Saturday 29 January 2011

The Mercedes Bend

On an angle of the Avenue Wagram sits a salmon-hued hotel that would seemingly be more suited to Miami than Paris. With its curved façade and stepped upper levels, it looks a little like a cruise ship washed up on the corner of a Paris boulevard. Little surprise therefore to find out that its architect also worked on the design of the Normandie ocean liner.

The building was drawn by the architect Pierre Patout and finished in 1928. Although it is known today as the Hotel Mercedes, it was originally designed to be a more simple ‘pension de famille’ (boarding house). It is unlikely that its current name is the original one, firstly because Patout’s records list the building simply as an ‘immeuble’, and secondly because another larger ‘Hotel Mercedes’ already existed in the city. Curiously, both Georges Chedanne, architect of the other Hotel Mercedes, and Pierre Patout were employed
as chief architects at various times by the Galeries Lafayette store.

Patout’s building is impressive from the outside, despite – or perhaps because of - the more massive structures on either side. Paris is a rather angular monotone city, and here we find both curves and colour. Inside there are some decorative treats too, but these are fairly well hidden. As a pension, little in the way of communal space was provided, and the entrance lobby is tiny. A staircase leads down to a bar where original glass panels by the artist Jacques Grüber are installed. Grüber, closely linked to the Ecole de Nancy, was a glass maker who also worked with
Patout on the decoration of cruise ships. Although I wasn't able to take pictures inside the hotel, this video shows some of Grüber's creations. Strangely, despite having been made recently and featuring decoration from the 1930s, the film seems to have come directly from the 1970s.

As the hotel now belongs to the Best Western group its art deco interiors have had to be absorbed into a standardised international model (unsurprisingly for a company that claims to be ‘the world’s largest hotel chain’ on its website). The exterior is largely untouched though, with Best Western branding thankfully discreet. The distinctive lettering at the entrance has also been kept, as has a curious plaque which tells us that on this space previously stood the house of Jaroslav Cermak, a relatively obscure Czech artist.

Pierre Patout will perhaps be best remembered for his work on three ocean liners (L’Ile de France, L’Atlantique and Le Normandie), but he did produce several other buildings in Paris. A few streets away from the Mercedes, at the Porte de Champerret, can be found another of his creations, and once again a maritime theme is clearly visible.

This is a more massive construction of private apartments, a little more angular, but with a familiar stepped design on the upper floors and with railings that wouldn’t look out of place on cruise ship. Perhaps his best known building in Paris though remains a very impressive - and very narrow - structure that has come to be known as the Paquebot (liner) in the 15th arrondissement. Here Patout seemingly did combine two passions - Paris and the sea!

Tuesday 25 January 2011

Paris People: the Concierge

Alexandre Besombes is not the concierge of Paris legend, and is indeed as far from the image of the silver-haired building minder as it is possible to be. He is one of the new breed of concierge, most commonly found in top-class hotels, who help wealthy clients with their daily tasks and leisure activities.

He heads Unique Paris with partner Carine Beauvisage, a company that aims to offer personalised concierge services to residents and tourists in Paris. The market is in constant expansion, but what is the underside of the business for those providing the services and how do they interact with the city?

Although Paris is said to be a city that likes its sleep, for Alexandre and his team this is a luxury that can be disturbed at any time. “We have a constant flow of requests at night such as delivering some groceries, calling a taxi or getting some medicine” says Alexandre Besombes. “This constant pressure of priority requests is very tiring in the long run and as we are open twenty four hours a day, you need to stay on alert most of the time” he adds.

His company decided at the beginning that a true 24 hour service with a nominated concierge would be an important differentiator for the brand, and it is a service that his clients appreciate. Fortunately for
Alexandre though, his services don’t stop at simple late-night shopping missions.

It really is an really job” he points out, before listing the aspects that lead him to a career in this industry in the first place. “We meet thousands of interesting people every year, working in all kinds of industries. We have to know and understand Paris from the inside and be aware of every single event, each new restaurant and all the concept stores that open in the city.”

Competition is very fierce in the concierge business. According to an internal market study carried out by the company, there were more than 500 concierge companies in France in 2010 - “some more professionals than others” adds Alexandre. Why has this industry grown so quickly though and who are typical clients?

Simply summarised, it would seem that the entire industry can be in encapsulated in one word – time. “We work mostly for people who put more value on their time than the average” explains Alexandre. “Both Parisians and tourists who use our services want to save time and maximise their pleasure in their activities, without the trouble of organising them. We deliver them more freedom. Since everything is planned to avoid wasting time - people do not queue for monuments, do not wait to get a table, do not wait for a taxi to show up - they just spend the time doing what they want to do.”

The purchasing of ti
me naturally comes with a price tag, so who can afford such services? Most of the company’s clients would be described as wealthy, but others, particularly amongst the visitors to Paris, may simply be more concerned about making the most of a rare trip abroad. As Alexandre points out, “having someone say you saved our vacation is the most rewarding part of the job."

The basic services offered can be broken down into four sectors; daily life management, lifestyle management, travel planning and event planning, but are there any limits to exactly what a client can ask for and what the concierge can provide? When asked the strangest thing he has been asked to do, he replies mysteriously that “we are bound to a very strict confidentiality agreement with our clients and I’m afraid I can’t answer that question.

He is equally cagey when I ask about clients asking for illegal services. It is easy to imagine the rich but stressed businessman calling up his concierge and asking him to find him women or drugs. “We have a very strict corporate policy about these kinds of requests” he says. “We never accept any request involving prostitution or drugs or indeed anything that is illegal. But we still of course try to be polite when we do refuse!

Finally, the relationship between concierge and client seems to be based entirely on trust. Alexandre denies any links to
inducement-offering prefered suppliers, and points out that in any case this would be extremely prejudicial to his company in the long term. When I ask if he feels any sensation of servitude in his job, he turns this around and says that he feels more like a friend or an advisor to his clients. “Serve the customers with quality and attention, trust and reward will follow” he says. A sentiment that would seem to be the perfect conclusion!

For more information on the services offered by Alexandre and his team, see

Saturday 22 January 2011

Fake pillars that help to show the reality

I'm not a big fan of trompe l'oeil decorations, but the columns in the Rue Legouvé are more than just ornamental prettiness. They seem to be telling me something, but what is the story they want me to see?

Zoom back out again from this point on Google Street View and you will see the environment in which they are situated. The columns stand at the end of two blank walls that look kiln-fired in terracotta reds. Small windows have popped out on these surfaces at various points, but these are clearly walls that were not meant to be seen.

Look closely at the columns themselves and you can see that they are painted on surfaces that have been clumsily dissected then left with their wounds untreated. Undoubtedly, these columns are in fact on two sides of the same wall.

Why was there originally a wall here though, and why was it removed? For an answer, I need to know when the street on which they are situated was created. The city of Paris website gives me the answer. The street was created in 1902 and named after playwright and poet Gabriel Jean Baptiste Ernest Wilfrid Legouvé (how many names does one man need?) in 1904. This gives me part of the answer, but doesn't solve the mystery of the wall.

As is often the case, Jacques Hillairet's "Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris" solves this conundrum. The numbers 24-28 of the Rue Lucien Sampaix, the road at the top of the Rue Legouvé, was previously the address of a warehouse where the decors of the Théâtre de l'Ambigu-Comique were stored. In 1896 a terrible fire destroyed the warehouse, and six years later, the building was pulled down and a new road created.

The columns are therefore standing at the back of what was previously a warehouse full of theatrical sets and props. As we stand and admire them, we are hemmed in on two sides by the original walls of that building, and to some extent we are still inside that structure. It is a curious thought, but one rendered more poignant when we look at these blazing red walls and remember the fire that brought this street into existence.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Peurs sur la Ville - "Paris is a battlefield"

Paris est un champ de bataille. Nous l’avions oublié” (Paris is a battlefield. We have forgotten that) notes writer and historian Max Gallo in his introduction to the Peurs sur la ville exhibition which launches tomorrow (January 20th) at the Monnaie de Paris. Throughout its history, he points out, the city has been the scene of bloody battles, invasions, uprisings and terrorist attacks, and long-lasting peace is a recent situation that we have perhaps begun to take for granted.

The show has therefore been conceived as a reminder of how fragile the peace of our cities remains. It
is built around three different photographic perspectives, representing the recent past, the situation today and an imagined vision of what the future might be.

The archives of the Paris Match magazine provide the historic perspective, with photos of the liberation of Paris in 1944, the revolt in May 1968, terrorist attacks in the 1970s and more recent protests on the city streets. Although several of these photos feature dehumanised bodies laying in rivers of blood on the streets of the capital, perhaps the most powerful images are those taken in the suburbs during recent unrest. One in particular, a simple picture of the Cité des 4000 housing project in the suburb of La Courneuve is particularly striking. It is violence by architecture, and a reminder that if war comes to Paris it will most probably come from within.

The artist Michael Wolf has chosen Google’s Street View tool to give a representation of the city today. His highly pixelated images, labelled Paris Street View, are blown up to sizes that make them almost unrecognisable. The violence here is not physical but psychological, and we are reminded that we are all unwitting actors in the city streetscape today. The images - embracing couples, helmeted motorcyclists, wayward arms and legs - are banal, but a hint of menace floats over these creations.

The third installation is the work of Patrick Chauvel, entitled Guerre ici and is possibly the most striking of the three. These pictures, mash ups of Chauvel's world-renowned photographs from war zones with images taken of Paris today, give an apocalyptic vision of a possible future for the city. The violence Chauvel has witnessed in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia is superimposed onto scenes that are familiar to us, transporting us from our routines into a world of horror.

The creations, systematically displayed next to the original pictures to ensure that they remain rooted in the real, transplant wrecked tanks, looting and sniper victims onto the most touristic sites in the city. The artifice works best of all on a startling but entirely believable night-time shot of fire-framed soldiers patrolling in front of Notre Dame. It is what Paris might have been and what it might still be.

The slogan of Paris Match, the chief partner in this exhibition, used to be "le poids des mots, le choc des photos" (the weight of words, the shock of photos), and if there is a criticism I would make of this show it is that it has concentrated purely on the second aspect. This is a vast subject that demands to be investigated and debated, and I can't help feeling that its surface has only been lightly scratched here.

The exhibition is perhaps not served by its surroundings either. With its left bank setting, the elegant staircase, the marble fireplaces and high ceilings, it is difficult to build up any feelings of fear and apprehension despite the very dim light in the rooms. Looking around the images, it is a struggle to imagine the scenes to be possible in Paris today, let alone imminent. And that's perhaps just as well.

Peurs sur la Ville
Until April 17th
La Monnaie de Paris, 11 Quai de Conti, 75006
Tuesday - Sunday, 11am - 6pm (9.30 on Thursdays)

Photo credits:
Top: L'arc de triomphe © Patrick Chauvel photomontage Paul Biota
Middle: PSV 28, Série Paris Street View © Michael Wolf, Courtesy La Galerie Particulière, Paris
Bottom: 1982, attentat à la voiture piégée devant le 33 rue Marbeuf,
© Paris Match

Monday 17 January 2011

The Hopital Lariboisière

Urban explorers generally investigate the forbidden or the shut down, but rarely do they explore what is freely open to the general public. Although the over-familiarity of shopping centres and transport networks may offer little of interest, the mysterious world of hospitals is always a fascinating place to travel.

For those wondering where to start, I recommend the Hôpital Lariboisière. The hospital is situated in the heart of Paris, just a two-minute hop from the Gare du Nord, but exists in its own little world beyond the buzz of the city.

Named after the Comtesse Élisa de Lariboisière, who stipulated that her fortune be spent on the creation of a hospital in Paris after
her death, it is one of the most attractive in the city. It was built in the 1840s following an outbreak of cholera in Paris that the city struggled to control, and according to hygienist theories. The hygienist design meant plenty of air and light, and this is constantly visible in the central courtyard and the corridors and terraces that surround it. Centrally placed is the chapel, featuring three statues, 'La Foi', 'L'Espérance', et 'La Charité' (faith, hope and charity - all three seen as being crucial to the lives of patients at the time!)

Although the surroundings are handsome in bone white stone, I prefer to wander the corridors in search of curiosities and future ruins. Near one doorway, a palimpsest written out in stone. Here a memorial marble for hospital staff killed in the war has been grafted on to a commemorative plaque from another era.

At the top of a deserted staircase is an unexpected viewpoint. Many patients at the hospital must have similar vistas of monuments and wide open skies.

Hospitals are necessarily living structures that adapt with the times. Alongside the 19th century structures of the Hôpital Lariboisière are others that are much more recent, and occasionally this offers interesting contrasts. The hygienist principles of space, light and air are immediately obvious in the original corridors, but other theories must have been prevalent when the extension was built that leads off from here.

Certain features survive, such as window seats, but now they are in wood. Daylight has slipped away, and now it is artificial lighting that leads me along the corridor. This path gets slowly darker, and is rendered more unnerving by the raised voices of a dispute that pierce an unmarked door. At the end is another door with a sign telling me that this is the way towards the morgue.

It's time to turn round and head back towards the light.

Sunday 16 January 2011

City Snapshots: the voiturier

Upstairs, diners are comfortably installed at the tables of the fashionable restaurant. Beneath them, the voiturier sits at his makeshift desk. His coat is hung up alongside him on a water pipe, and a tiny portable television flickers in front of him, helping to pass the long evenings.

In reality, he has very little work to do. The car park is a small one, and when a client does bring him a car to move he only needs to drive it a few metres. In many ways it is absurd, but it brings in an income and adds to the prestige of the establishment.

Sitting at his desk, cooled by a fan on hot days, or warmed by a heater on cold ones, he surveys the scene in front of him. He rarely gets to drive a really expensive car here - it's not that kind of place - but they are all clean, new, and comfortable. They smell of prosperity and shine with affluence. Sometimes he drives the cars of those he has seen on his small television screen, but he doesn't always remember their names.

At the end of their meal, the clients come down to pick up their cars. The voiturier can see immediately who has had too much wine and shouldn't be getting behind the wheel, or who has just had a discreet dinner with a lover, but he never asks questions. He just rushes to their vehicle - never more than 20 metres from where they are standing - and rolls it over to them. They hand over the fee, often with a handsome tip, and murmur their thanks. Sometimes they smile in his direction, but rarely do they ever look him in the eye.

Thursday 13 January 2011

When concrete was a craft

A small workshop in the 11th arrondissement proudly displays the trade of the craftsmen originally based here. Through an elegant, swirling font and a carved mural above the entrance, these masons of reinforced concrete (béton armé) showed that they were a new breed of worker whose skills were comparable to the best carpenters or stone masons. In the modern world at the beginning of the 20th century, they were the ones that represented the future.

Concrete today has such bad press that it is difficult to imagine a time when artisans would boast about their prowess with the material. Swamped in concrete jungle cities where trees of towers are blamed for all of societies ills, few would dare
boast today of such a service.

As the architect Mies Van der Rohe noted however, “we must remember that everything depends on how we use a material, not on the material itself”. At the beginning of the 20th century, inspired by precursors such as Anatole de Baudot, the architect of the revolutionary Saint Jean de Montmartre church, everybody wanted to work with concrete. The forms and structures of buildings could now be adapted, opening up a future that would be limited only by the size of our imagination.

In the 1920s, concrete became synonymous with modernity and luxury, and when Mallet-Stevens or Le Corbusier were chosen by the elite to build their houses, this was the material the clients requested. The owners of the establishment photographed here would have been involved in such projects, and would have
been naturally keen to highlight their competence to work on such prestigious constructions.

So where did it all go wrong? Concrete is still used massively around the world, with more than one cubic metre produced each year for every person on Earth, but when did it lose its prestige? Paris contains many fantastic examples of concrete constructions, notably the structures designed by Auguste Perret in the 1930s (such as the Palais d’Iena or the Mobilier National), but the real damage to its reputation was done in the second half of the century.

Whereas concrete buildings were once divided into two schools, described by architecture historian Bernard Marrey as the ‘lyrisme de la courbe’ (lyricism of the curve) and ‘la poésie de l'angle droit’ (poetry of the right angle), today they are grouped together with a general sentiment of penny-pinching and poverty of thought. The ubiquity of the material and the lack of reflection on its suitability and sustainability has lead to concrete cancer and crumbling public infrastructure.

Would those who created this enterprise have imagined this future? This was to be a noble material, one that they had mastered and for which they had helped build a solid reputation. It is a shame that I cannot knock on their door and ask them to put us on the right path once more.

Monday 10 January 2011

Artists required to save the neighbourhood

'Artistes contactez nous' cries the text painted on a wall on the Passage Beslay. The mission? To 'embellir (decorate) le passage' or transform a narrow, nondescript pathway into something more attractive.

The passage is in fact little more than the facades of two schools, with apparently limited scope for artistic projects. However, closer inspection reveals the real objective of this initiative.

The artists are in fact being asked to improve the 'cadre de vie' (surroundings) of the neighbourhood. In other words, artwork that might firstly make a rather drab passageway seem less threatening, and secondly that might protect it from less official 'artwork', including tags.

Taking the picture, I remembered that I had been this way before and had previously snapped the passage. The photo below is how the wall above one of the schools looked on my last visit.

The idea that walls can be protected from unofficial usages through commissioned artworks is an interesting one. Would an attractive mural stop taggers operating in the area through some kind of respect the organisers hope they have for the creations of street artists? Certainly it is not something that has worked in the past (with the Rue Cavallotti being a good example). Although I previously came across one shop that had managed to channel taggers onto a set aside space next to a creation, it would seem that in general taggers do not appreciate being 'manipulated' in this way, and will only respect spontaneous and 'illegal' creations.

More globally though, it would seem to be a reflection of another rule of the city. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so the city abhors clean and neutral surfaces. If the space is not used for advertising hoardings it will be used for bill posters, street art or tagging. How will this particular space develop? We will just have to wait and see if the chosen artists can come up with a winning solution.

Friday 7 January 2011

A la Folie – encore

Alongside the dislodged doorway, a city wasteland has been temporarily tamed into a small shared garden. With little greenery in this most mineral of environments, the city council handed over the management of the space to a collective who have drawn and dug a series of micro-gardens.

The volunteers have had two limitations placed on them. Firstly, no running water will be provided, meaning that rain water has needed to be salvaged, and a predominance of plants that flourish in dry conditions. Secondly, the garden will have a short life span, providing just a brief blaze of green before the planned social housing digs its foundations down into the beds.

No-one is here when I pass, and little is here to keep people in the garden beyond two benches and the promise of calm and quiet. Dominating the garden are the high walls of neighbouring structures, and on one of these the imprint of what must have stood here before. The scribbled lines of a house, the shape of which could easily have come from a child’s imagination.

Dust back to dust. New walls will rise, new stories will be created, but other ephemeral traces of the past will be erased from our shared landscape.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

A la Folie

At the end of the cobbled passageway stands an old stone gateway and a locked wooden door. Forever closed now, it is no longer even sure where it is positioned nor what it once provided access to. The confusion can be read on the walls where two separate street numbers are given. Are we at number 32 here or number 161 bis? It really doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

This proud doorway was in fact picked up and moved here in 1972. On the other side now sit cryptoforests and lonely patches of neutered garden, sterile borders that exist to be seen not touched. An imposing gateway built to inspire respect and apprehension has now been absorbed into the disorderly fabric of a city that crept right up to and under the door’s foundations.

It stands in the territory of the Folie-Regnault, a bridge to a past of country houses and isolated prisons commemorated in the names of streets, passages and a small community garden. Semi-industrialised in the 19th and 20th centuries, the network of passages and courtyards here are still home to brick-faced printshops and iron-framed automobile workshops, but slowly they are being scrubbed and polished into acceptable office space for professionals in the digital world.

Displaced and today without purpose, this doorway once provided access to the Maison Belhomme, a mansion built in 1724 and used as an asylum for the mentally handicapped. Its owner, Jacques Belhomme, would make his fortune during the revolution by providing additional space for the city’s aristocracy who could no longer be accommodated in the overflowing prisons of Paris. Some say they paid him to pretend that they were mad (and therefore incapable of being against the revolution..)

The house remains, hidden today on all four sides by vast 1970s housing blocks, and is still located somewhere behind this gateway. You can find it if you look carefully, but it will serve no purpose to knock on this door!

Monday 3 January 2011

Christmas is Over

A walk along the city streets in the cold commencement of January brings many a sad sight. Propped up against posts, amongst the ruins of a smashed toilet or just lying prone on freezing paving tiles are the carcasses of a thousand banished Christmas trees.

January is a time to look forward and to make changes, and the throwing out of the tree is often the symbolic starting point of new resolutions. The trees left out on the streets will be picked up and incinerated, but don't we all deserve a chance at a second life? My own tree is exhausted and has shed many of its needles, but this week I'll be taking it to the local park where it will later shredded and used as mulch in city gardens. A tree is surely best left alive and growing, but at least this will be a life recycled.

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