Thursday 29 September 2011

Nuit Blanche and black nights

With a calendar overflowing with themes and events, it is not surprising to find occasions where two celebrations offer a curious clash.

This Saturday Paris will celebrate both the Nuit Blanche and the Jour de la Nuit, two events which promote radically different perspectives on city nights.

The Nuit Blanche, celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2011, is an open-air party, bringing thousands of curious citizens out onto brightly illuminated street stage sets.

The Jour de la Nuit on the other hand seeks to bring darkness back to our cities. As the promotional material proclaims, it is "une opération de sensibilisation à la protection de la biodiversité nocturne et du ciel étoilé ainsi qu’une prise de conscience du problème de pollution lumineuse" (an awareness campaign to protect nocturnal biodiversity and starry skies as well as an appraisal of the light pollution problem).

It is an event covering the whole of the country, but whilst there are some parts of the national territory that are already among the darkest parts of Europe, it is the city which is the real battleground. In Paris, the events organised this year are far smaller than the funfair of the Nuit Blanche, but they may be just as thought-provoking.

Near the Parc Montsouris, amateur astronomers will attempt to peer through the city lights and show Jupiter and its satellites to curious passers by, but perhaps more interesting still will be a night walk through the Parc Montsouris itself. The Nuit Blanche gets people away from their beds, but through actions that turn night into day rather than through initiatives that help them to discover life after dark. Organisers of the night walk though will show how an urban park changes at night, pointing out the fauna and flora that come alive when the sun goes down.

This weekend, Paris lets you choose your own vision of the night; festive and artificial, or natural and hushed. Unless you decide to take a trip through both worlds.

For a list of suggestions for the Nuit Blanche, see my post on the Paris Weekends blog.

Invisible Buildings

On the Boulevard de Courcelles, opposite the Parc Monceau, there exists a little piece of the twilight zone. As you walk up along the street you may notice that the number 72 has for neighbour ... the number 78! So just what has happened to the numbers 74 and 76?

The buildings at 72 and 78 seem to be of a similar size and vintage, so when did they eat up their neighbours and remove them from the map? The answer seems to be stranger than we might at first imagine.

According to the 'plans parcellaires' of the area dating from the end of the 19th century (which can be viewed online on the city of Paris website), there was at the time a 72, 74 and 76...but no 78! What seems to have happened therefore is that at some point after this the 74 and 76 were demolished and replaced by a single building which was given the number 78, but why this should be the case remains a mystery!

Such cases are not actually very rare, but normally the gap between the two numbers can be explained, for example, by the presence of a newer road which has cut between them. Even more common still is the newer, larger building which takes the place of several smaller demolished structures, adopting all of their previous numbers.

In London, a famous example provides the flip side of this phenomenon. Two houses at 23/24 Leinster Gardens were demolished in the 1860s to provide ventilation space for the newly installed Metropolitan Railway, but as this was something of an upmarket district, the residents insisted that the space be filled with a fake facade. These 'dummy houses' still exist today, and of course have been the address given by many scammers over the years!

The city, with its constant destructions and reconstructions, is riddled with wormholes. By nature, its history is non-linear, so should we be surprised to find such inconsistencies in its labelling?

Monday 26 September 2011

The homes of Auguste Perret: Rue Raynouard

Perhaps it is because the sky is throwing down greasy streaks of rain on the day I first visit, but there seems to be something slightly sinister about Auguste Perret's second self-built home in Paris.

Situated on an elevated plateau around 500m further west from his Rue Franklin home, the Rue Raynouard apartments, built at the beginning of the 1930s - are a reflection of an architect who now had a total confidence in concrete. Whereas the Rue Franklin building had the material covered by decorative tiling, here it is naked and raw.

Is this what gives it a sinister air on a grey and humid day? Concrete and wet weather have never made a good mix, but it is also immediately obvious that this building is in a worse state of repair than his previous home, despite being 30 years younger. Standing alone on the crest of a hill with a smeared and cracked facade, it is a brooding hulk, dominating the pedestrian below.

Auguste Perret's concern though was not so much how his building would look from the ground, but rather how the world outside would be visible from his building. He placed the offices of the family firm on the ground floor (or first floor from the rear of the building), but placed his own family's apartment on the top floor from where he would be able to survey Paris. Clearly Auguste Perret felt that his personal affairs had changed and that by moving family and firm from Rue Franklin, he would also show that he had 'moved up in the world'.

The apartment "is filled with sunlight from dawn to dusk" he wrote, and looking at photos you can see clearly how Perret wanted this building to open out onto the city around him. The apartments on each floor - each of roughly around 250m² - offered panoramic views of Paris, as well as balconies and small terraces. With its concrete as polished and shiny as marble, it must have been anything but sinister when it first appeared on the city skyline.

(Photos taken from "100: one hundred houses for one hundred European architects" by Gennaro Postiglione)

After making a name for himself with the Rue Franklin apartments, Perret garnered further acclaim with his Théâtre des Champs Elysées (1913) and Notre-Dame au Raincy church (1922-1923). Beyond this esteem though, the Perret family had also been able to accumulate wealth by acting as architects, constructors and even suppliers of concrete. This build on the Rue Raynouard was a celebration of this fact, and the family and business would stay here until the death of Auguste and the winding up of the company.

To the rear and side of the building, two unusual features can be seen. The wall of glass - a rarity for a Perret building - brought light into his architectural studio, and to one side, a glass lift shaft which gives those going up and down fantastic views across Paris. Perret, who had already built the revolutionary garage Ponthieu (sadly demolished in 1970), also included ground level parking space to the rear of the building. Interestingly, with the best apartments being situated at the top of the building, the staff quarters here were placed between the garage and the company offices!

Another interesting feature is a sculpture called "Deux amours luttant" by André Abbal, situated just above the entrance to the building. Weatherworn and wind-beaten, it is though - like much of the rest of the building - showing signs of its age.

As the sun comes out, the building offers another perspective. It is not sinister, but just in need of a little more love and attention. The place where Perret lived until his death in 1954, deserves better, and with the secretariat of the International Union of Architects (UIA) in the building (in Perret's old apartment) it is even more difficult to understand the cracks and craters. Even stranger still when you see that the union has a photo of Auguste Perret on the homepage of their website.

This building is located at 51-55 Rue Raynouard in the 16th arrondissement, M° Passy.

The Perret apartment, still in its original condition and with many of its original furnishings, can be visited by appointment with the UIA.

Friday 23 September 2011

The homes of Auguste Perret: Rue Franklin

I have written previously of the works of architect Auguste Perret (particularly his Mobilier National building), but not as yet of his two creations that also became his offices and homes. As these buildings are separated by 30 years (and around 500 metres!), it is also interesting to note how tastes and techniques changed in this period.

His first self-designed home, on the Rue Franklin in the 16th arrondissement, is also a building that is considered to be one of the seminal constructions of modern architecture. It was built in 1903 when Perret was only 29, and although it owes much to his upbringing and the comparitive success and wealth of his family, it also clearly showed the genius of the family's oldest son.

The Perret family, mother, father and five children, were evidently very close, choosing to live and work together throughout their lives. The father - Claude Marie Perret - was a stonemason and later a builder, and was determined to bring up his three sons to learn the trade.

Whilst working for the family firm, Auguste also continued his studies, eventually choosing to specialise in reinforced concrete (although he would never gain a full diploma in architecture). Together they were able to form a company called 'Entreprise Perret et Fils', which was capable not only of construction, but also of designing buildings and of providing the materials.

For this particular project
on the Rue Franklin, the Perret family owned the land. Situated alongside the Trocadero and opposite the Eiffel tower, it was already a very desirable location, and although it was a speculative build (apart from the family apartments and offices on the ground floor), any design would probably have quickly sold in such a spot. Nevertheless, Auguste Perret - now acting as the firm's architect -, chose something radical and previously unseen.

Throughout his life, Auguste Perret would be obsessed with making buildings as organic as possible. He saw the framework of a building as being the equivalent of a human skeleton, and although the structure he produced on the Rue Franklin could have been made with wood or iron, he was determined to test a new process - reinforced concrete.

Interestingly, Auguste Perret was one of the first architects to apply the Hennebique (our friend with the 'Concrete chateau' in Bourg la Reine) system on a residential property. Nevertheless, for this first attempt, he was very unsure about how it would age over time. The building was covered in tiles, not so much for decoration, but more because Perret believed that the concrete would be damaged by the weather and start to decay (some people today may still argue that this is the best way to treat concrete!). As he said, "one must never allow into a building any element destined solely for ornament, but rather turn to ornament all the parts necessary for its support."

The ceramics of Alexandre Bigot on the facade of the building though are one of its most remarkable features today. If you manage to crouch down to almost floor level (as I did for these photos), you can see the signature tiles, but what is particularly noticeable is the graceful restraint of the work. This was the height of Art Nouveau period, but here the ceramics are almost monochrome, and in a pattern that is repeated over almost the entire building.

The family's move to this building was however not initially a happy one. Claude Marie, the father, died in 1905, leaving Auguste at the head of the family. The building though was a success, and Auguste was delighted with the results that the reinforced concrete had given. To reflect these changes, the family company became known as 'Entreprise Perret-Architectes-Constructeurs-Beton Arme', and soon flourished.

Thirty years later, the Perret offices and Auguste's family home moved 500 metres down the road to a new building, but that's another story....

This building is located at 25a Rue Franklin in the 16th arrondissement, M°Trocadero/Passy

Read more about what makes this a great building, including some of the original plans, in this PDF document.

Monday 19 September 2011

Challenge 6: A Shaggy Dog Story

A dog may be man's best friend, but people have nevertheless always found it difficult to share cities with their hairy four-legged mates. However, with an estimated 200,000 dogs in Paris, a number of rules and associated street signs have slowly been put in place to ease this cohabitation.

Ariel, a Spanish student in Paris, sent me the photo above, and wondered what this particular curious dog sign could mean. "What is the purpose of these signs?" he asked. "Did they mark special places to attach dogs outside shops? Did they ask people to walk their dogs on the opposite sidewalk? A special place for dog poo?"

I had my idea, but firstly I had to see if I could track down one of these signs myself. In fact they are relatively common, but often difficult to spot as they are slowly being worn away underfoot. The one I spotted below though, in Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, was still a well-groomed dog, and its purpose was immediately obvious. The sign is directing dog owners towards to gutter where dogs were supposed to deficate.

I use the past tense because times have changed. Whereas dog owners in Paris could previously just encourage their pets to squat in the gutter then leave the waste behind, since 2002 they are obliged to clean up after their pup, even if it has done its business in this spot. Failure to do so can cost owners €35, so it's as well today for them to carry around a little doggy bag.

This particular sign is therefore a relic of a bygone age, something which explains its rather dated (but quite cute) form and the fact that so many of them are being left to disappear.

However, the gutter is far from being forbidden to dogs today. The city of Paris has even made a helpful little film, informing owners that it is still a good idea to use the 'caniveau', but above all to make sure they clear up the mess afterwards! Something that is surely a good idea all round!

Another Dog Tail
Ariel also runs a very interesting and eclectic blog called 'Papirofilia', and this particular dog sign seems to have inspired an amusing creation!

Challenge me!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!

Friday 16 September 2011

City Snapshots: Bus Rides

Luxury - in the city - is having no particular place to go, and no particular time to get there.

Put up your feet, but keep your brain engaged, and take random buses across the city on a psychogeographical drift. Bend the criss-crossing arteries and multi-coloured lines of fixed schedules to your will, and chase the setting sun.

If something - or someone - catches your eye, ring the bell and jump off at the next stop. Another bus will always be available to pick up the narrative.

You may not know where you are going, but you know where you'll end up. In a situationist playground, the bus is the merry-go-round.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Some suggestions for the Journées du Patrimoine

The Journées du Patrimoine (heritage days), being held this weekend, need not just mean long queues to the city's principal political and cultural institutions. The event, featuring over 300 sites across Paris, also offers many out of the ordinary locations where access is only given during this weekend.

You can find my suggestions on the Paris Weekends blog.

If you are elsewhere in Europe, don't forget that the heritage days event now extends to 50 countries across the continent. The full list of events per country (as well as the local dates) can be found here:

Wednesday 7 September 2011

A Concrete Château

In Bourg-la-Reine almost by accident, I spot a building that makes the detour seem worthwhile. As I pull out my camera and start taking pictures, a window opens behind me and out pops a head. “Do you know what that building is?” it asks.

The head belongs to an ancient lady, perhaps as old as the building itself. I shake my head, and she begins to tell me its story.

The house was built by an entrepreneur called François Hennebique at the beginning of the 20th century, and was possibly the first such private residence to be built using reinforced concrete. It was designed to be not only a home to his extended family, but also to act as a showroom highlighting the many possibilities offered by concrete constructions (and therefore by Hennebique's own company).

Hennebique was passionate about the material, famously declaring that ‘on peut tout demander au béton armé, et il peut tout reproduire’ (you can ask anything of concrete, and it can reproduce everything). He may not have been the original inventor of many of the procedures he employed with concrete, but he was most certainly the best businessman in the field and also a fine marketing man.

As will become quickly clear, he was also a man of many snappy catchphrases, and this house was the key to one of those – “Travailler en ville, se reposer à la campagne” (work in the city, relax in the country) he said, describing his reasons for building a home outside of the city in which he worked (nb – a future post will deal with the Paris offices of his construction company).

Difficult as it is to imagine today, this house was indeed originally a country residence, albeit one which – importantly – was situated close to a train station, and thus accessible in less than 30 minutes from Paris. Built alongside the railway line, it also acted as a permenant advertising structure for people passing by on trains.

Despite Hennebique’s claims about wanting to relax in the countryside, perhaps his real reason for building a house in Bourg-la-Reine was to escape the rigid and restrictive planning reglementation in Paris. Hennebique wanted to build something extraordinary, and this house is certainly an eccentric construction.

The rule he most wanted to bypass was the one restricting a building’s height, principally to incorporate the 40 metre high water tower that still stretches above the building today (known locally as ‘the minaret’). The tower was not just an extravagant folly, but also a fully functional feature, and was used to water the crops on the various terraces which would supposedly help the home to become partially self-sufficient.

Along with the tower, other features such as the curved terraces and cantilever beams seem to exist only to show off the possibilities of concrete. The rest of the design is in accordance with Hennebique’s motto – and another catchphrase - "fleurs, lumière et aération" (flowers, light and ventilation), with the large windows and rooftop terraces bringing it into line with other hygienist constructions of the era.

There, you’ve had a personal guided tour” says the old lady, before carefully shutting her window. She’ll return to her quiet life, waiting for the next curious visitor to stop outside, whilst I’m left to ponder on what has become of the building today.

In truth, though striking, the building is not a complete success, and is even ugly in parts. It is of course no longer a single home, and has been divided into apartments, apparently some of the most sought after in the town. To give an idea of the scale of the original property, one article reports that an entire family today lives in what was Hennebique’s dining room, and another is lodged in his living room.

The building was finally given protection in 1972, but not before a shamefully ugly extension was added at the front in the 1960s. Perhaps this addition, more even than the decline of Hennebique’s own construction business, shows how low the stock of concrete had fallen at the time. His house still remains to show the heights it can attain.

La Maison Hennebique
1, avenue du Lycée-Lakanal
Bourg-la-Reine, 92340
RER B, Bourg la Reine

Sunday 4 September 2011

What happened on the Quatre Septembre?

France is a country of many significant dates, but only one is commemorated in both a street name and a Metro station in Paris. On this September 4th, I ask this question - what happened on the quatre septembre?

This particular date is not as well-known as July 14th, November 11th or May 8th in the country's history, but it is still a fondly remembered date in some circles. Of course though, there is also a certain controversy attached to its remembrance and celebration.

This particular September 4th was in 1870, and it marked the moment that a group of individuals in Paris proclaimed the beginning of a new Republic (the third) following the capture of Napoleon III by the Prussians in Sedan.

This proclamation brought to an end France's second empire, but as it also coincided with the invasion of France by the Prussians, its constitutional laws weren't actually voted until 1875. The September 4th date is therefore a purely symbolic one.

So why is it a controversial date to remember today? Firstly the third Republic ended in failure 70 years later in 1940, when once again France was invaded by a German army. Today France is under a 5th Republic, but nobody celebrates the date this one was proclaimed (October 4th 1958). More importantly, the third Republic began with the overthrowing of the Commune in Paris in 1871, when around 20,000 people were killed in Paris by Government forces. Many people today believe therefore that the country should not celebrate a date which is linked to such violent repression of a popular uprising.

However, given the fact that this date is known mostly today as being the name of a city-centre Metro station, it is unlikely to disappear from Paris street maps anytime soon!
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