Saturday 29 October 2011

19th Century Paris: 'Gaz à tous les étages'

Three very interesting exhibitions have recently begun in Paris, all looking at various aspects of life in the city in the 19th century. In order to get a little more information about each of these, I decided to talk to the curators about the stories behind the shows.

First up, the Gaz à tous les étages exhibition at the Bibliothèque Forney in the Hotel de Sens. The exhibition takes its name from the signs that can still be seen on many buildings around Paris today, and aims to tell the story of how gas arrived in the city and why it became so important. I spoke to Claude Mahuzier, President of COPAGAZ and one of the organisers of the exhibition.

When did gas first arrive in Paris?
CM: Gas was used for the first time in Paris when Philippe Lebon demonstrated his ‘thermolampe’ at the Hotel Seignelay in 1801, following a patent that he had filed in 1799. According to contemporary accounts, this demonstration was a great success, with Parisians rushing to see the rooms and the garden lit by gas. Unfortunately for Lebon, no one was ready to invest in his invention and he died bankrupt in 1804. Gas was brought back to Paris a few years later by a German, Winsor, who knew the work of Lebon and understood the interest it presented. In 1817 he created a gas plant near the Luxembourg gardens to light the Chambre des Pairs and the galleries of the Odeon. This was the real beginning of the adventure of the gas industry.

What changes did gas bring to people's lives? Did it also bring any problems?
CM: The impact on people's lives was considerable! Firstly, gas lighting brought them security. Gas lamps replaced inefficient oil lamps, enabling people to start going out in the evenings, to cafes and restaurants, which were also quickly lit by gas themselves. They also went to the theatre - where the footlights were gaslit - in the evening. As a result, meal times changed, and life was no longer dictated by the sun.

It also became possible, thanks to gas lighting, for artisans to work after dark, although such activity was banned for much of the nineteenth century. When they did work after dark, they took care to blacken out their windows to avoid being noticed, hence the term "travailler au noir"!

Cooking gas, which developed from 1855, offered a real advantage over wood and charcoal, both in terms of handling, and the odours and fumes that came from coal. When running water arrived in homes, after gas in about 1860, hygiene levels improved, even if such facilities were reserved for a wealthy minority. With stoves and gas heaters, people were warmer – at least a little bit!

We can't talk about gas without mentioning the pipes that distributed it. The major concern for cities was initially to manage the many projects launched by the gas companies, who were more concerned with serving the greatest number of customers – and demand was very strong – than in coordinating their work.

With the development of the gas industry, security concerns were also raised. The government quickly imposed safety regulations and although there were some accidents during the nineteenth century, none managed to put consumers off using gas.

How did gas change the face of Paris?
CM: It's thanks to gas that Paris became the ‘city of light’ in the 1900s!

How is the exhibition organised?
CM: The exhibition, in the beautiful surroundings of the Hotel de Sens, mixes objects, illustrations - including posters - and recreated rooms from this period. Our experience has taught us that using such settings, even very simple ones, multiplies the interest of the objects for our visitors.

The exhibition follows the principal developments of the gas industry. It begins with the invention of the industry, featuring gas plants, pipes, meters, then shows how gas lighting entered into the public and private world. Cooking Gas is shown through a recreated kitchen from the 1920s, and there's an art nouveau bathroom showing how hot water by gas changed lives.

Gas heating is explained in a living room, with a magnificent brass fireplace, and gas powered signs show how this medium was also very widely used over the years. Finally, there are two examples of professional uses. One is more traditional, but the other - an organ - is a little more "wacky". However, we wanted to include it to show how at the time people thought that gas could be used for everything!

Gaz à tous les étages
Bibliothèque Forney 1 rue du Figuier 75004
Entrance €3-€6
Tuesday to Saturday, 1pm - 7pm
Guided visits on Saturday at 3pm (included in the ticket price)

Saturday 22 October 2011

Where the Système Hennebique lives on

I have already taken you to the eccentric home of François Hennebique, France’s first king of concrete, but the Paris offices of his company on the Rue Danton are equally deserving of investigation.

Built by the architect Emile Arnaud in 1901, it was one of the first buildings in Paris to use only concrete in its construction. The forms of the building reflect the Art Nouveau tastes of the period, but here everything is merely decoration. Hennebique wanted physical proof - in the form of a building - that his system could rival traditional methods and produce structures that were equally as handsome (whilst also being far cheaper to build!)

Make no mistake - Hennebique was a formidable businessman. His offices, centrally positioned alongside the Seine at Saint Michel, were attractive to potential clients, but also a permanent advertising structure. All of the ceramics on the facade incorporate the words 'Système Hennebique', reminding passers-by exactly what they were looking at.

The first slogan Hennebique used to sell his system was ‘Plus d’incendies désastreux’ (no more disasterous fires). Initially then, concrete was not seen as being cheap or easy to use, but rather something that was safe. Whatever the reasons, the système Hennebique was an immediate success, with several industrial buildings going up across France before the end of the 19th century. In 1899, he designed his first reinforced concrete bridge, the Pont Camille de Hogues in Châtellerault, a type of structure that would become one of the company’s biggest successes.

Celebrated at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Hennebique’s company would just a few years later control 20% of the world market in reinforced concrete. It was a business that deserved prestigious offices in the centre of the city.

Hennebique had clearly second guessed the way the world would develop, but another significant aspect of his success was the way he organised the company. In each of the countries in which he operated, he insisted that local agents create their own offices and find their own staff to complete the projects.

By insisting on this organisation, Hennebique was able to ensure rapid growth for his company with minimal headaches for himself. It was almost like a franchise system, and at the company’s height – in around 1910 – the firm had more than 30 agents operating in over 20 countries.

It was the job of the local agents to identify opportunities, with the head office in Paris making tweaks and giving projects the final go-ahead (making sure that they always used all of the principles of the Hennebique system!). With this system in place, the group was capable of studying over seven thousand dossiers, and working on around 2300 of these during this period.

In 1914, Hennebique could count 25,000 creations across the world that had been built using his system, including 1,500 bridges. However, when war broke out that year, Hennebique’s model was brutally stopped.

Hennebique’s company continued after the war, but using a much changed model, concentrating almost entirely on the French market. The Hennebique company continued – still at the same address - until 1967 when it was finally wound up. François Hennebique himself had died in 1921, but not without leaving a solid mark behind him!

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Signs of the times

One of my favourite blogs is Lost City, run by the playfully named Brooks of Sheffield who chronicles the parts of New York that are slowly disappearing off the map because of "the ruthless real estate market and the City Fathers' disregard for Gotham's historical and cultural fabric", as he puts it.

The blog reeks of New York, and reads as if it is being spoken to you - by some gruff guy on a barstool who can't believe how far downhill his city is slipping. Posts alternately pan new builds that are 'ugly', and 'occupied by young couples who fight a lot', or mourn the passing of non-descript pizza joints. It is the journal of one man's struggle to preserve the traces that give his city its soul, and his raging against the implantation of chainstore logos and anywheresville aesthetics.

We have a tendancy to believe that time moves more slowly in Paris, and that the streets are covered with some kind of protective dust sprinkled by the museum-minded city fathers. However, when you attempt to count how many Starbucks are now installed in the city, and remember that McDonalds is more popular in France than anywhere else outside of the US, you realise how wrong this idea is.

Sure, the city is still home to a huge number of independant traders, but on a regular basis one of these survivors will slowly come to the end of its life.
Its death is not necessarily a sad event, but - like on Lost City - it seems important to capture it before it disappears for ever.

L'Optique Michaud on the Avenue de Wagram is one of these places. Cameras and related equipment have been sold here for more than three generations, but its chunky vintage sign will soon be removed, probably to be replaced by the luminous blandness of a bank. Although times are tough in a market which has switched to digital and moved largely online, Philippe Michaud lived well enough from his business, and has now taken the opportunity to retire.

Nobody else would be able to take over the unit and install a similar business today in what is one of the most exclusive parts of the city. The public has moved on, and the city's face will reflect this.

The disappearance of the teinturerie on nearby Avenue Niel is more difficult to understand. Dry cleaning services are abundant in Paris, but also seemingly copper-bottomed even in times of financial hardship. Once the equipment has been purchased, it is a business that needs little in the way of fresh investment, and can survive with limited staff numbers.

The wonderfully preserved sign and polychrome frontage here seems to point to a unit that had not changed hands in a number of years, suggesting another retirement. Other owners may be found to keep the dry cleaning tradition going at this spot, but will they want to keep the vintage sign, or will they be looking to make their own fresh mark on the city?

In a few months time, I'll publish a follow up to this post, telling you exactly who has moved into these two units. I don't know what I'll find, but we will know what has been lost.

Sunday 16 October 2011

17 octobre 1961

October 17th 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of an event which even today five decades later remains unexplained. The date is a significant one for many people, and several parts of Paris - including the Pont Saint Michel where this plaque can be found - are marked by the event, but accounts of what actually happened differ widely.

In 1961, France was a country at war. It had begun in 1954, when an Algerian uprising against French colonial rule led to a war that would last until independance was granted in 1962. Although the conflict took place on Algerian soil, it naturally increased tensions across France, a country which was home to many people who had been born in Algeria.

In early October 1961, the French government installed a curfew, stating that all people of North African origin should stay at home between the hours of 8.30pm and 5.30am. As a protest against this restriction, the Algerian community decided to organise a peaceful march through the streets of Paris on October 17th (although some reports state that the Algerian community was told to march by their leaders, the FLN, under threat of death if they disobeyed).

The details of what happened next have been debated ever since, and it is far too complex a topic for me to attempt to analyse. Nobody seems to deny that people died that day, but estimates of the number vary from 70 to 300, which is why the plaque says simply 'des nombreux algeriens'. Here on the Pont Saint Michel, protesters are said to have been trapped by the police and then either thrown in the Seine, or to have jumped there themselves in panic. Many others were reportedly killed later after their arrest.

The French state has never acknowledged responsibility for this event which is today known as the Paris massacre of 1961. Police actions during the day remain a state secret, although the city of Paris did place this plaque - which speaks of a sanglante repression - on the Pont Saint Michel 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary.

It seems incredible that a fully democratic country such as France could keep such secrets today. A march is being organised to mark the anniversary, but it seems unlikely that the full truth will emerge in the short term (particularly with Presidential elections looming in 2012). Behind the huge drama of this event though, are numerous smaller tragedies. What price a life if nobody can say when you died or why?

Saturday 15 October 2011

Louise Pétron - Resistant and Concierge

There a some heroes whose story seems destined never to be told. This would have been the case for Louise Pétron, if a campaign to have a plaque erected in her honour in 2004 had not been successful.

The city of Paris eventually accepted the request, and the story of Louise Pétron joined 1200 others around the city, 900 of which - like that of Pétron - commemorate events that took place during the second world war.

Louise Petron was the concierge of a non-descript building stuck out on the edge of the city in the 17th arrondissement. It was a quieter post than her previous job where she'd been caretaker at the Moulin Rouge - at least until war broke out and Paris was occupied by German forces.

Her ground-floor home and office looked out towards la zone. Today this deep cutting is filled with the roar of the périphérique motorway, but in the 1940s it still remained empty as a reminder of previous conflicts, or rather previous attempts to keep them away from the city. This was the trace of the 19th century Thiers fortifications, and Pétron once again found that they offered no protection from invading forces.

It was a simple life, but one worth fighting for. The building was new, in crisp brick and gleaming stone, and there was an attractive shared garden surrounding it. It was typical of the social housing that was springing up around the city, and it was something to be proud of.

It is not clear how she became involved, but Louise Pétron's concièrgerie became an important letterbox for the Paris resistance movement. It was a clearly defined and recognised role (she is described as a sous-lieutenant on the plaque) and she performed it conscientiously. Far from the centre of the city and the eyes of the occupiers, she was able to pass on important messages with seemingly little regard for the danger it put her in.

She managed to stay off the radar for much of the war, but as the liberation of Paris drew closer, her luck was to run out. On July 17th 1944, the gestapo came to her home and arrested her in front of her terrified children. She was interrogated and tortuted, but revealed nothing about the network she was working for. With her husband ill and hospitalised in Paris she was sent alone to the Ravensbrück camp on the last such train to leave Paris, only days before the city's liberation. She died at the camp of typhus early in 1945, just months before the end of the conflict.

For many years she was simply another victim of the war, but in 2004, a date marking the 60th anniversary of the Paris uprising and liberation, a plaque in her honour was finally unveiled. Present at the event was her tearful son, his mind surely full of memories of the last time he saw his mother in this spot.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Of Sheep and Men

Two new creations have appeared in the street in which I live - one by a relatively well-known artist, and one that will perhaps always remain anonymous!

According to a fascinating interview in Street Tease magazine, Michael Beerens changed artistic tack following a serious motorbike accident in 2007. Previously he'd just concentrated on graffiti, but during his 6 months in hospital, he decided that he'd like to bring his art more into the public domain and concentrate on animals, a subject that had always fascinated him.

"J’utilise les animaux car ils permettent de dresser un parallèle avec l’homme sans qu’il se sente montré du doigt. Ce qui me permet de traiter différents sujet sans notion de jugement. Un peu comme une fable, le lecteur y voit ce qu’il veut y voir" (I use animals because they enable me to draw a parallel to man, without anyone feeling singled out. It allows me to treat different subjects without a notion of judgement. Like a tale, readers see what they want to see)

This project, a creation produced in association with Les 3 Murs, is amusing and crisply painted (in a lovely blue!), and the sheep in wolf's clothing is a nice twist. For more details on the artist, see his official website:

The second creation is more of a guerilla production. I'm not sure if there are more of these busy little men around Paris or not, but this is the only one I have seen so far. Something tells me though that we may be in for an invasion soon, but who knows what other tricks they have planned for unsuspecting drivers?

Sunday 9 October 2011

Noise Maps of Paris

Noise is to sound what weeds are to flowers” said Des from the Soundlandscapes blog when we were working together on a project earlier this year. I had made the mistake of saying that we needed to record some ‘noises’ rather than ‘sounds’, and he quickly put me in my place.

However, as we began recording the sounds of the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, it soon became evident that noise was in the air too. The périphérique motorway was in earshot, and its dull constant rumble was polluting the natural rustles and chirps of the garden.

The delicate distinction between a noise and a sound once again popped its head up recently with the launch of a new website in Paris:

Offering live information on noise levels in the capital through a series of brightly coloured maps and charts. It’s almost like a child’s game, but the subject itself is very serious. “Noise is a very significant source of annoyance in Ile-de-France (the Paris region) due to the high concentration of housing and the exceptional density of transportation infrastructures” announces instantly the homepage of the site. “Among disturbances of quality of life” it continues, “noise is the first nuisance mentioned”.

The website was created by Bruitparif, a non-profit organisation which aims to fight against noise in the Paris region. Two kinds of maps can be found on the site. A static map which paints the historic noise hotspots across the city (the darker the colour, the higher the decibels), and a series of live charts from active captors in experimental zones (for example next to motorways and train lines, and more interestingly, near the bars of the Rue Amelot).

Walking through this polychrome city is an interesting experience, and one which offers many surprises. Seine-side apartments may be amongst the most expensive in Paris, but they are also situated in areas of deep purple. Indeed, it seems that the richer areas to the west and south are globally noisier than their more popular eastern and northern neighbours.

The périphérique is unsurprisingly a river of purple surrounding the city, and cemeteries and hospitals large patches of peaceful whites.

The message vehiculed by this site seems to be that all noise is bad. Nobody, it seems, likes a noise, but sounds – music, wind in the leaves, bird song, gently trickling streams – are universal pleasures. So when does a sound become a noise?

The French national organisation for standardisation (AFNOR) gives an official definition, stating that ‘tout son inopportun est un bruit’ (all inappropriate sounds are noise). However, this description seems both vague and arbitrary.

For Des, a sound obsessive who spends much of his time today trying to
capture the most atmospheric of them around Paris, “noise is simply sound in the wrong place and usually in the wrong quantity”. It's an attractive, succinct description, but one that also seems to reflect his worries as a technician.

In a city of 2 million people, our personal conceptions of sound will never be entirely shared. The sounds that give us the most pleasure in life - conversation, laughter, music - can also seep into other people's lives and become life-ruining noise. Finding the right balance is probably the most important cement of all in any city, and it is the job of this organisation to see where in the city the equilibrium is leaning dangerously towards noise. For if there is too much noise, nobody will be able to take pleasure from sounds.

Click here for the noise maps.

Click here for the Rumeur live measurement service.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Dancing Cranes

On the site earmarked to become the athletes village of the always to remain imaginary 2012 Paris Olympics, two cranes are caught dancing across a reflective pond. It reminds me of writer and walker Iain Sinclair's description of construction at the London Olympics site; “The heron dance of elegant cloud-scraping cranes”*, a rare moment of poetry for a project that he has consistently labelled as a scam.

To his eyes, it is the clash of corporations against communities, the spectacular against the ordinary. Sinclair equates construction on the site in London’s east end to destruction, with old communities being moved out to be replaced by transient individuals unwilling or unable to create new communities.

The first thing that any sense of place” he points out, describing the totality as “a series of losses – of allotments, football pitches, wildlife habitats”. Buildings appear, which “could have been designed anywhere for any purpose” on land yet to be completely cleared of decades of toxic industrial use.

The east of London, he points out, is “where everything disappears or is revised”. Such revisions though are not unique to events celebrating the power of corporations. Paris had the same dream as London, but that dream became the Parc Martin Luther King, site of the reflected cranes.

It seems extraordinary that we can find money for something gigantic but not for something small and local” said Sinclair about the London Olympics, but in Paris - the supposed loser - something small(er) and local is slowly growing from the ground at the same time as the tracks and stadia across the channel.

"La Ville se reinvente" cries the Clichy-Batignolles promotional website, highlighting the changes being made on what was to be the Olympics site. It has been "conçu pour les Parisiens" on the "franges oubliées de la ville". Here the land has been reclaimed from the railway, eating up land previously used for the shunting and storage of trains. Progress is not moving but standing still, not producing power but creating a sustainable, carbon neutral environment. Green replacing brown on the map.

Without corporate sponsors to appease, Paris has been able to imagine a socially mixed utopia with the old alongside the young, the private alongside the public. 6,500 people will live in this new quarter, but will they really form a more closely-linked community than the post-Olympic dwellers in London?

The Parc Martin Luther King, the first truly visible element of this new community, is already a success, but it is also little more than an extension of the Square des Batignolles. This is not a radical reclamation of untamed wastelands, but rather an attempt to expand the city northwards. Alongside, a big hole in the ground will become an underground car park, and apartment blocks, named Lot E.1 or Lot N.3., are sprouting skywards.

It is difficult to compare London to Paris, to decide which has been the winner and which the loser. London won the games because it was felt that there was a greater chance of regeneration and a bigger legacy to leave behind. The Paris bid was seen as lacking in audacity, offering just cosmetic changes to the city fabric.

Losing perhaps gave the city the opportunity to dream of something better, but the community is still largely virtual today, happy families in an architect's sketch. Success for Paris would be bringing working class Clichy and middle class Batignolles closer together, but historical barriers are hard to break down.

The creation of all new communities begins with dancing cranes. Only time decides whether that dance will lead to the birth of a successful neighbourhood or not.

*From ‘
The Olympics Scam’ an essay by Iain Sinclair published in the London Review of Books.

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