Thursday 14 April 2011

The strange world of the Palais des Congrès

Within the city of Paris are several other micro-cities. One of these, a universe for the travelling salesman, is the Palais des Congrès at Porte Maillot.

The original structure, the exhibition halls and skyscraping Concorde-Lafayette hotel, were designed by Guillaume Gillet, an architect who had made his name building prisons and religious structures. Whether by accident or design, its labyrinth underground passages, curving concrete walls and surrounding racetrack roads have given it a certain fortress feel.

Indeed, the first problem when approaching this structure is how to get inside. There is seemingly no clear entrance. The architect Christian de Portzamparc gave the structure a more modern twist in 1998, but his juttering façade is no more accessible than the previous layout. Stand in the little park in the roundabout opposite the building, and you will see groups of people trying to cut through tiny gaps in the incessant traffic. Few succeed, with the rest being forced to negotiate the underground passageways.

Once inside, the building is no more welcoming. It is the architecural equivilent of a set of Russian dolls. The concrete exterior hides conference halls, ampitheatres, shopping centres and cinemas. Beneath and behind these, the truly hidden – the delivery roads, back stage areas and utility zones that help the building to function.

The building sends visitors through its intestines according to very curious flows. The shopping arcade is a double ring of depressing Dantesque spirals lit only by a neon glow. The tedium of the circuit is broken by empty supermarkets and cafes that look like glass enclosures in a zoo. The exhibition halls and conference facilities are reached via an endless series of escalators. When empty, these are vast caverns that echo to a chorus of vacuum cleaners. It would be easy to get completely lost in this world.

This universe has come to resemble a rich person’s ghetto. The official website for the boutiques describes the stores as “luxe et haut de gamme”, and it is probably the only shopping centre I have ever visited that has carpets. However, there are also very few clients. Visitors - and everyone here seems to be purely a visitor - wander aimlessly, with no purpose beyond killing time before the next events or their flights home. Miniature Ferrari race cars sit outside toy shops, but no children are here to see them.

A domain of Non-Places
In 1992, French sociologist Marc Augé published ‘Non-Lieux’ (Non-Places), a book which chronicled and investigated the rise in dead spaces in modern society. The Palais de Congrès is filled with these personality-free zones that people move through but never appropriate. Some of them have seemingly been forgotten. Stairwells that lead nowhere, a disused post office counter, hidden nightclubs and long corridors that illuminate only their own emptiness. These are shapeless, temporary facilities, existing outside of the urban fabric of the city.

On giant electronic boards, the perplexing titles of professional exhibitions. The Congrès français des chirurgiens esthétiques plasticiens and the 10th World Inflammation Congress. The European toxicology conference and Euro PCR. Temporary installations bringing people from all over the world together in this anonymous shared space.

If delegates stay at the massive hotel Concorde-Lafayette they need never leave the building. A dedicated entrance leads straight to the Palais de Congrès where they'll find their conference. They can eat, drink and shop in the gallery, and even watch a show or a film. Paris will be what they find inside these walls, the view from their hotel window and the souvenirs they find here to take back home.


Anonymous said...

I hope you know how much joy you bring to so many of us with every post. I try to get to Paris one a year, and various issues will keep me from this year's visit. Your blog is the next best thing...often bringing tears to my eyes...merci.

Rache said...

You wrote: "Once inside, the building is no more welcoming. It is the architecural equivilent of a set of Russian dolls." I immediately thought of CDG airport, although it's been 2 years since I last visited. The photos confirmed my impression of CDG: Terminals weren't numbered sequentially relative to vehicle traffic and airline check-in desks were poorly marked. There were probably a few more confusing elements, but thankfully I've forgotten them.

Adam said...

Anonymous - it's always nice to know that what I publish touches other people. It all stems from my own fascinations, so I'm glad to read that other people share my vision of the city!

Rache - CDG certainly merits a subject in itself! It's a hellish place, but also a fascinating one. Incidently, a new book has been published on the subject of the airport as city - Aerotropolis, by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay (subtitled - rather worryingly - 'The way we'll live next'). There's an interesting interview with one of the authors here.

Weld Music said...

Do you think you can maybe find me a phone number to the ferrari shop? I have been looking forever and it's not even on the site......Thanks :)

catied said...

wow - your written imagery matches your visual imagery - love reading your posts!

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