Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Top 5 posts of the year

As seems to be traditional at this time of year, here is yet another list. Rather than just simply present the top 5 posts though, I have also added a few notes to explain why I picked the subject, why I think it found an audience, and what has happened since.

Firstly though, on top of thanking everyone for visiting the site this year and for reading the posts, I'd just like to say how pleased I am that the list
- which includes architecture, history, street art and a kind of diluted psychogeography - reflects the range of topics I try to present on this blog.

Top 5 most consulted posts of the year:

1. Stephen Sauvestre: The forgotten architect of the Eiffel Tower

When I began working on this post, I had no idea that there had even been an official architect of the Eiffel Tower. Stephan Sauvestre was just a name that I kept seeing etched into buildings in the 17th arrondissement, and the range of the creations he was involved with encouraged me to dig a little deeper. Discovering the connection to Gustave Eiffel was quite exciting, and it was clear that it should become the focus of the post. I had vowed to myself to never feature the Eiffel Tower on this blog, but this was an invisible angle that I couldn't resist. Finally, including the name 'Eiffel Tower' in the title of a post also obviously helps bring in new readers!

2. Peurs sur la Ville - "Paris is a battlefield"

I try to keep up to date with exhibitions in Paris, but it is rare that I choose to feature them on this blog. This exhibition though - a look at Paris as a battleground, both in reality and the imaginary - seemed worthy of investigation. I managed to get myself on the press list for the vernissage (perhaps because they somehow confused me with a journalist from The Guardian newspaper!) and found enough material for a post, possibly helped by the contrast between the sometimes gruesome pictures and the luxurious surroundings (including the champagne and petits fours at the vernissage)!

I was particularly pleased with the fact that this post made it onto the list of links of interest on BLDGBLOG, one of my favourite blogs, and that consequently many of the visitors came from that site (enough to send the post into the top 5!).

3. Noise Maps of Paris

When I read an article in a newspaper about the launch of a series of noise maps of Paris, I knew that it would be a subject that I would have to feature on this blog. I was initially struck by the choice of word - 'bruit' or noise, rather than 'son' or sounds, which instantly transformed the maps into something that would be negative and slightly sinister. On discovering the maps themselves, I was then struck by how graphically interesting and almost beautiful they were, which offered a fascinating contrast to their declared role.

Despite the name of this blog, the subjects are almost entirely physical, so it was interesting to treat a subject that was truly invisible. This blog is also very much about keeping eyes open, but this was a reminder that our ears are also just as important, and that we cannot generalise about such topic and always equate noise with nuisance. This was demonstrated in one of my favourite comments of the year from a reader called Dom who commented that he lives "in the west close to the periph and rather than it being an intrusive 24/7 hated noise, I in fact embrace it as a monotonous, calming lullaby".

4. The Maison Galvani

A house with a tree growing out of its facade cannot be anything but interesting, but what I particularly appreciated about this post was how a link I'd provided to the architect's website became a reciprocal link back to mine. Another of my self-imposed rules is that I avoid subjects that have been amply treated elsewhere, and whilst I was aware that this house was a staple of course material for students of architecture, I wanted to look at how it had changed since delivery.

The project seemed to demonstrate some of the tribulations of being an architect for private clients. The architect, Christian Pottgiesser, is clearly very proud of his creation, but once delivered it is no longer his baby. Following a slightly withering remark - "as far as we know, the ground floor has recently been transformed into a cellar. The two courtyards have been demolished, maximising square meters", there is now a link back to this page.

5. Challenge 1: The mysterious man on a ladder

Over the three years that I have been running this blog, I have occasionally attempted to launch new features, with more or less success. I'm pleased to see that the 'challenge me' feature has made this year's top 5, as it is something I enjoy doing, and it also offers me a chance to interact with readers.

I had some hesitations about accepting this challenge. Uncovering the identities of street artists is not the done thing, but this artist seemed to be doing something a little different. His identity was not hidden as such, but it simply appeared that his creations had become more important than the person who had painted them. The artist is somebody who has had success in galleries and who had developed a certain renown, but he seemed to feel that his creations were in some way trapped by the limits of a frame, and had to move out onto the streets in order to survive. Unless of course it is simply a way to develop some 'street' credibility in order to better sell his more traditional work!

I have since published five other responses to challenges, answered a few others directly and failed with one or two. I have three others that I will answer at the beginning of the year, but always welcome any questions or challenges, so please don't hesitate to send them!

Saturday 24 December 2011

A Christmas message from Paris

Street artist Michael Beerens has been given the freedom of a wall in my street over the last six months or so, and changes the creation displayed there on a monthly basis. This week, a rather sobering Christmas message has appeared (Merry Christmas to those who sleep outside).

Beerens uses his art to share messages, but lightens the sometimes heavy themes with humour and a wide range of fantastic animals. Although the message here is a reminder of our privileged positions at this time of year, I'd like to think that it can also be taken at face value, and that he is genuinely addressing those who sleep on the
floor of the city gallery. Taken this way, it may seem slightly crass, but at least he is directly addressing those to whom most people turn a blind eye.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Things to do in Paris over the holidays

I will be away from Paris over the holiday period, but for those who will be in the city during that time, I have posted a few suggestions of things to do on the Paris Weekends blog.

Magic, fairground attractions, spiders, kitsch musicals and sport - there should be something for everyone!

Wherever you may be over this period, I wish you bonnes fêtes. For me it is also a time to escape from all forms of digital communication (although I have programmed a couple of posts...), but I'm sure I'll be itching to get online again as soon as 2012 ticks round!

Monday 19 December 2011

Introducing...Invisible Bordeaux

Those with very sharp eyes may have noticed a recent addition to my list of favourite blogs - Invisible Bordeaux. The writing, research and photography make the blog worthy of recommendation in its own right, but it is also interesting because it is...the first blog to be inspired by and to adopt my Invisible Paris concept!

When I began this blog I had a very specific idea in mind - that there are many blindspots in our lives, and that what we see and remember is not necessarily the reality of our surroundings. Paris is my home, and so had to be the subject of the blog, but it also seemed to me to be the archetypal city of the invisible, purely because it has such a strong visual identity, even for those who have never actually visited the place.

However, I have always thought that cities all over the world are the same in some respects. Those that live in them are trapped in routines, or become blinded by over-familiarity, whilst those that visit are restricted by obligations to follow safe paths trodden by generations of previous visitors and simply don't have enough time to become absorbed into the place.

If there is an Invisible City concept then, it is the desire to hunt out the overlooked, and to recount the forgotten stories of your environment. Above all, it is about being curious and keeping your eyes open (and making sure you always have a camera, a pen and some paper with you!).

Tim, author of the Invisible Bordeaux blog, and faithful reader of this blog since its inception, believed that the concept could be adapted to his city, and he has already found quite a stock of material. Already featured in just the first month of its existence have been a hidden milestone, the secrets of the city's tramway, a city-centre race track and a Thai restaurant that was previously a theatre...and a place that once hosted sessions of France's upper parliamentary house!

Although I have not actively sought out acolytes, I would be delighted if one day I could make a claim like that of Eric Tenin on his excellent ParisDailyPhoto blog - the blog that started the City Daily Photo community. Blogs need an audience to survive, and bloggers need support to continue producing material, and what better way to ensure this than through the creation of a community?

Long life to Invisible Bordeaux, and if anyone else thinks their city might be invisible, let me know!

Wednesday 14 December 2011

A ghost sign of Christmas past

On the Rue Marx Dormoy in the 18th arrondissement is one of the clearest ghost signs in Paris, and one which is particular relevant at this time of year.

Those who have spent the winter in France may be familiar with 'Les Pyréneens', a seasonal chocolate that
only appears in the shops during the Christmas period, but few will be aware of its history. This ghost sign gives us a clue to its origins.

The Rozan chocolate brand was launched in 1924 by Maurice Rozan de Mazilly. The company's headquarters were in Paris at 21 avenue Niel, but production took place at Oloron Sainte-Marie in the Pyrénées mountains. This information can be read clearly in the ad, but what is not so clear is the company's graphic identity, which seems to have been some kind of clown holding four bells. Who was Maurice Rozan de Mazilly though, and what was so special about his chocolate?

Born in 1893, Rozan de Mazilly did not come to the chocolate business on an easy route, but rather as a way of rebuilding his life. Originally from a working class family in Normandy, he began working at the age of 15 as a sailor, before signing up with the French army at the beginning of the First World War.

Although he survived the conflict, he didn’t escape injury. He received severe injuries to his face, which required a two-year stay at the Hôpital du Val de Grâce in Paris and over twenty operations to repair the damage. Despite the pain and suffering, this period gave him time to reflect, and his first act after leaving hospital was to become a chocolatier.

He managed to persuade a number of people to support him financially, including an American millionaire called Frank Jay Gould, but his success came after he discovered a new way to create chocolate. His inspiration came from the Austrian pastries he tasted during a visit to Vienna which ‘melted in the mouth’ whilst at the same time offering a sensation of freshness. He wondered if something similar would be possible with chocolate, and after two years of research and testing, he found a technique. In 1927 he launched the Les Pyrénéens brand, and his recipe for these chocolates (which should be served chilled from the fridge, and seem to melt in layers in the mouth) remains a secret to this day.

Above: the brand identity today. Below: where the inspiration for the packaging came from.

Rozan de Mazilly sold his brand to the Swiss group Lindt in 1956, but stayed on as ‘président d’honneur’ of the company, and was able to ensure that production remained in France, in his original factory in Oloron Sainte-Marie. To this day, the Les Pyréneens chocolates are sold only in France, and only when the snows begin to fall on the neighbouring mountains.

Monday 12 December 2011

A Psychogeographic field report from the Palais de Congrès

Wilfried Hou Je Bek, writer, psychogeographer and editor of the Cryptoforestry blog, has compiled a series of nineteen psychogeographic field reports and created 'The Zine'. I'm delighted to say that a field report I wrote after a 'dérive' around and inside the Palais de Congrès in Paris has been included in the collection.

It's an honour to not only feature alongside people producing genuinely interesting and challenging work, but also to be included in a creation that exudes a homegrown spirit. As Wilfried says, "the zine contains a varied range of approaches and styles, is a great read and has a crappy design that adds to the pleasure by not detracting attention from the natural psychogeographic flamboyance that is bursting from every page"!

Click here for information on how you can order a copy, and thanks to Wilfried for his hard work on this project.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

The Tour Bois-le-Prêtre: making the social desirable

The Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, standing alongside the périphérique autoroute on the very limits of the city, has recently been transformed from a crumbling outcast to an award-winning structure. Could it show the way forward for high-rise structures around the world?

Last month, architects Anne Lacaton, Jean-Philippe Vassal and Frédéric Druot picked up the Equerre d’argent 2011, an annual architecture prize awarded by the Moniteur press group. The judges saluted the way that the team had reimagined a structure that was originally built in the 1960s, transforming it from a banal concrete block to a sustainable building that is open to its surroundings and filled with natural light.

The architects' leitmotif is 'détruire, c’est gaspiller' (destruction is waste). For this project, nothing was removed, but 3500m² of space was added to the 100 apartments, mostly by adding 'winter gardens' and balconies. For the people living in the tower block - none of whom needed to be rehoused during the work - an additional 20 to 60m was added to their homes. On top of this, heating costs will be drastically reduced and noise pollution from the neighbouring motorway will almost completely disappear.

The tower when originally built, in its 1980s form and how it looks today.

The exterior of the building now looks like the kind of modern, smart block that would attract young professionals worldwide, but according to the residents, it is from the inside that the changes have been most noticeable. Looking at the slideshow on the website of the city of Paris, it is almost possible to forget that the building not only overlooks the motorway, but also the Batignolles cemetery!

Tower blocks are still the subject of great debate, particularly in Paris, but it is difficult to see how this particular project could be seen as anything but exemplery. Organisations such as SOS Paris claim to want to preserve the architectural heritage of the city, but exactly what heritage is there to save in these city-limit corridors alongside busy roads, cemeteries, factories and warehouses? If people have to live in these zones, shouldn't we at least give them the chance to rise up above their surroundings?

Another argument against towers is that they are community destroyers, but alongside the tour Bois-le-Prêtre, the city of Paris is currently creating an entirely new street (Rue Rebière) of mixed social and private housing - and the results are surprising to say the least!

The nine architectural agencies involved in the creation of these buildings worked together from the beginning of the project, in association with the city of Paris and local residents. In total, 180 new apartments will be available from 2013, 140 of which have been earmarked for those in most need of accommodation.

A far cry from sterile Haussmannian uniformity, each building on this street is different from the next, and each stands alone. And yet there are still very clear links between them all, noticeably through their playfulness and through the regular use of openings (balconies, terraces) that look out onto the street or towards neighbouring properties (see the M building for a good example of this).

There is one other feature they all share - they all back onto the Batignolles cemetery. Experimental housing perhaps, but at least we can be sure that there will be no complaints about noisy neighbours!

Sunday 4 December 2011

My Paris Soundlandscape

I was very pleased to be invited by Des from Soundlandscapes to speak about my favourite place in Paris for a series of guest pieces on his blog. I chose the Hopital Salpêtrière which I have always found fascinating, and which is a place that has become personally important for me.

We recorded the piece on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and whilst it was a pleasure to show Des around my favourite spots, it was a little daunting to speak about everything from a personal perspective (something I generally try to avoid doing on Invisible Paris). I'm not sure whether I succeeded or not, but I least hope that I sound sincere!

As is the nature of these things, after recording stopped I instantly thought of hundreds of other things that I wished that I had said. At the same time, I am also happy that it will survive as a snapshot of one moment of reflection, which is a luxury that we don't allow ourselves very often. It was also a privilege to be able to capture these thoughts on top quality audio equipment and be part of Des's project.

Click here to listen to my thoughts on the Hopital Salpêtrière:
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