Tuesday 16 August 2011

A Fascination with the Invisible

A reader of this blog, Regula Spottl, very kindly translated the interview with me published in German magazine Qvest, and I thought it might be interesting to share it here. It's funny to see a discussion I had with the journalist in English translated into German then back into English, but it is very well composed and gives a perfect overview of what I'm trying to do on this blog. Thanks Regula, and thanks Yorca!

A Fascination with the Invisible

It had to be a Londoner coming to Paris to open the Parisians’ eyes: Adam Roberts shows on his Blog “Invisible Paris” houses, places and locations that tourists and locals simply miss because they don’t see them even though they are right before their eyes. One more reason to ask this French citizen for a comprehensive talk about tourist attractions and architectural crimes.

Interview Yorca Schmidt-Junker

Qvest: As Brit, what brought you to Paris?
Adam Roberts: I moved to Paris in my mid-twenties. The reason – a typical cliché – was for a young French lady. So love was the reason for my moving to Paris. A decision that I’ve never regretted. We are still together and we now have two kids.

What was it about Paris? The [stereotypical] love at first sight?
Since I didn’t choose Paris and came here for my girlfriend, I had no expectations whatsoever. And I also didn’t have the [proverbial] romantic image that brings millions of people to this city. It was simply a city for me in which I was to work and live – so it was a rather sobering attitude. However with time, I developed in intimate relationship with Paris. And now, after 15 years, I have to say: Paris is still and forever fascinating. The continuing search for the new things, surprises, inspiration is almost unlimited.

In your opinion, what’s the reason for this fascination?
In the 19th century, Haussmann completely revised the setup of this city: The classic residential houses, the Grand Boulevards, the renovation of complete neighborhoods – the “Haussmanisation” is the reason why the city looks like a cast and is stylistically harmonious. What fascinates me are the things that stand out from this harmonious cast. The forgotten, worn relics from a time past, or the modern objects that are interpersed and sometimes almost not noticed. It’s exactly these “disruptions” in the smooth surface that I’m interested in.

How did the idea for a blog about these “disruptions” come about?
Paris is like every metropolis: On one side are the tourists who often have an idea, a picture of the city and look for those exact places that confirm these cliches. Then there are the locals who live here and - as a result of their routines - walk through the city with their eyes barely open. I believe that exactly between these two worlds, the typical tourist attraction and the everyday things, there exists another, for most people invisible, cosmos. That’s what I want to illustrate.

You refer to the invisible. So these are buildings, places, things, that exist but nobody seems to see them…? Why?
Right. I don’t refer to the “secret”, the “hidden” places that tourist guides or so-called insiders like to talk about. My objects are there, they are directly in front of everybody’s eyes; but for some reason, they are not seen. It's a phenonomenon that has always fasciniated me. What initially inspired me was the book “The Glamour” by Christopher Priest, that deals with people that aren’t taken in by their environment, people who are (proverbially) invisible. That’s exactly what happens to things around us. We simply don’t see them; maybe because we are subconsciously conditioned not to see them. Because our very selective ability to recognize things doesn’t allow it.

The fact is that most of us consider Paris is a “ville musée”. And that’s exactly what you seem to want to change.
My Blog shows exactly those parts of the city that don’t correspond with this “ville musée” image: that aren’t nice, picturesque, perfect in shape and impressive. Instead they become invisible because they are trivial, average, sometimes even ugly and monstrous. And as result may be reveal a new form of esthetics.

You don’t just show photos to your followers, you also inform them in great detail about the history, as well as the socio-cultureal and political background of the buildings and places you point out. Therefore “Invisible Paris” is more than just an illustration in pictures.
My main interest is actually the history behind the photos. Of course, the picture comes first, but it is followed by extensive research. I discover these “invisible places” mostly on my strolls through the city. Often even while on lunch break; colleagues go to the cafeteria or the bistro; is prefer to go on strolls with my camera. And when I see something that’s relevant for me and my blog, then I shoot a photo to start with. Next I start research on the background. Sometimes I turn to the community, especially when it’s about construction/building aspects. Or I talk with locals. Or with people who took part in the development process – if they are still alive (laughs) and agree to talk to me. In addition, I don’t consider myself a great photographer, so I have to offer my users supplemental information (laughs again).

How do your followers react?
Well, I actually don’t have as many followers as other bloggers who deal with simpler, more popular topics. Most of the about 300 followers who click on “Invisible Paris” on any day are Paris insiders who were either born here or have been living here for a while or know the city well. Ironically, many among them are Germans, but there are also English, Russians and Canadians. They were early on surprised and an bit irritated; but I now receive positive feedback. Especially from those who are willing to look beyond the obvious and are eager to explore something unusual.

Can you specify the Invisible Paris follower a bit more? I expect that they are more intellectual types.
In fact, many are professors at universities. I can only speculate why that’s the case. I think that they are used to my type of discourse due to their intellectual discourse in their professions - to explore phenoma and to be interested in aspects that are not the norm.

In contrast to many other blogs, primarily the fashion blogs, yours is completely independent and devoid of advertisements. Are you not interested in commercialising “Invisible Paris”?
No, it’s a project based on my passion. Even though it has become a part-time job that takes up a large part of my work- and free time. So that my employer (Adam Roberts is in the department for internal communication of a large French company) doesn’t come to the false conclusion (laughs): I use exclusively my lunch break and going back and forth to work for the blog. I sit in the Metro with my laptop of my knees and write my texts. I want to remain independent and do what I enjoy without anybody influencing my content. However, I have a few paid links to hotels – but even that is more an extra bonus for readers than for my personal benefit.

As proponent of this somewhat different beauty: What is your favorite place in Paris?
The Hôpital de la Salpêtrière is one of my absolute favorites. Less due to its 17th century architecture than due to its history. It was once the largest asylum in Europe for beggers, the poor and the mentally handicapped: people that weren’t wanted in the city in order to not destroy the perfect image of the Louis XIV era. In contrast to today, the difference between a hospital and a prison was rather small at the time. Salpêtrière became later one of the most renown institutes for research in the gynologically defined hysteria – which led Siegmund Freund to it. Josephine Baker and Princess Diana died in the renowned hospital and both of my kids were born there. I have a close connection to this institution.

And what is the most horrendous place for you?
The Sacré Cœur! It looks like a wedding cake, like an ugly one really! The fact is that this church was built to punish the Parisians. It was a symbol of penance for the crimes of the Communards, that legendary city council that tried to govern Paris according on socialist principles. So the conservative central government decided to erect a monument that would remind the Parisians day and night and in each arrondissement that the power of the state is above them. That’s the reason for its elevated, from every arrondissement visible, location.

You’re saying that Sacré Cœur isn’t a candidate for your “Invisible Paris”?
God no! Even thought he history of its construction is rather complex and interesting – it’s the most horrible building ever erected in Paris. Not even champagne and cider helps in this instance…


Thérèse said...

Thanks for sharing this interview!

Bart van Poll - Spotted by Locals said...

Nice interview, and good translation I think!

Peter (the other) said...

The sympathies exposed in the last section settles it: I'm a fan and have been for a long time (and a Yank, so you have those too). I find your and Peter's blogs more of "adult" interest, and have enriched by relationship with the city unmeasurably.


Mary Kay Bosshart said...

Thanks for posting the translation of this fascinating interview, especially since I would have had a hard time reading the German version.

I'll never be able to look at the Sacre Coeur in quite the same light again after reading your final comments.

Tim said...

Excellent interview and what a catch for your increasingly-bulging scrapbook!

Tim said...

Oh, and thanks Regula for translating the piece!


I love your comments about Salpetriere and Sacre Coeur (which is also incredibly ugly inside).

I just found out you are British. Did you ever know or hear about, the famous Malcolm Miller at Chartres?

Opinion on Graham Robb's books?

Adam said...

bgz: No, I know nothing about Malcolm Miller, but I will look him up now.

Concerning Graham Robb, I haven't actually read his books on France or Paris. He is a great author, and has written some very good biographies, but - stubbornly, and perhaps stupidly - I refuse to read general books on France and its capital. In no way do I compare myself with such writers, but I think I'm afraid that I'll somehow absorb their styles, and steal their ideas!

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