Saturday 28 May 2011

Some other Neuilly

The inhabitants of Neuilly on the western fringes of Paris are statistically the 5th richest in France, with around 10% of the population also paying an exclusive wealth tax. Needless to say, it is a rather snobbish place, and one with a distinct lack of character. Is there though a more human Neuilly hidden behind the heavily polished exteriors?

Whereas Paris is a city to be discovered on foot, Neuilly is the kingdom of the car. A four-lane artery cuts through the southern side of the town, with the rest being criss-crossed with other wide and busy thoroughfares. More disturbing than that though is the distance between the pavements and the houses and apartment blocks in the town, meaning that as a pedestrian you feel cut off from all human contact.

Walking along these leafy but deathly quiet streets, you can't help feeling a little paranoid. Behind their curtains in their dwellings, residents can follow your steps, but they themselves remain frustratingly invisible to you. It is a place with little interaction and with a heart that is seemingly well hidden away.

Around the town hall though, there is a semblance of a community. Naturally, this is based almost primarily around commercial outlets, but amongst the upmarket designer chainstores (which are often curiously empty) there are a few that show a little more soul. It is a town which caters principally for wealthy lawyers or television executives who spend their income mainly in the numerous smart but slightly banal restaurants, but turn a couple of corners and it is still possible to find a population looking for a bargain.

This is visible mostly in the indoor market, a 1960s vintage with pleasingly chaotic colour clashes and a space where it is still possible to rub shoulders with other inhabitants. Stall holders cry out the offers of the day, and retro haberdashery stands show that there are still residents who choose to repair clothes rather than just buy new ones.

Another curiosity of the town is the silence of the walls. Across Paris, they sing with messages, through posters, art, graffiti or tags, but in Neuilly they are clean and mute. Buildings are flawless and unsullied, showing off little of their lived history, but it is possible to find some forgotten courtyards where life seems to have found shelter.

The scruffiness of these doors and shutters is proof that they have served a purpose. It is comforting to find such things here that have not been torn down and replaced with newer models.

Even more comforting are the traces of cheap and cheerful design. In a universe of classical bourgeois conservatism, how refreshing to see a really bad pun (but one that is also slightly subversive in this Catholic environment) and a selection of kitsch bargains! It might be a descent into hell, but it looks like a place where life may be found.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The Tower Flower

When it was built seven years ago, Edouard Francois's 'Tower Flower' caused quite a sensation in Paris, but how is it ageing today?

Containing 380 pots of bamboo on ten stories, the building itself is almost invisible behind its herbaceous curtain. It is situated on the edge of the jardin Claire Motte in the 17th arrondissement, and was designed to be a vertical extension of this space, both for those in the garden and those living in the building. The pots cannot be moved and are fixed to an automatic watering system (using recycled rain water) to ensure that the bamboo is not killed by careless residents!

Bamboo was chosen because it is a hardy and fast growing plant, but also because it makes a noise in the wind, "giving the impression to those inside that they are sleeping in a tree" explains Edouard François.

The plants cover three sides of the building, with the northern face (hidden from the sun) displaying plain concrete in a curious grey/white blend that gives it an unfinished look. According to the architect, this was a deliberate choice as he wanted to create a ying and yang effect between the attractive and the ugly, and also to provide something raw that would make the plants look more glamourous in contrast.

The interior of the building was also carefully designed. There is no entrance hall, but instead a glass elevator facing out from the building towards the park (through the bamboo) takes residents up to each floor (although presumably there is also a fire escape staircase somewhere) . Secondly, a complete lack of internal supporting walls means that inhabitants can change and adapt their apartments as they wish.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the building is that it offers social housing and was reasonably cheap to build. Seven years later though, how well is it ageing?

It is still a striking sight, and the jardin Claire Motte in front of it has matured very nicely. The bamboo is not in perfect condition, but certainly in a better state than could have been expected - meaning that the building still retains its contrasts and has not become purely ugly! The neighbourhood surrounding the building is clean and quiet, and seems like it would be a nice place to live, which must be judged a success given its position alongside the Saint Lazare railway lines and the périphérique motorway.

If you do venture out to see this building, note that there are two other points of interest. In the park you can see some remains of the Thiers fortifications that surrounded Paris in the 19th century (and the only place in Paris where they can still be touched according to the local authorities!). Behind this wall, is the Salle Berthier belonging to the Opéra Comique, and which is used for storage, rehearsals and occasional performances.

The Tower Flower
23, rue Albert Roussel

75017 Paris

M° Porte de Clichy

For more information:

Saturday 21 May 2011

Ghost signs of living brands

Cross over the city limits into the surrounding towns and you will immediately see that the urban appearance changes. City planning here has tended to be less rigid than in Paris, and modern rebuilds less frequent, meaning that many interesting traces of the past are still visible. Ghost signs are a good example of these historical footprints. Rare in Paris, they are still relatively common in the towns that surround the capital, such as in Levallois where I found this multi-layered sign almost overlooking the boundary line.

It seems to contain perhaps as many as three different adverts, but most visible of all is the name Nicolas. Today this title is most often connected to a ubiquitous chain of wine retailers, but is this ad referring to the same company?

Despite the unfamiliar logo, the answer is yes. The company may have a more modern image today (see photo below), but it actually has a long history which dates back to 1822. It became particularly well-known in the 1930s when 233 outlets could be found in the Paris region alone, and it is likely that this advert dates from that period. The company also produced an annual catalogue of its stock, designed by leading artists of the time, which became collector's items. One of these catalogues, dating from 1935 (pictured below), helps us to confirm the match with the ghost sign. At the bottom you can see the same logo as on the wall with a matching large 'O' in the middle.

It is interesting to think that the company is in essence still getting free publicity here today - something that is not unhelpful given that any advertising relating to alcohol is now difficult to place on the streets. How many people though make the link to the brand they are so familiar with today?

At least one layer underneath, it is also just possible to make out a painted sign for the very strangely named Byrrh. Once again alcohol related, it is a brand I'm familiar with (possibly just from ghost signs!), but also a drink I have never actually tasted.

A little research shows me that it originates from a small town near Perpignan, that it is a mixture of wine and quinine and drunk as an 'apéritif', and that it was originally considered to be medicinal and therefore only sold in pharmacies. Its popularity grew - perhaps for the associations with good health - and in 1935 (that date again...) it held a 50% market share for aperitif drinks.

Two problems seemed to cause its downfall though. The children of the founders went slightly mad with the wealth they had inherited and blew all the profits on Rolls Royces and diamonds, and secondly, its curiously chosen name. The story seems to be that it is a long-forgotten acronym, but as it sounds very much like the word 'beer', it was always difficult to export to English and German speaking markets. When the many smaller companies were being swallowed up by multi-nationals, it was decided that brands such as Dubonnet and Campari would be easier to market abroad, and Byrrh was left on the shelf.

An advert vaunting the 'hygenic' merits of the drink!

That said, it does still exist. It is now owned by Pernod Ricard and still produced in small quantities. It is amusing to think that an advert painted on a wall 100 years previously can still influence the desires of a passer-by, but I am now overcome by an urge to try the drink, particularly as I have a bit of a cold at the moment. Now I wonder if I can find any in my local Nicolas store...

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Beaujon: the first vertical hospital

In the previous post I looked at the original 18th century Hopital Beaujon situated in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, but when it was transferred to Clichy in 1935, a radical transformation also took place. The project created the biggest and most modern facility in the country, using a mix of vertical architecture imported from the USA, and a more European garden city approach, and the result is still visually arresting today.

The building was designed by Jean Walter (with the assistance of a certain Urbain Cassan, one of the architects of the Tour Montparnasse!) who broke from the tradition of cottage hospitals to one where all facilities would be grouped together in an immense 13-story structure. Walter was not just fascinated by large-scale constructions, but was also a disciple of the garden city model of urbanism. Reflecting this, the Beaujon hospital is surrounded by sporting facilities and greenery, as well as a rather less inspiring cemetery on one side! A series of elegant balconies were also a key part of his original design, incorporated to encourage the circulation of light and air into the wards and patients out into the fresh air, but unfortunately these have been given over to another purpose today.

Before/after. The first photo dates from the 1960s, and shows how important the balconies were to the design. The block at the top of the rectangular stairwell also seems to have originally featured rather fetching giant crosses. The second photo shows the rather less interesting front entrance to the hospital as it stands today.

A few surprises can be found outside of the hospital walls. Alongside an unwelcoming doorway through to the morgue is a more cheerful message from street artist Jérôme Mesnager. Just inside, a small block is been named the Stanley Kubrick unit, which may provoke further unease in those who find this red-brick block a little unwelcoming...

The sheer scale of the hospital is more immediately evident when seen from the rear, and curiously it is this perspective which seems to have been more carefully designed. It is completely south-facing, offering maximum sunlight to the balconies and wards behind (and possibly unbearable heat in summer months!)

The architect Jean Walter is celebrated in one of the streets that leads up to the hospital.

Although much of the interior today is of a quite standard hospital banality, the twin staircases still offer a nice vintage perspective. Of course, it is impossible to visit most of the hospital - including the balconies - without a very good reason. A simple blogger's curiousity is not acceptable, and rightly so!

The balconies...It does seem from the picture (again dating from the 1960s) that these features were the highlight of the whole building design, and apparently widely used, so it is a shame to see how modern health and safety initiatives have transformed them into a means of escape or a system for supporting external piping. However, it could be argued that these metal staircases make the hospital seem even more American now!

Rumours suggest that the Hopital Beaujon is earmarked for future developments which may include another transfer or a closing down of the services altogether. It would be a shame to lose not only the specialities and skills of this institution, but also the striking visual impact of this era of the Beaujon story.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

The folie Beaujon - an aristocratic playground

Standing in front of the building at number 208 on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, it is difficult to imagine that there were once lush English gardens, a menagerie, a dairy and the forerunner of the rollercoaster all situated in the vicinity!

This building
- a rather classical and dull structure that successfully cloaks a history of excess and eccentricity - is in fact the last remaining trace of a vast 'country' estate that once covered 12 acres on what is today some of the most valuable land in the capital.

It belonged to Nicolas Beaujon, a commoner who became fantastically rich after a 'good marriage', and who transformed a wilderness on the edge of the city into an aristocratic playground in the 18th century. The property he created attracted the most fashionable visitors, one of whom wrote afterwards

« La maison de M. Beaujon, qu'il appelle son ermitage, est un bâtiment situé au milieu d'un jardin à l'anglaise, qu'il a fait planter dans un vaste terrain près de la grille de Chaillot, aux Champs-Élysées. C'est une vraie campagne, avec une ménagerie, une laiterie, et même une chapelle. »

(Mr Beaujon's house, which he calls his hermitage, is a building situated in the middle of an English garden which he has planted in a vast plot next to the Chaillot gate at the Champs-Elysées. It's the real countryside, with a menagerie, a dairy and even a chapel)

Beaujon though never really profited from his property. He was already ill when he bought the land, and could only get about with assistance. His guests dined at lavish banquets whilst he took just spinach and water!

However, Mr Beaujon was also generous with his wealth, and set up an orphange on the land - the building which today still stands at number 208 on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. This building was transformed into a hospital after Beaujon's death (and after the French revolution), a mission it held until the 1930s when it was transferred to another site (my next post will cover the 'new' Beaujon).

However, although Beaujon's property was quaint, the really odd stuff came after his death. The first strange fact concerned this inheritance. As Beaujon had no children and his wife had died before him, it was his brothers who inherited the property. This must have been something of a logistical nightmare for legal teams though as both of his brothers had the same name - Jean-Nicolas Beaujon!

The land was split up and sold, and the park was transformed in 1801 into a kind of pleasure garden. A windmill was kept for decorative effect and in 1817 a forerunner of the rollercoaster was installed, called the 'montagnes françaises'. The pictures below show that it was closer to a kind of helter-skelter with little trolleys on wheels, but it must have seemd particularly revolutionary at the time. Despite this, it only survived for seven years and was closed down in 1824.

Later in the 19th century the land was further divided, with the writer Honoré de Balzac among those who acquired property on the site (he lived in the old pavillon des bains).

The chapel that Beaujon had built on site was also sold to a member of the Balzac family, a certain Georges Mnizsech. It had been transformed into an ammunitions depot during the Paris Commune, but Mnizsech used it for even more obscure reasons. He installed a laboratory where he worked on various occult experiments involving alchemy and black magic.

The chapel was demolished after it was sold to the Rothschild family, being replaced by the rotonde which can still be seen today in the walls of the hôtel Salomon de Rothschild.

After the hospital moved out of the single building from the period of Beaujon which remains on site, it became a police station, before being transformed again into today's collection of municipal art and leisure facilities. Further development is planned on the land in the next couple of years, but it is unlikey that this will include a rollercoaster, a dairy or a laboratory for the occult!

Sunday 8 May 2011

A road runs through it

Encircling the medieval city of Paris were a series of "folies", or country houses surrounded by large gardens. Most of these have now disappeared, but those left behind often have interesting stories to tell. This is the case with the Château des Ternes in the 17th arrondissement.

The plot originally dates from 1582, but nothing remains on site today from this period. As these houses passed down through the generations, successive owners would rebuild according to the fashions of the day, and the building we see today is from the 18th century.

The house remained a country escape until 1778 when it was sold to three men, Jean-Baptiste Servat, Charles-Nicolas Rolland, and Samson-Nicolas Lenoir, from a new breed of speculator stock. It was Lenoir, an ambitious architect, in particular who saw money making potential of the land, and he installed a metalworks factory in the gardens. A site of aristocratic idling became one of proletarian toil.

His next act though was more interesting, and one that has left a trace today. He chose to pierce a street right through the heart of the chateau – a very revolutionary pre-revolutionary act!

Although named Rue Bayen today, this street was originally baptised Rue de l'Arcade, a name seemingly designed to attract the urban flaneurs who were starting to appear. The revolution that followed brought further rapid change to the area, although this house remained outside of the city until 1860. 19th and 20th century urbanisation saw the gardens disappear (although two or three small patches still remain) and today it is difficult to imagine that there was ever a country house here at all.

An interesting thought as you walk through what must have once been the entrance to the property!

Thursday 5 May 2011

"Body Shops" at Les Douches La Galerie

A review of Juraj Lipscher’s Body Shops photo exhibition opening today (May 5th) in Paris.

The white-tiled walls of gallery Les Douches La Galerie have never seemed cleaner. Retained from the public baths that were previously located here, they are now the backdrop of a space that specialises in photographic exhibitions. Their wipe-clean hygenic aspect have now almost become an installation in themselves with the launch of Czech photographer Juraj Lipscher’s fascinating and discomforting Body Shops show.

Lipscher emigrated from Czechoslovakia as a young man, and has since lived for most of his life in Switzerland. He readily admits that the country has become something of an obsession for him, a place where he feels both at once at home and distant. A self-taught photographer, Lipscher wanted to capture the desire for clinical perfection that makes up part of the country’s psyche.

He chose to photograph a selection of sites where the human body is central, from our birth in hospital wards to our death in the morgue or crematorium. Between the two, Lipscher also visited plastic surgery clinics, bomb shelters, fitness centres and brothels. Curiously, people are almost entirely absent from his pictures, but a human presence is always visible through equipment, machines and objects.

Lipscher agrees that his pictures can also be read as a commentary on Switzerland, and that such a project would have given completely different results in other countries. What reigns here is a clinical coldness, a metallic asepticism that means that each of the environments is in fact completely interchangeable.

The project became such an obsession that Lipscher – a chemist by training – eventually began producing his own photo development chemicals to perfectly capture the glacial neon lights that he explains are ‘the enemy of the photographer’.

Although people are almost never seen in his pictures, Lipscher points out that they are an essential part of the narrative. When visiting each site, he spends much of his time talking to the people who work there and discovering their rhythms and patterns. Although the brothels were understandably the most difficult places to access, it was the individuals working in the crematoriums who had the biggest effect on him.

I didn’t sleep for three days after my first visit” he says, “the places have such a powerful effect. But the people who work there are special. They seem to be touched by a greater humanity than anybody else”.

Lipscher’s photos – naturally in crisp black and white – show a society where impersonal sterility has enabled the development of a liberal permissiveness, but they also display a lack of soul. This is perhaps the reason why Lipscher has begun a new project – tentitively called ‘soul shops’ - where he will be looking for signs of spirit in a selection of religious locations – in Switzerland once more of course!

Body Shops by Juraj Lipscher

Les Douches La Galerie

5 Rue Legouvé, 75010 M°Jacques Bonsergent

From May 5th to June 17th 2011
Wednesday to Friday, 1pm – 7pm, Saturday, 2pm – 6pm
Entrance free

Sunday 1 May 2011

The wilderness in my street

Two new initiatives have been launched in Paris that are encouraging locals to think about the role of wild plants in the city. But are they asking the right questions?

From Tuesday May 3rd, individuals or groups can get involved in a project called 'Sauvages de ma rue' and undertake snapshot surveys of their local environment. Run by the city's natural history museum, the survey involves choosing a street or section of pavement then listing all of the species you find on a downloadable form. You are also asked to note exactly where these plants have been found - at the foot of a tree, in a crack in the pavement, growing from a wall - in the hope that this will lead to a valuable resource that will help city planners to encourage the growth of wild plants in future projects.

The second initiative encourages people not to be simple observers but also actors in the process. Laissons Pousser offers free sachets of seeds of 18 different wild plants including clover, daisies, poppies and wild carrots that people can sow in a selection of pre-defined areas - at the base of trees, in jardins partagés (urban allotments), in courtyards and on balconies. In Paris, these sachets can be found at the Maison du Jardinage in the Parc de Bercy.

However, neither project guarantees that these plants or their environments will be protected, nor that the city wilderness is always necesarilly a good thing. The seeds may not grow into plants, and who can say that the Sauvages de ma rue project will not lead to the eradication of certain unwanted species if they are found to be too numberous in certain zones?

The Sauvages de ma rue project organisers though do point out one crucial fact - "Les villes ont été bâties sur des terres autrefois occupées par des espaces naturels ou cultivés" (cities are built on land that was previously occupied by natural or cultivated spaces). The question of what has been allowed to happen in this zones is of great importance to protectors of the urban wilderness as Wilfried Hou Je Bek points out on his Cryptoforestry blog.

"The city was invented by farmers and the peasant never left it" he states in his forage psychogeography manifesto. For Wilfried Hou Je Bek, this is not a good thing - "There is a peasant inside each of us and he doesn’t need to be liberated, he needs to be crucified."

In other words, most cities cannot harbour any patches of wilderness because of our inherent desire to be farmers. Our carefully tended gardens and parks are the remnents of an agricultural past, where control over our surroundings and what we managed to produce there was essential.

The Sauvages de ma rue project simply asks us to observe the city as it exists today, and the Laissons pousser scheme encourages the introduction of a limited number of plants in carefully defined zones. Neither ask what makes truly wild nature, nor how it could transform the city. Wilfried Hou Je Bek would like us to become urban foragers, and to get to know the natural rythms of the environment. Whilst farmers try to predict and plan what will grow in the future, foragers just take advantage of what is plentiful in the present.

Is it possible today though to forage in the city? It may be possible to imagine collecting a glut of blackberries from an aggressive and spiky bush that has taken over a disused factory, but would they be safe to eat? The most recent histories of the lands of our cities have seen the reign of neither farmers nor foragers, but polluters, contaminating the soils underfoot.

Perhaps the solution would be simply to start again. Set aside zones in the city that would be completely decontaminated then left to the whims of nature. I think we'd all be surprised by the results, and that must be a good thing.

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