Thursday 27 December 2012

My Five Favourite Posts of 2012

Following last week’s list of the most-read posts on Invisible Paris in 2012, here are the five posts that I enjoyed working on the most - but which my audience enjoyed reading perhaps a little less! These are in no particular order.

The Way of Saint James through Paris and beyond

As with the Mitt Romney post, this was an enjoyable exercise partly because it was also one-half (one-third really) of a twin post with Invisible Bordeaux. After remarking that the trail (or one of the trails) passed through both of our cities, we set out to walk along them and see what we could learn.

I did the walk one very hot day in August, and decided that it would be best to do it as a kind of drift with the scallop shell as a theme. It was therefore nice to get a message in the comments saying that "this is what I call real contemporary psychogeography" from someone whose work I very much respect.

A Ukranian mystery

This one was a real accident. I was researching a question I had received for one of my challenges (which - many apologies - I still haven't managed to answer) when I came across this sign. Who was this person, and why was this sign in this particular place?

The research took me in many different directions, and it was a mystery that people also tried to help answer in the comments section. Although the conclusion seemed to be that this was some kind of artistic hoax, it is a story that won't go away.
I recently received new comments linking to a post on a French website outlining the links the Ukranian poet had with France, then another pointing out that there is an Urgus Tabarovitch street in Romania. The first would have us believe that an artist from the former Soviet Union would have been able to make regular visits to see a lover in Paris in the 1970s and 80s, whilst the second - although appearing on Google maps - seems impossible to verify (especially as I found a message from someone online who says they added the street name on Google maps. Do I have any readers in Satu Mare who could help?) 

I suspect the authors of these messages of being part of the mysterious 'Cercle des Artistes Disparus' - the chief communicators and agitators - and also of writing their posts/comments as a means of answering some of the questions I posed in my original post - but if that's the case, it all adds to the fun!

The Strange Journey of Victor Noir

I'd long been aware of Victor Noir's tomb at Père Lachaise, but considered that the story was already too well known to feature it on Invisible Paris. However, when wandering around Neuilly one day, I was surprised to find myself on a Rue Victor Noir. What were his links to the town? After some quick research I found that he had originally been buried in the town's cemetery, before being moved - by popular demand - to a more prestigious resting place at Père Lachaise. 

I had therefore found my angle into a fascinating - and strange - story, and it showed me once again that even the familiar can become unfamiliar if looked at from another angle.

Le Déclin and a fall from grace

A trip to a vintage postcard fair at the beginning of the year proved very fruitful for research and inspiration - but it's always quite a painstaking job! Firstly you have to elbow your way into place alongside some serious collectors, then flick through literally thousands of postcards until something stands out.

I was immediately struck by this card, partly because of the melancholic statue, but also because of its very working class setting. The goal of this post was therefore to find out what had happened to the statue and the city behind it, and it lead me to some interesting finds...and I still desperately want to visit the city of Paris's art collection storage space in Ivry!

I picked up another postcard that day that became a very long, interesting and rewarding project - and one that I will be publishing more information about very soon. The next postcard fair is in January, so I hope to make a few more discoveries soon.

1 Bis Rue Chapon: the address that doesn't really exist

Sometimes there are things that are genuinely surreal, and need very little additional explanations! Suffice to say that I remembered hearing about this story quite a long time ago, and didn't imagine that it would still be in place when I went to find it. It was though, and it's still there today!

Sunday 23 December 2012

Top Five Posts of 2012

In a now traditional feature – that everyone waits for with much anticipation – here is the list of the top five most-read posts this year. Next week I will publish a similar feature listing my personal top five posts (which strangely enough are not the same).

As was the case last year, rather than just simply present the top 5 posts I have also added a few notes to explain why I picked the subject, why I think it was popular, and how the story has developed since.

Finally, I’d like to thank you all for visiting the site this year and for reading the posts! 

5: The Paris Archives: Poisonous shoes
I often try to create regular new features on this blog, and I am pleased that this particular one found an audience. The idea came when I stumbled across the Gallica website, which contains digital archives of the French press going back over 150 years, whilst doing some research. By chance, I noticed a rather incredible story of a doctor shooting himself in a Paris cinema whilst watching his ex-lover on screen - and thought I had to feature it on the blog. It then struck me that these newspapers would be full of such stories, but the reality is not that simple.

The difficulty is selecting - and finding - themes that tell us something about Paris in that particular period. The vast majority of stories on Paris reported in the press seem to be about murder, suicide or gruesome accidents, but occasionally I find something a little stranger...such as poisonous shoes, and then the time spent sifting through these newspapers seems worthwhile again!

4: Urban exploration in Pantin

Partnerships are important for a blog, and it was an honour for me to be asked to join the Guardian newspaper’s community of travel bloggers (even if I don’t consider that Invisible Paris is in any way a travel blog).

Since signing up (and I literally did have to sign a contract), the trick has been to find subjects that could potentially be of interest to visitors to Paris - and to respect the basic premise of this blog. This article on an extraordinary building in Pantin - the first to be republished in The Guardian - was one successful example.

Although it is rewarding to see my posts published in the online version of The Guardian, it doesn't actually bring much else to the blog. As the articles are reprinted in their entirety, there is no reason for people to click through to Invisible Paris, so it doesn't generate much in the way of audience. And of course, no-one in this community is paid anything!

3: The Story of the Oldest Tree in Paris

I began working on this post after a reader asked me for confirmation that there existed a living tree in the city that dated back to the 17th century. It was not difficult to find information about this tree online as it has been featured on several other blogs, but for me there is no interest in just quoting a fact and posting a picture. 

I wanted to tell the story of the tree - why it was planted and who put it there - and how it has managed to survive for so long. It's position in the city - on an ancient fork in the road - also seemed significant, and I was also happy to find out what is the city's second oldest tree! Finally, the fact that it only survives today thanks to concrete supports (which have been disguised as trunks and branches) was also worthy of mention.

2: Counter-Tourism at Notre Dame

When deciding which subjects to feature on this blog, I particularly enjoy interacting with others and taking ideas that come completely from elsewhere. I had already previously interviewed Phil Smith after the publication of his previous book, and was very happy to discover his latest work - Counter Tourism.

Although Phil clearly has in mind a very English environment, I immediately thought that much of it could also apply to Paris - the world's most visited city, and a city that uses its heritage to sell itself. The question though was which site should I pick? It could have been the Louvre - particularly the underground shopping centre - or the whole of Montmartre, but I eventually picked Notre Dame, partly because it was a place I very rarely visit myself.

Quite a few visitors to this post came from a recommendation on Reddit, but I was also amused to see that there were several criticisms of the post - and the idea of Counter Tourism - on that site. One stated "I'm not sure if this person 'gets' tourism", which is probably a very fair remark!

1: The Rue de Lota: the house where Mitt lived

Although this blog, by its nature, concentrates largely on architecture and history, it is always more interesting if I can somehow stitch in some current affairs! I'd read an article about Mitt Romney's time in Paris as a mormon, but although the house he lived in was a key part of the story, there were no photographs. I decided to go and have a look myself, and discovered quite an impressive building. Putting these visuals online obviously helped to spread the message - on one day in August I had over 8,000 visits in one hour, all stemming from some influential anti-Romney source on Facebook and Twitter!

I'm not an American though, and was not really interested in making a political message with this post (although like most Europeans I'm happy that Romney didn't win the Presidential race). I thought that the house itself also had an interesting story to tell, especially as it had originally been built for another American family.

Finally, I'm happy that this story finished at the top because it was also the first 'twin post' I did with Invisible Bordeaux, the first Invisible city spin-off! It's still an ambition of mine to have a network of invisible city blogs around the world, for mutual inspiration and also to work on cross-city themes such as this one. If anyone is looking to start up a city blog in 2013, get in touch with me first!

Wednesday 19 December 2012

The Paris Archives: the death (and life) of Max Linder


Le Petit Parisien, 1/11/1925
The news broke on November 1st - ironically the Toussaint, or the day of the dead. Max Linder, the famous French silent film actor, had killed his wife and himself in a Paris hotel.

"Le dernier film de Max Linder..(est)..un drame navrant, pitoyable” (The final film of Max Linder is a depressing and pathetic drama) wrote Le Petit Parisien, before going on to outline the story's plot. It began late on October 30th (1925) when Max Linder and his young wife returned back to their hotel (the Hotel Baltimore on the Avenue Kléber). As they entered, Linder told staff that no-one should disturb them the next morning.

Linder's Mother in law though had an appointment with her daughter the next day, and became worried when nobody answered the phone in the hotel room. She decided to head over to the hotel herself, and eventually insisted that staff open the door to the room. As the door was pushed open, a terrible sight was in front of them - the lifeless couple lay side by side on their bed in a pool of blood. 

Although a doctor was quickly called, both were declared dead before the day was over.

The building had only recently been transformed into a luxury hotel when the tragedy took place (on the 4th floor). The hotel is named after Lord Baltimore, "its famous first guest" according the hotel website. It remains largely unchanged today.

Although nobody knows for definite what happened, it is believed that Linder drugged his wife and slit her left wrist, before doing the same to himself. As Le Figaro reported, it was a sad story, but one that many wouldn't find surprising. How could it have come to this for the world's first international film star? To find out, we need to take a look at the artist's Paris years.

Max Linder's early life in the South West of France and how he came to move to Paris is described over on Invisible Bordeaux. Linder had chosen to be an actor, but initially this proved to be a struggle. He was refused entry to the prestigious Conservatoire three times before eventually joining up with one of his previous teachers at the Ambigu theatre (an establishment near the Place de la République that was eventually closed and demolished in the 1960s).

His big break came on a cold winter's day in 1905. "Do you want to do some cinema" asked one of Linder's colleagues at the theatre. "What's that" replied Linder "A kind of theatre, except that you act in front of a machine. You joke around. You'll get 20 francs."

Max Linder soon became known simply as 'Max' the dandy character he created. This figure would also be one of Chaplin's principal inspirations.

Max Linder was filmed skating - and falling over - on a frozen lake in Vincennes and Les Débuts d’un patineur became his first success. Linder found that he had a talent for something he hadn't previously known existed, and was quick to produce other short films, always improvising and showing a sharp instinct for the nascent desires of the public.

Signed up by Pathé, then amongst the largest film producers in the world, Max Linder negotiated previously unheared of salaries - up to 1 million francs a year, but he was also contracted to produce 150 films in three years - an average of almost one per week.

Many of these films were made in a studio that still stands today - the Studio Albatros in Montreuil to the east of Paris.

Still occasionally used for filming, these buildings - which later became an industrial facility for many years - mostly offer working spaces for artists today. They were originally almost completely made of glass, and although many panels are missing today, the building is listed and protected. A future Invisible Paris post will focus entirely on these studios.

Max Linder became a name that was known worldwide, but several events would have a severe effect on the personality behind this sobriquet (his real name was Gabriel Leuvielle). The first was a serious accident he suffered on stage at La Cigalle (as well as making one film a week, Linder also continued performing in theatres) where he impalled himself whilst performing a stunt on roller skates. Although the accident almost killed him, he - superficially - made a quick recovery.

The second event was the First World War. Given his popularity and the role he could play as an entertainer, Linder was told he wouldn't have to join the army, but he nevertheless insisted that he should have a mission. His exact role is not clear, but what is known is that he was discharged from the army in 1916 after an injury or illness, probably a result of the hours he spent in freezing cold water in a bomb crater after an explosion. 

The third event stemmed from this discharge, and was also a huge opportunity. Max Linder moved to America, replacing Chaplin at the Essanay studios in Chicago, but this chance would prove to be his first failure. He had signed up to make twelve films, but only made three before homesickness and ill-health forced him back to France.

During his convalescence, Linder fulfilled one of his dreams - he bought a cinema in Paris (known at the time as the Kosmorama), redesigned it and gave it his name. The cinema still bears his name today.

Max Linder was very attached to the establishment, and often appeared on stage there, literally coming out from (behind) the screen. All this 'sans augmentation de prix'!

Max Linder quickly realised that there would be one problem with his cinema - he couldn't show his own films as he didn't own the rights. He projected mostly American films, including those of Chaplin who in many respects was his competitor. 

When I ask the current owners if there are any remaining remnants of the period in the cinema I receive a rather brusque response. 'We don't have any information or anecdotes' they tell me, 'and the cinema has been demolished and rebuilt several times since its origins'. After informing me that they are nevertheless very attached to the the personality of Max Linder, they give me another name - 'his daughter Maud can give you all the answers you need'.

Eventually, all the threads of this plot lead to Maud. If we know anything about the life and work of Max Linder today it is largely down to her efforts. But where did she enter the story?

Max Linder's career stalled after his first trip to America. He continued to make films, but with little of his previous energy. He nevertheless had several major successes, including the three films he made when he returned to America in 1919.

By this time Linder was probably already suffering from the catch-all condition of the time - neurasthenia, which is probably a mix of depression and post-traumatic stress. Now approaching his 40s, Linder had not yet married, but that would soon change in somewhat bizarre circumstances.

During another period of rest in the French Alps, Linder met a 16 year old girl named Ninette Peters. The two fell in love, but when the young girl's mother refused to sanction the relationship, Linder and the Peters fled to Monte Carlo. To avoid creating an even greater scandal, Peters' mother eventually gave Linder permission to marry her daughter, with the wedding taking place on August 23rd 1923 in Paris.

The couple moved to a very chic address in the capital (11bis avenue Émile-Deschanel near the Eiffel tower), but all was clearly not well with Max Linder. Speculating the day after his death, newspaper Le Petit Journal reported that he had been using drugs since sustaining his war injury, and had even encouraged his young wife to use them too.

Linder's Paris home (via Google Street View)

During these troubled times, Maud, their daughter, was born in June 1924. It should have been a happy period, but Linder's fragile mental state decided otherwise. As all the paper's reported after his death, there had already been one previous suicide attempt, in a hotel in Vienna. On that occasion, Peters had merely pretended to take her overdose, and was able to call for help after Linder had taken his.

Towards the end of his life, by all accounts Linder was taciturn and morose. He was also slowly removing himself from public life, resigning from committees and associations, and selling his cinema (although on this occasion he did insist that the new owners should always have two seats available for his daughter).

How the end eventually came will always contain an element of mystery, but the result was an 18 month old orphan, Maud. As she later told journalists, she would not even know about her parents until she was 10 (she was brought up by her maternal grandmother, the same person who had found the dying couple in the hotel), and didn't see any of his films until she was 20. 

After discovering who her father was though and what he had created, she then set out to honour the memory of a person she never knew. As she explained to the Liberation newspaper in 1995, "j'y ai tout laissé, sauf ma maison. Mais j'ai vendu des meubles, des objets... J'ai été couverte de dettes. J'ai parfois l'impression que c'est mon grand fils de père." (It's cost me everything, except my house. I've sold furniture, objects...I've run up big debts. Sometimes I have the impression that my father is my son).

Max Linder was a pioneer, and Maud quickly discovered that this meant that a lot of his work was created before proper storage facilities were built. If so much of his work is still missing, it is partly also because of Linder's family who inherited his belongings, but who had never supported his choice of career. Maud would later find reels of destroyed film buried in the family's garden.

It is perhaps too easy to speculate that by collecting and restoring images of her father Maud Linder is trying to build something tangible and worthwhile from a man who she not only never got to know, but who had also killed her mother and made her an orphan. Whatever her motivations though, the French cinema family can be thankful that at least one person has actively sought to preserve the memory of the first international film star. 

Note: As Invisible Bordeaux reports, her life's work may soon result in the creation of a museum and arts centre in the city of his birth. The site also explains why 2013 might be a big year for Max Linder, and gives links to online resources where you can view clips of Linder's films!

Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Ile Seguin: Nouvel, Nouvel...or Nouvel?

This Sunday, the residents of Boulogne Billancourt to the west of Paris will have an interesting choice to make. Who of Jean Nouvel, Jean Nouvel or Jean Nouvel will they choose to develop the Ile Seguin site?

As the official project website summarises, "20 years after the closure of the Renault factories in 1992, a development project is finally about to begin" - but what project? After a stop-start process and endless propositions and discussions, the shortlist is down to the last three entries - and just one architect!

In reality, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the three projects have a lot of similarities. A covered garden, a concert hall, a pedestrianised shopping street housing only 'cultural' commercial outlets and an ambition to become an 'urban and environmental laboratory' - whatever that might be.

Project One (Jean Nouvel)

One tower up to 120 metres high and three others of no higher than 100 metres. A glass-covered garden and the inevitable restaurants and shops.

Project Two (Jean Nouvel)

One tower of up to 110 metres, a slightly smaller glass-covered garden and a 'busy shopping street'.

Project Three (Jean Nouvel)

No towers, but curiously also a much smaller garden area.

Of course, this somewhat limited choice is not to the liking of all the residents of the town. "Ce vote n'a aucune valeur" cries the website 'Sauvons l'Ile Seguin'. Given the lack of alternative options, the site also bemoans the fact that it is impossible to vote 'none of the above'.

Their opposition to a 'concrete' island is evident, but what alternatives do they put forward? The first is a 'green and blue' island, made up mostly of parks and sporting facilities. The second is to build, but to above all avoid towers and landmark architecture.

Whatever the result of the vote on Sunday, the arguments will surely continue until building finally begins. But would it not also be an option to simply not build?

When I visited the island this summer I discovered a post-industrial landscape, a strange world of half-reclaimed territories and curious multi-coloured temporary structures. The long impasse had lead to a culture of resourcefulness, with restaurants housed in containers and scalfolding, and parks sketching small clearings amongst wild plants.  

Alongside these, other oddities - a section dedicated to the circus and even a small road circuit for the testing of electric vehicles (run by Renault, and continuing the company's historic links to the island).

Jean Nouvel will undoubtedly be the winner of this competition, but will it also be a victory for the island?

Update: And the winner was...Jean Nouvel! "Une grande victoire pour la démocratie" screams the official Boulogne-Billancourt town website after results showed that around one-third of eligible electors voted, with the second option (one particularly tall tower) coming out on top (40,10% of the votes, with 31,06% for the third option (no towers) and 25,67% for the first option). The mayor has now promised to begin work on this chosen project as soon as possible, but for others the fight has now probably only just begun.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

“Paris est un leurre”: the true story of a fake Paris

In 1917, the French army launched a plan to build a replica Paris in order to fool German pilots and bombers. A book recently published recounts the story.

As the First World War dragged on and military equipment progressed, the city of Paris - initially psychologically far from the front line - became more and more a target of enemy attacks. But how could the city protect itself from night-time zeppelin and gotha raids? The answer was to build a simulated city of Paris.  

The story, recounted by Xavier Boissel in his essay 'Paris est un leurre', is fascinating. The idea was to plunge the real city of Paris into darkness, and to create fake ‘blackout’ zones in three areas around the city. To the east – near Chelles - a zone of factories and workshops, to the north – close to today’s Charles de Gaulle aiport - fake train stations and tracks, and to the west – around a curve in the Seine near Maisons Lafitte and Conflans – the centre of the city and its monuments.

Read my interview with Xavier Boissel here, in English and in French.

With aviation in its infancy, pilots had to fly by sight rather than radar, and literally throw the bombs from their aircraft. The plan hatched by the French military was to divert the aircraft along fake railway lines towards artificial installations that could be bombed with a minimum of material and human cost. 

The project was eventually interrupted by the armistace before it had ever really begun, and frustratingly for Xavier Boissel - and potentially for readers of this book - very little in the way of documentation for this scheme can be found today. Mysteriously, he even reports that the French Military documentation centre at the Chateau de Vincennes deny all knowledge of the project. 

In truth, Xavier Boissel does not attempt to dig too deeply in military archives. The idea behind the project and its planned execution had already sparked sufficient inspiration for a number of unexpected associations and tangents. 

After giving an outline of the project, Boissel focusses on three aspects. An investigation of the project's territories, which he entitles - in reference to Georges Perec - 'tentative d'épuisement d'un leurre parisien', a look at the role of trickery in war, and the significance of illuminations and artificiality in the ville lumière, both during and after the war.

The clues that any such project ever existed stem back to an article published in a magazine called L'Illustration in 1920. It is not clear how this material came to be published, as it was - and obviously remains - confidential, but these snippets offer a tantalising look how the project may have functioned. It suggests that work began on the fake factories and train stations, and a single map plots the positions of the most important (fake) monuments of Paris in the zone to the west. From this minimal sources, Xavier Boissel set out to explore the territory in order to truly get a feel for the project.

I wanted to go there to get an idea of the ‘field’, just to see what the areas selected by the French Chiefs of Staff actually looked like. As the project was for a virtual city, it was important for me to get back to reality, to reappropriate the physical world” Xavier Boissel tells me, before pointing out that there was also something ‘poetic’ in his walks. “By superimposing plans of the fake Paris on top of the places where I did my drift, elements that were bizarre and ironic arose in the very fabric of the land” he explains.

Indeed, it is this part of the book that is perhaps the most successful. Xavier Boissel drifts through these territories in the company of Didier Vivien, a photographer friend (whose photos can be seen on the website that accompanies the book) and his architect son, and although they find no definite links to the project, it nevertheless feels like everything in these zones is somehow relevant. 

Although Xavier Boissel points out to me that the chosen sites were at the time "rural...and completely unlike the places we can see today", they are still nevertheless largely on open ground. The trio wander alongside military sites, archeological digs of ancient military camps and even into an abandoned paintball terrain. They find an old dictionary, open on the letter A, with the words 'artist', 'artillerie' and 'artifice' clearly visible, and discover that the crash of the Concorde aircraft in 2000 also occured in one of the zones.

© Didier Vivien

After concluding - by quoting historian Lucien Febvre - that if history cannot be studied through written documents, it should be written through investigations of landscapes, weeds, geology and abandoned materials - in other words anything related to man's desires and needs - Xavier Boissel moves on to an investigation of other significant traces of this project.

For Xavier Boissel, the most interesting element of the initial project is the fact that the design came not from the French military command, but from an electrical engineer named Fernand Jacopozzi. Significantly for Xavier Boissel, this same man would later illuminate the Paris of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, including the Eiffel Tower and the city's ‘grands magasins’. “I find it fascinating” he tells me, “that first he conceived the lights of wartime, a fake Paris lost in a pseudo blackout, and then later the illuminations of a festive city.”

Jacopozzi's illuminations on the Samaritaine store, photographed by Leon Gimpel. Thanks to Xavier Boissel for the photo.

The evidence from L'Illustration suggests that the only part of the project that was undertaken was a vague recreation of factories and train stations, which were little more than feeble constructions in wood and plastic. However, the lighting designs for these zones was far more advanced, with thousands of multicoloured lightbulbs mimicking the movement of trains. It is even said that this lighting system was verified from the third story of the Eiffel tower.

With the darkness of war over, Paris quickly transformed itself back into a city of lights, and this time Jacopozzi's projects came to fruition. As Xavier explains, it was a rapid change from 'diversion to entertainment', but in both cases the city itself was obscured, "as paradoxically the over exposure of the twenties helped transform Paris into a shadowy city. That the war served as a testing ground for this simulacrum is quite remarkable."

From the investigation of an unusual military project, the book - confronted by a lack of source material - morphs into musings on the usage of camouflage and trickery in wartime, Paris in light and shadow, the strange peripheral territories of our cities, and whether there is even any such thing as an authentic city of Paris today. And it is all the more interesting for these digressions and diversions.

"Paris est un leurre" is published by Inculte, and is available from all standard suppliers (here for example). Unfortunately, no English translation of this book currently exists.

Discover also the website that was produced to accompany the book, which includes maps of the sites and all photos taken by Didier Vivien.

Read my full interview with Xavier Boissel: in English or in French.

Watch a video interview (subtitled in English) with Xavier Boissel on the ParisLike web magazine.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Sous le Parc, le Supermarché...

Dig beneath the newly created Parc Alsace in Levallois and you'll find not a beach but instead one of the biggest supermarkets in the Paris region.

A newly constructed park is an irrational concept. Its primary initial objective is that it should immediately look mature, but the Parc Alsace was also created with other very specific purposes in mind.

Sitting opposite the new So Ouest shopping centre - and on the extreme limit of Paris (reach through the fence and you can touch the city) - it is in fact a carefully designed extension of this commercial world. In the words of the developers, the park is simply an element of what they call the site's "géographie urbaine".

Urban geography though is a slippery thing. Developers and local authorities speak of the park's role in softening and bringing oxygen to a concrete landscape, but before this park sprung up, Google maps tells us that it was previously a sports stadium. This was surely a very useful facility in a built-up environment, but obviously not something that would be desirable opposite the "centre commercial urbain chic qu'attendait l'Ouest parisien."

In fact the creation of the park was not down to a desire to create a green space, but instead to provide an intelligent and useful surface area to meet the needs of the supermarket that would be built beneath.  

This though is not immediately obvious. From the outside, the only sign that there is something unusual afoot here is the giant gaping mouth that sucks in hulking delivery trucks. Devoid almost entirely of explanatory visual information, there are nevertheless two no entrance signs which only 'authorised' vehicles have permission to ignore.

Pass through the park gates and you'll find a green space that initially looks much like any other. Trees and plants have a satisfying level of maturity, and lawns seem completely bedded in. Despite being open for less than a month, there are even already a number of desire paths. Look more closely though and you will begin to see a number of more unusual features.

Firstly there are the doors. Built into a series of featureless structures across the park, they are completely unmarked and without handles on the outside. The doors are clearly extraneous to the life of the park, and appear rather to be portals from another place.

Peer through locked iron gates and over high walls and you will also spot several wide concrete staircases, all of which are devoid of people and seem to lead nowhere.
Dotted around the park are other oddities. Under-employed exercise machines lay in the shadows of 15-story tower blocks, and a modern/antique So Ouest branded merry-go-round spins alone in a completely child-free zone. There are also the esoterics - a wiry gazebo marking the 'highest point' of a flat park, and a set of bee hives that have been layed out in the form of an analemmatic sundial.  

These all may offer clues, but the answers are to be found underground. Since the 1960s there has been a desire in France to place equipment - car parks, stations, shopping centres - literally out of sight. However, although the equipment can be buried underground, the functional aspects - fire escapes, air outlets, electrical equipment, delivery routes - cannot be completely hidden away, and instead need to be dressed up when they sprout on the surface. Here they have become features in a park.

What we see underground though is not the full story. Although the endless aisles and individual 'worlds' (baker, butchers, wine and spirits..) fit snugly under the contours of the park, the supermarket itself only covers half of the space occupied by the store (there is around 8000m² of produce on display, but the company makes use of more than 15000m²). It is like a set of Russian dolls - a park covering a supermarket covering delivery, storage and staff facilities.

The park may be the acceptable face of this new city of consumption, but by redrawing existing urban geography it at least has the benefit of being positioned where people live, and not - as is so often the case - on functional agricultural land beyond the limits of the city.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Counter-Tourism at Notre Dame

Counter-Tourism is a term coined by writer and performer Phil Smith (aka Crab Man), and is described as a series of "tactics (which) are designed to transform the way you look at places and to get you thinking about the way the industry packages 'heritage'".

Far from being elitist and snobbish (according to Phil, counter-tourism is "definitely not about sneering at tourism"), the philosophy is in fact geared towards "those who want more from a heritage site than a tea shoppe and an old thing in a glass case".

I am a big fan of Phil's playful writing and films, and interviewed him on this blog after the release of his previous book, entitled 'Mythogeography'. Counter-tourism takes many of the ideas developed in that publication, and applies them specifically to the heritage industry.

Phil's theories are outlined in a handbook (described by his publishers as being "the definitive guide to Counter-Tourism, except that Counter-Tourism has a low opinion of definitive guides"). Alongside this guide is a smaller counter-tourism pocketbook, containing suggestions for "50 odd things to do in a heritage site", and there is also an online resource where people can share tactics. 

My first thought when reading his texts is that there is probably less of a need for counter-tourism in France than there is in the UK or the US. Heritage sites in France do not have grafted-on ghosts, or staff members wandering around in 'period' costume, and are generally bereft of cheesy documentation and 'as featured on TV' signs. 

That said, the entire city of Paris has become something of a tourists' theme park, with a series of attractions that people feel obliged to visit. By blindly following guide books and official tours, most tourists will miss the opportunity to get a real feeling for a place for themselves. Counter-tourism tactics can help them get off the beaten track whilst still visiting the city's principal heritage sites.

The tactics need not only be for tourists, and can also offer a way for locals to discover sites they have abandoned to visitors from elsewhere. 

This is certainly the case for me with Notre Dame. Being the 'point zero' of France, it seems that it must be infused with genuine signification. As Joanna (@Baudade) pointed out to me on Twitter though, "Notre Dame might itself be counter-touristic. I've spent so much time nearby but strange force field's prevented me from ever going inside".

It is clearly a must-stop site for tourists today, even though it had previously been reduced to a desecrated glorified storage space after the French revolution and was very nearly demolished. It was saved in part by the fiction of Victor Hugo, who in doing so created new myths for the building. Was Hugo then the first counter-tourist? 

With pocketbook in hand (which I must say would make an excellent stocking filler for anyone who is a reluctant tourist - or even just a tourist!), I set off to visit Notre Dame as a counter-tourist, and to see if I could make some tactics of my own.

Going Underground
The visit to Notre Dame begins on the parvis. By the 1960s this space had become a giant car park, crammed at all hours with tourist buses. In an attempt to clean up the site, the city authorities decided to put everything underground. You will notice that the 'archeological crypt' was placed directly alongside the underground car park, and that they share the same entrance. Instead of visiting the crypt (which is also currently closed for a few weeks), why not instead visit the car park, and imagine the cars as important sarcophagi or relics?

Other tactics outside of the site:
  • Instead of visiting Notre Dame, visit the Hôtel Dieu hospital or the Prefecture de Police instead. Both were built alongside the cathedral during Baron Haussmann's 19th century reconstruction of the city, replacing the original medieval street layout. As they have been given equal space on the Ile de la Cité, they must be just as important.
  • Notre Dame site managers have rather handily just installed a grandstand in front of the cathedral as part of the 850th anniversary celebrations. As the building has clearly become something to watch, why not visit it as if it were a football match or opera performance? 
  • Alongside the cathedral is the 'Notre Dame' café tabac. Visit this establishment as if it were the cathedral. Ask the manager for a guided tour, and talk only in whispers.

Inside Notre Dame
At the beginning of the pocketbook, Phil Smith points out that "there are only two ways you can do these tactics 'badly': hurt yourself or reduce other people's pleasure." Although tactics should transform your experience of a site and subvert the heritage industry, it should also be remembered that Notre Dame is a sacred site for some people, and therefore it's probably best not risk upsetting them or injuring yourself by shinning up the walls. 

Inside the church one thing is immediately apparent. There is a clearly defined and signposted flow. The entrance is on the right-hand side, the exit on the left. The church must therefore be visited in an anti-clockwise direction, ending - of course - at the gift shop. The first tactic when inside Notre Dame is therefore to walk in the other direction, and literally see the building from a different angle to all other visitors.

One of the 50 tactics in the pocketbook encourages you to "visit gift shops as if they were the museums." By visiting Notre Dame in the 'wrong direction', you can first admire cut crystal trinkets and praying dolls before going on to the altar and transepts. Or to confess.

Other suggestions for tactics inside Notre Dame:
  • Play chess on the checkerboard floor tiles. Come dressed as a king or queen - you'll feel at home in this most royalist of French churches.
  • Investigate and photograph the practical equipment and temporary storage spaces around the church. Not only will it bring to mind the revolutionary warehouse it once was, but you'll also soon notice that it is really quite a scruffy place - and very much alive!

Finally - and most important of all - enjoy yourself and have a good time! As Phil concludes, "when Counter-Tourism opens the doors, tourism becomes a funny, subversive and adventurous experience - not a deferential procession through the unrevealing homes and castles of Heritage plc."

Phil Smith's Counter-Tourism - The Handbook and Counter-Tourism - A Pocketbook are both available from Triachy Press
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