Tuesday 28 February 2012

Natural beauty at the Square Marie Trintignant

There are three things that surprise at the Square Marie Trintignant; it is open 24 hours a day, there are more things you can't do than you can do, and it is (almost) an entirely natural environment.

It is of course its uncultivated aspect that is its key attraction today. As a square it is barely larger than a picnic blanket, but with its handful of low-hanging trees and carpet of greenery, it offers a tiny pocket of calm in the city. 
No dog walking, no football, no picking flowers and no...swigging from bottles of wine?
The Square, previously known as the Ave Maria, was renovated, re-themed and renamed in 2007. The change of name to that of French actress Marie Trintignant was not without controversy as it did not respect the so called '5 year rule' which states that public places in the city cannot be given the name of a personality until at least five years after their death (Marie Trintignant died - or rather was killed - in 2003).

Such nit-picking though seems thoroughly misplaced in this case. The square is an almost forgotten corner of the Marais, and was previously just a concrete non-space. It now has an identity which, through its simple and untamed beauty, provides - deliberately or otherwise - a fitting reminder of Marie Trintignant herself.   

Square Marie Trintignant, Rue de l'Ave Maria, 75004

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Urban exploration in Pantin

Pantin, a small town on the Paris city limits twinned somewhat improbably with Moscow, is an ideal site for an urban promenade, thanks mostly to the canal that runs through it and a spectacular industrial ruin.

On Sunday afternoons, the Canal de l’Ourcq buzzes with movement. It is not the water itself - dense and sluggish and with little visible traffic - but the quays on either side that are alive with joggers and cyclists, as well as flâneurs such as myself who are on the lookout for cracks and dents in the smooth Paris cityscape.

The Metro takes you to its heart (Eglise de Pantin, line 5), but you can also follow the canal all the way from the centre of Paris, passing by the recently renovated Grands Moulins de Pantin which now provides a home to French bank BNP-Paribas. By the canal, joggers and cyclists are sent on winding tracks around decaying warehouses and alongside scruffy building sites, and even occasionally over the tops of barriers that have been laid mysteriously in their path.

Most people seem to gather at one particular point, alongside a concrete carcass which is covered from top to bottom in tags and graffiti. It is not though an easy building to approach. At the rear are locked gates and savage dogs, thankfully tightly chained to heavy rocks. From the Paris side, you need first to scramble over a stone blockade. The building itself is busy as an ants nest, with small groups of hooded figures looking carefully for a piece of virgin wall, or a more dated creation that they can safely paint over.

This building is just one of several dotted on waterways around Paris that were known as the magasins généraux, but it is easily the most impressive of these structures. It was built between 1929 and 1931, and offered a surface of 25,000m² over six levels. It was used primarily for the storage of grain and flour, and continued to be used up to the end of the 20th century.

Looked at more closely, it is clear that there was some architectural genius at work here, even if the name of the person or persons responsible has been lost in time. Resolutely modernist in form, it also offers a few art deco flourishes, mainly in the curved balconies that surround the building. With its prime waterfront position, it is easy to see the building's potential and it is not a surprise to learn that redevelopment is planned for 2014.

The building soon after construction...
...the building today...
...and how it might look in the near future.
The promised development is a standard mixed-use scheme, featuring at its heart a rather unlikely hotel (and a frankly surreal gondola in the artist's impression). It is a completely artificial attempt to transform what remains a working class district into a leisure zone, and one that conversely will make it less attractive to visitors.

In many ways the whole idea of renovation seems misplaced here. It is its grit that gives it its charm, and it already serves a purpose as a kind of urban adventure park where people can experience an inner-city edginess without any of the associated potential dangers. The building itself has become a permanent and ever-changing canvas for street artists, and its guts a playground for the explorers of city ruins.

Could it not instead become a focal point for a new kind of urbex tourism? It is perhaps an idea that is already being put into place. This Friday evening, the local tourist board are organising a walk from this point back along the canal into Paris in the company of graffiti artist dAcRuZ.

Thanks to Tara who suggested a visit to this place, and who asked me to provide more information. I hope I have answered your question Tara!

Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Rue de l’Agent Bailly: rare recognition of ordinary heroism

London has its Postman’s Park, where individual acts of (tragic) heroism are remembered, but you have to look hard to find anything similar in Paris.

In the 9th arrondissement though there is one such place – the Rue de l’Agent Bailly, a street named after a member of the city’s nascent river police who, in 1901, died trying to save a woman from drowning in the Seine.

The agent Charles Bailly
Charles Gaston Bailly was born in Poitiers in 1871. He initially came to Paris in 1898 to take up employment as a Gardien de la Paix in the 1st arrondissement of the city. Searching something a little more adventurous, he was quick to join the new ‘brigade fluviale’ (river brigade) which was created especially for the 1900 Exposition Universelle being held in the city.

It was on November 2nd 1901 that tragedy struck. That morning, Bailly and another member of the brigade named Marmas were alerted by the cries of a group of people alongside the river. A woman had jumped in near the Pont Marie, and was being swept along by the current. Bailly immediately jumped in after her and swam to her assistance. Just as he reached her, the current dragged both of them under a group of barges that were moored alongside the quai. Marmas, who leaped in the river in an attempt to save both of them, was quickly fished out and survived, but Bailly and the woman were trapped and died.

Little was ever known about the woman. She had the name Émilie stitched on her blouse, and it is believed that she was a 38 year old concierge named Émilie Vallée. The name of Charles Bailly though soon became famous throughout the city. The newspaper Le Matin published full details of the story in its edition of the following day, and all of Paris was touched by Bailly’s heroism.

The Rue de l'Agent Bailly
His funeral was held on November 4th, and paid for by the city of Paris. The procession through the streets of the city wound its way from the Prefecture de Police via Notre Dame to the Montparnasse cemetery, where Bailly was buried with the city's other 'victimes de devoir'.

Bailly's story didn't end there though. His act of tragic heroism continued to be featured in the press, generating a movement towards the creation of some kind of lasting memorial. The city authorities eventually decided to give his name to a street, renaming the Passage Rodier the Rue de l'Agent Bailly in 1904 - perhaps the only time that such an honour has been granted.

The brigade fluviale - which was still a temporary organisation with an uncertain future before Bailly's death - was immediately given an official and permenant role in the city (a role it still has today, incorporating around 100 officers). It should be noted that at least two other successful rescues previously took place in the river in 1901, but it is seemingly only tragedy which leads to change. 

The Rue de l'Agent Bailly has obviously never been one of the city's major arteries, but it still retains a certain charm today. Originally an impasse, it became a full passage in 1899, but still seems to be more of a backstreet than anything else.

Curiously it is exactly 100m long, and as narrow as a footpath. Cars don't seem to use the street, and its blank walls have become something of an open-air gallery. Another curiousity is a self-service bookstand that someone has set up half-way along its length. Empty when I passed by, people are encouraged to share books by putting their used ones on its shelves and picking up anything else that takes their fancy.  

The scruffy walls seemingly have many stories to tell, although the messages are mostly muddled and peeling away (and there is even one - at dog height - which seems to address them directly). Each person tries to leave behind a trace of their existence, but it is only the legend of one brave - but tragic - police officer that will live on in this street.


Thursday 9 February 2012

Move along, nothing to see here…

All cities have their secrets, and Paris is no exception. It has its secret places too, but these are not deep underground or hidden behind high walls. The best way to hide a building in a city it seems is to make it as banal as possible.

A police presence needs to be visible in a city, but what about the back end of the operation? Where do they stock equipment, make repairs, test new products and programme support software? The answer in Paris is at the Direction Opérationnelle des Services Techniques et Logistiques, and an obscure building in the 13th arrondissement.

Bizarrely, this building manages to be at once completely anonymous and clearly visible. Anonymous due to its lack of any coherent architectural style or decorative feature, but visible thanks to the tall aerials and masts perched high up on the building’s roof.

What occurs inside exactly is not entirely clear. Indeed, it's not entirely clear exactly how you get inside! The official address is 4 Rue Jules Breton, but there does not even seem to be a door at this address (apart from a rather large garage door). Walking around the perimeter of the building (either on foot, or virtually via Google maps) makes the access problem no clearer (although via Google you do get a sneaky view into a garage where several marked and unmarked police cars are parked). This is a structure closed to outsiders, with no mention of its purpose, and only a pair of French flags and a couple of security cameras show you that this is an official building.

So what does happen inside? A recruitment site gives a vague idea. This is a place where the police get their uniform and guns, where vehicles and communication tools are tested and repaired, but also a place where heavy machinery (helicopters, boats) can be supplied. Clearly it has a role to play in surveillance too, possibly from the rooftop rooms which must also offer fantastic views across the city. 

The insides of this building are destined to remain a mystery, but perhaps its better that way. We can imagine an Ali Baba's cave of technology, staffed by slightly eccentric Q clones, but the reality is probably a lot more ordinary. The outsides - cracked and grimy concrete - already seem to tell us that there is nothing to see here.

Friday 3 February 2012

An 'Avertisseur de Police' - a forgotten relic?

This rather strange looking object, on the very limits of the city, is an ‘avertisseur de Police’. Before telephones were widely installed across Paris, these machines allowed witnesses to crimes or accidents to contact the nearest police station.

This news report published in the newspaper Le Soir in 1939 explains how they were used;
« D'un coup de coude énergique, M. Moreau, balayeur municipal, fit sauter la glace de l'avertisseur de police ; Allo, Police-Secours ?... Un cadavre dans un sac ! Ici devant le 88, boulevard de La Chapelle ! » (With a vigourous swing of his elbow, Mr Moreau, a city street cleaner, broke the glass on the police call box: ‘Hello Police? A body in a bag ! Here in front of 88 Boulevard de La Chapelle’)

Looking at the object, situated here on the Carrefour Bineau, just at the entrance to Neuilly sur Seine, it would seem that you broke the glass (long since gone here of course), pressed the button and communicated via the grills beneath and on the ides.

Why this particular avertisseur is still standing here is not clear, but strangley enough it is situated opposite another relic from the past - an Octroi tax building I previously mentioned on this blog. My guess therefore would be that it was left behind when city limits shifted, and that nobody since has wanted to take responsibility for its removal.

Now it remains as a picturesque reminder of a non-connected past which those under 25 will probably struggle to even imagine!

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