping from headphones, the beeps of smartphones and snippets of conversation.
One minutes passes. No announcements are made over the train’s intercom system, and eyes begin darting around the carriage. People put their weight onto another foot, and lean heads and shoulders against windows and doors. The temperature seems to rise by a degree or two.

La fenêtre s’il vous plaît” requests one lady, but those nearby can’t open it. They’ve already tried and it’s stuck. People smile and scoff, but this is an older generation of train. Just one window in the carriage is open, and the oxygen is already starting to taste second-hand.

Two minutes become three and still there is no announcement and no movement on the line. People twist in their tiny individual spaces, trying to find an extra few inches of room. Conversations stop and faces turn to frowns. A quick look at watches, then mental calculations about missed connections and appointments.

After four minutes, suddenly there is movement and raised voices by a doorway. A girl is struggling for breath and looks ready to fall. She tries to open the door, but it is locked tight inside the tunnel. ‘I need air’ she says and people try to cool her and calm her down. A ripple of nervousness spreads outwards. All we need now is someone collapsing in here.

She is moved close to the single open window and drinks in the stale air of the tunnel. A problem averted for now, but who will be the next to panic if the train doesn’t start moving soon?

People now become acutely aware of their environment. We are now no longer in a train but instead closed in a tight metallic box deep underground. Without any visual clues, we don’t even know where we are. There is no immediate escape - all we can do is stand and wait.

And wait. Five minutes, six minutes, and the thin threads that hold society together are starting to strain. How many more minutes before they snap all together? Our mental barter for such close physical proximity is the fact that something is moving us forward to our destination, but when the movement stops, the odours, the coughs and the warmth of people’s breath become ever more intensified. We don’t even stay this close to our families for such lengths of time.

Seven minutes, eight minutes now, but what would happen if we were stuck here for 30 minutes, an hour, two hours? Look around at the faces. Who would break down and who would become a leader? How would our new micro-society organise itself? Would we make space for each other, let people take it in turns to sit down, tell each other about our lives above ground, and wait for help? Or would we instead silently form escape groups and frantically try and break through doors and windows?

Nine minutes then ten, and happily an unexpected rumble as the engine is engaged and the train shunts forward. Smiles and relief and a return to our individual spaces and routines. 10 minutes only, but time seems twice as long in the rarefied atmosphere of the Metro. 10 minutes, we tell ourselves, not 69 days, but we're still glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Saturday 16 October 2010

The Promenade Bernard Lafay

There are many things that are elegant in Paris, but the Promenade Bernard Lafay is not one of these. ‘Elégante’ though is exactly the adjective chosen by the city of Paris to describe this footpath that runs alongside the péripherique motorway between the Porte des Asnières and the Porte Maillot. Urban and rather grey, it is in fact a pleasingly functional city artery.

Opened in 1990, the promenade stretches over nearly 2km, stitching together a number of small gardens and parks. To one side, the motorway keeps up a steady roar, whilst on the other, contemporary buildings brood over you. In between, the twisting concrete pathway pushes its way around grassy banks and clumps of trees. At intervals, the promenade is interrupted by a busy road, and you need to look carefully across to the other side to see the point from which the path continues.

Benches are sprinkled along the route, often in inexplicable positions, and many seem to have seen little use. At certain points, groups of teenagers gather together to eat their lunch, but mostly this is a pathway that pushes people onwards. Alternative paths spin off towards other places, slipways to and from the traffic of the city, sending people back to work or bringing them home.

The word promenade really doesn't seem to suit this collection of disparate segments, despite the winding pink path that links them together. Nobody seems to stroll from one end to the other, and yet this is a city vein that is full of life. Joggers whisk by, heading towards the running track of an adjacent stadium. Small children cry out and pull their parents towards an empty play area. There is never silence. The thwack of tennis rackets connecting with balls, the indecipherable, permenant din of a school playground, the rumble of a building site, and always, always the hum of the motorway.

Trees and flowers line the promenade, but there is nothing bucolic about it. There is no escape from the city here, instead it is quite clearly a thread in the city's fabric. Professionally pragmatic as a doctor and politician as well as a President of the conseil de Paris, Bernard Lafay would surely appreciate being linked to this functional thoroughfare.

The promenade keeps the hours of a park, so at 6.30pm in Autumn and Winter, the gates are shut. For this reason, despite certain shady corners and grafittied tunnels, it never has the chance to become a threatening environment. Instead the promenade is residential, an extension of the buildings and roads that surround it. It feels adopted, integrated into the daily routines of the neighbourhood. It is not pretty, not elegant, but it is well worn like a favourite pair of comfortable shoes. For a promenade, that's certainly not a bad thing!

Thursday 14 October 2010

Something for the Weekend (15th – 17th October)

A bric a brac of events this weekend, which is apt, as two of my recommendations concern outdoor markets. On top of that, you'll find music, British culture and toilets!

See the full list of my recommendations on the Paris Weekends blog.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Pont Cardinet: a bridge to the past

The golden age of the railway has long since departed from the Pont Cardinet train station, but it has left behind a unique glimpse into another era of rail travel.

The station itself is something of an anomaly in Paris. The only working train station within Paris that is not a terminus or part of the RER network, it stands out today as quaint outpost in need of a new purpose. Barely 5 trains an hour stop here now, but its architectural merits point backwards to a time when it was busier and better loved.

Designed by the architect Julien Polti (whose brother Georges was a surrealist author), the Pont Cardinet building was a replacement for an earlier station, the Gare de Batignolles. Finished in 1922, it is built on a metal platform as a prolongation of the Pont Cardinet just 1.5km from the Gare Saint Lazare main line station. The quality of the building was recognised almost immediately.

"La nouvelle gare des Batignolles, sans aucune prétention, mais dont les lignes sont logiques et où, par surcroît, de légers motifs de céramique prouvent un souci de coquetterie, montre un judicieux emploi du ciment armé" Henri Verne and René Chavance, 'Pour comprendre l'art décoratif moderne en France', Paris 1925.

The building has kept much of the charm of its origins, with graphical patterns in ceramics on the exterior and cathederal windows in the ticket hall. Although it is more an observer of the trains rushing in and out of St Lazare today, it is also this fact that has protected it from bland, corporate makeovers.

Throughout the station, fixtures and fittings are all from another time. Little seems to have changed in the last thirty years or so, except for the blackening out of two of the large windows, perhaps to protect those inside from a too agressive sun.

To one side, an autumn flash of fire growing on a disused line. This was the ligne d'Auteuil, a line that cut through the western side of Paris out to the Bois de Boulogne. First opened in 1854, the last train left this platform on a snowy evening in January 1985.

The station may well however have a brighter future. The new Clichy Batignolles district is growing around it, and an increasing local population will need improved public transport links. There is talk of extending the line 14 of the Metro to this point, or alternatively to greatly increase the number of trains that will stop here. Let's just hope that bringing this station back to life won't also mean that its heart is taken away.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Something for the Weekend (8th – 10th October)

It’s a battle of the districts this weekend as three parts of the city will be competing to attract the crowds to their events. Elsewhere, choose between quiet reflection or bawdy burlesque!

Monday 4 October 2010

Death and Taxes

This small brick structure, built into the walls of the Levallois cemetery, is one of the remaining traces of a particularly hated source of taxation - l'octroi.

The octroi was a local tax collected on articles being brought into a city for consumption. Going back to Roman times, such taxes have always existed, but in Paris the system was a very controversial one, playing a small role in the country’s revolution in 1789.

Louis XVI erected a wall known as the mur des fermiers généreux, around the city, and installed the tax collectors in 57 mostly elegant buildings (several of which still survive today such as at Stalingrad, Monceau, the Place de la Nation and at Place Denfert Rochereau). When revolution struck, the octroi became a target and several of the barrières were attacked and burned to the ground, and the tax was swiftly abolished. Ten years later though, the city authorities realised how out of pocket they were and reintroduced the tax, but this time they said to raise capital for ‘good deeds’ only. Soon, the city was generating 85% of its revenue from the tax and the good deeds only aspect was dropped.

As this was generally a tax on basic goods such as oil, sugar and coffee, a market for such produce naturally sprung up just outside the city walls. Nowhere was this more evident than in the market for alcohol! Tax free wine could be enjoyed for a fraction of the price outside the city, and city-dwellers could often be found in the slightly dubious taverns of places such as the Bas Courtille in the then suburb of Belleville.

The very basic structure shown in the picture at the top and in these other examples below are an interesting footnote to this history. As the Paris city walls came down and the city itself begun swallowing up its neighbours, so the octroi tax started moving outwards into the growing towns of the suburbs. These structures were built at the very beginning of the 20th century at the entrance points into the towns concerned (Levallois and Neuilly), as these territories took the opportunity themselves to raise taxes on incoming goods.

What were their targets though? Although most revenue came from the staple products, over time a wide range of goods have been targetted. In the middle of the 19th century, luxury carriages, dogs and man-servants were taxable, whilst more recently horses and billiard tables were also affected by the tax.

The octroi tax was finally abolished over 60 years ago in 1948, so it is somewhat surprising to find these small brick units still standing in these suburban towns. What are they used for today? It is easy to imagine how they were used at the time; small two or three man affairs, little more than the small cabins that security staff on private sites may use today, but then surely more comfortable and solid, with a working fire on cold days.

On one unit today there is a sign suggesting that this is now used by a union - the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French confederation of Christian workers), but there can't be many of those if they can all fit into such a small space.

Today then they have become little more than a curious part of the street furniture - but one with an interesting story to tell.

Sunday 3 October 2010

White night, bright lights

Live action from the Nuit Blanche event in Belleville! It seemed for a long time as if it may be a wet night rather than a white night, but finally the weather is dry and warm. This of course has brought the crowds out, meaning long queues for certain sites (Ecole d'Architecture). No queuing for me though - I'm more interested in capturing the atmosphere of the event!

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