Saturday 31 March 2012

Charonne - the last authentic village in Paris

In 1860, the city of Paris extended its boundaries by annexing eleven surrounding communities. Only one of these, Charonne, has truly kept the soul of a village.

Anyone who has visited Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery has already visited the village of Charonne. The best known of the city's graveyards was opened in 1804, technically within the limits of Charonne, but officially to serve the needs of Paris. Beyond this megalopolis of the dead though is the true village cemetery, a pocket-sized burial ground situated - curiously for Paris -behind the Saint Germain de Charonne church.

This church, sitting on a plateau above what was the heart of the village, can date its origins back to at least the 12th century, and its solid Romanesque tower has always provided the village's main focal point. Directly opposite is the ancient village high street, the still cobbled Rue Saint Blaise. The combination of these two elements give this area a quaint, provincial atmosphere, and it is easy to forget that the old boundaries of the Charonne village now form the eastern half of the city's densely populated 20th arrondissement. Walk a few hundred metres further east and you'll find high-rise tower blocks and the city's periphérique motorway.  

For most of its existence, Charonne was a quiet and bucolic place, where rich Parisians had country houses and sent their children to be brought up by nannies. It is perhaps the fact that it has always been a residential place with little or no industry that has helped preserve its charm, with the medieval street layouts still resisting urban planners. However, it is far from being a sleepy place today. It may still have a village feel, but it is that of a village that could be situated equally in France, Algeria or Mali. 

It is this point which really differentiates it from the other ancient communities - such as Montmartre, Vaugirard and Batignolles - that were annexed by Paris at the same time. Although undoubtedly more touristic and superficially more attractive, the soul of these places was long ago sold to gentrification. Charonne is not a village of luxury food stores and antique shops, but rather a place that provides a home to those excluded from the city centre.

Walking along the Rue Saint Blaise you can see that in comparison to the city's other ancient villages, Charonne is a scruffy place. On the Passage des Deux Portes, an alleyway leading off from the Rue Saint Blaise, a recent survey found 35 different species of wild plants growing through the cracks in the pavement - the highest number of any street in the Paris region! This discovery seems completely appropriate in an area which mixes cobblestones and concrete, ancient lowrises and 1970s highrises.

It is though the scruffiness and disorganisation of this district that gives it its authenticity. On suntrap squares you won't find the terraces of chic bars or restaurants, but instead groups of kids playing football. 

These are the city backstreets, where narrow winding roads and alleyways are barriers to motor traffic. It is the kingdom of the pedestrian, with the kind of small community aspect that would be impossible along the broad Avenues and Boulevards of the rest of Paris. Charonne has no particular sites to see, but many surprises, such as the old Petite Ceinture railway line which appears overhead near the busy Rue des Pyrenées. Still technically operational today - and therefore forbidden to visitors - it offers an urban wilderness for the adventurous.

The Rue des Haies on the opposite side of the Rue des Pyrenées is the microcosm of today's village. The name itself was taken from the bushes that were situated on either side of the road in a more rural past, and although it has kept its crooked and winding form, it now mixes bright modern developments amongst its more ancient and crumbling housing stock. It is a street buzzing with movement, where people seem to live outside. On one corner, children on scooters whizz past elderly North African men sipping glasses of coffee outside a small bar. Further along, groups of young girls laugh and shout to each other across the street.

It is a timeless scene, and one typical of this unashamedly working class district. This is election time in France, and the walls are decorated with posters of the candidates. There are though no posters in support of Nicolas Sarkozy, but perhaps more importantly in this multi-cultural quarter, not a single poster for Marine Le Pen and the Front National either.

It is an area that supports the left-wing radicals, and it is no surprise to find a smart new library on the Rue des Haies named after the revolutionary Louise Michel. Typically, this impressive new facility is situated alongside a brick building housing a still operational - and judging by the numbers of people coming in and out - still clearly needed public baths. 

The Place de la Réunion
If there is a village square today it is most certainly the Place de la Réunion. It has been recently smartened up, and now provides miniature gardens with wild grasses and even a small stream. Picnic tables have been installed, offering views across what remains a roundabout bordered by concrete, but it has definitely been adopted by the local population. Small children run around, between men playing chess and old couples discussing how the district has - and hasn't - changed over the years.

The centre of the Place is also home to a market twice a week (on Thursdays and Saturdays), and this is the ideal time to visit. As you walk around the stalls under the recently planted Ginkgo and Stone Pine trees, you can easily question what continent you are in.

From the Place de la Réunion, take the Rue Alexandre Dumas for a final surprise - perhaps the city's best preserved art deco monument, the Saint Jean Bosco church. Although built 60 years after Charonne was absorbed into Paris, it was still designed with the local community in mind. The proof of it success? It's distinctive spire is known as the phare du quartier - the neighbourhood lighthouse!

Where to sleep

The Philippe Starck designed Mama Shelter hotel is mostly used by visitors to Paris as an economical base for exploring the traditional city sites, but as this converted car park is in fact situated in the heart of the old village, why not use it to explore Charonne itself?

Where to drink
There are any number of scruffy bars in Charonne, but the two that stand out are La Fleche d'Or and the Piston Pelican. La Fleche d'Or is situated in the old Charonne train station on the now unused Petite Ceinture line. It has undergone numerous refits over the years, but it is currently operating mostly as a concert venue for up and coming bands. Tickets are cheap, drinks slightly less so. The Piston Pelican, further down the Rue de Bagnolet near the Alexandre Dumas Metro station, has more of a pub atmosphere and frequent live bands.

Where to eat
The Mama Shelter hotel offers reasonable food, but it would be a shame not to venture out into the village. La Magnolia, on of several restaurants on the Rue Saint Blaise, sits in sight of a high-rise tower and - strangely enough - under the shade of a large Magnolia tree. On warm evenings the terrace provides an off-beat charm that feels a million miles away from the centre of Paris.

Monday 26 March 2012

Going to the Dogs: the Stade Municipal de Courbevoie

In two months time, the impressive municipal stadium at Courbevoie will be completely demolished. Requiem for a building that no-one seems to care about.

In the shadow of the La Defense towers, mechanical machines are busy transforming to dust and ashes a building that has been a feature of the Courbevoie landscape since the 1930s. I have never felt that it is my role on this blog to capture history before it disappears, nor am I someone who thinks that all destruction is a bad thing, but sometimes it seems important to ensure that there is at least one mourner at the funeral.

It will be a shame to see this impressive facade go, but the rest of the facilities have clearly been in a poor state for a long time. Replacing it will be the ultra-modern Cité des loisirs, an architecture which is perhaps more suited to a town that is now intrinsically linked to La Defense business district. And why fight to preserve this now off-white elephant when what will go up in its place will surely be of more use to the community today?

Before it is bulldozed away though, let us pay respect to a place that was once a highly fashionable society venue - during the golden age of dog racing!

The stadium was originally designed as a cynodrome, which - as well as being possibly my favourite French word - also brings to mind something much more refined than a 'dog track'. If press sketches from the time are to be believed, going to the dogs was also once the height of fashion in Paris. These pictures from the 1930s, shortly after the opening of the facility, show a thoroughly modern and comfortable environment with lounge chairs and carpets. Women and men in smart dress sip cocktails, before dining and taking in an evening of racing.

Whether these sketches were accurate or not is unclear (and interestingly there seem to be few photos of this period), but what is known is that the races were very popular. The stadium even had its own access point by rail, a basic station known as the 'Halte de Courbevoie-Sport' which transferred thousands of people to and from Paris on race nights.   

The Halte de Courbevoie-Sport has not been used since 1951, but the platforms still exist behind this walled up access point.
The golden age lasted for barely 15 years, either side of the Second World War. The cynodrome opened in 1936, branding itself as the 'most modern and most beautiful track in the world', with races organised on up to five evenings a week. Although the racing attracted members of the high-society, it was actually probably more popular with those struggling in the difficult years of the pre-war period, for whom it offered cheap entertainment and the chance for uncontrolled gambling.

As is the case with dog tracks the world over, it also attracted some interesting characters. Andre Obrecht, the last executioner in France, worked as a bookmaker at this track during a wartime pause in his activities, before then going on to launch an ice-cream company. As war ended, he quickly returned to his previous job, becoming the country's chief executioner!  

The cynodrome closed in 1951 after accumulating large debts, but it continued as a venue for other sporting events. The interiors were used as meeting rooms for local associations, but they never again attracted the fashionable to Courbevoie. More modern sporting facilities have now been built on the opposite side, and the venue continues as a home to rugby and athletics.

Note: although the Olympic rings are visible on the facade and can also be seen on gates to the rear of the facility, the stadium never hosted any Olympic events. The choice of this element in the design seems to come from the fact that the town of Courbevoie hosted the rowing event at the 1900 Olympics on a stretch of the Seine a few hundred metres from this venue.

Note 2: the local authorities originally planned to keep the art deco inspired facade, partly because they believed it was a listed building. However, after finding out that this wasn't the case, and after estimating the costs this preservation would entail, they eventually decided on complete demolition. In an interview with the Le Parisien newspaper though, the builder, GTM (Vinci group) promised to "récupérer des éléments du fronton, notamment les anneaux olympiques" (keep some of the elements of the facade, notably the Olympic rings). Where these will actually end up though is anyone's guess.

Monday 19 March 2012

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

Between numbers 1 and 3 of the Rue Chapon in the 3rd arrondissement stands a door numbered 1 Bis. It looks much like any other door in the street, but there is one major difference - behind this door there is only a wall.

The door and associated decoration is in fact a creation by artists Julien Berthier and Simon Boudvin called Les spécialistes, and was originally placed on this wall early one Saturday morning in 2006. As no permission was asked for and none granted, the artists were surprised not only that it was still in place three years later, but also that the city authorities regularly kept it clean.  

The artists gave the address a professional plaque using their own initials. The door even had its own buzzer, but this no longer seems to be working.
Three more years have passed and it is still firmly fixed to the wall. It looks solid and reasonably clean, and appears perfectly at home here. The artists had chosen their spot carefully and designed the door and wall following typical architectural styles of the area, but it is nevertheless a surprise to find an unauthorised creation that has lasted for so long in a world of fussy officialdom. 

The door faces out towards the Rue du Temple, a historic passage into the city which is dominated today by Chinese wholesalers. People have learned to pay little attention to their surroundings in this district, but who would ask questions anyway about such a non-descript door and a plaque that seems to advertise yet another anonymous company?

The address may not be listed in any directory, or marked on a map, but it is an address that has found a place in the city today. The artists intended it to be a temporary installation, a representation of all the banal - yet potentially mysterious - doors and gateways that exist in our cities, but through its very inconspicuousness it has developed a strange life of its own.  

Thursday 15 March 2012

The Strange Journey of Victor Noir

In the 92nd division of the Père Lachaise cemetery lies the tomb of Victor Noir, one of its most well-known curiosities. The bronze sculpture, laying flat in position of death, fascinates and amuses visitors, some of whom even believe it has certain special powers (more of which later). Victor Noir though did not arrive here until 20 years after his death. Why did this very ordinary man become such a cause célèbre, and what happened between the moment of his death and his arrival at Père Lachaise?

Victor Noir, either seated
or very short
Victor Noir, the nom de plume of Yvan Salmon, was born in 1848 in the Vosges region of France. He trained first as a watchmaker then a florist, but after his brother Louis found success in Paris he decided to follow him to the capital. He became a journalist, and worked on several papers including a new title, ‘La Marseillaise’. It was whilst on a mission for this paper that tragedy would strike.

Both Henri Rochefort, the newspaper's owner, and Pascal Grousset, its editor, had entered into conflict with Prince Pierre Bonaparte, the nephew of the Emporer Napoleon III. Grousset was so incensed by the altercation that he sent two of his employees, Noir and Ulric de Fonvielle, to the home of Bonaparte to deliver a challenge to a duel. Bonaparte, himself something of a wild and hot-headed man, took umbrage to this challenge, and in the scuffle that broke out, shot and killed Victor Noir.

It was as his life ended that the cult of Victor Noir began. The reign of Emporer Napoleon III, who interestingly had been elected as the country’s first President in the year of Noir’s birth, was already in danger of collapse, but the murder of a journalist by a member of his family was exactly the kind of event his opponents were looking to exploit. News of Victor Noir’s death travelled fast, and on the day of the funeral, perhaps as many as 200,000 people had gathered around Noir’s home in Neuilly.

The plan had been to bury Noir in the small local cemetery, but the people demanded that he be taken on a triumphant procession through Paris and laid to rest at the city's Père Lachaise cemetery. Just as the scene threatened to get out of control, Victor Noir's brother Louis appeared and pleaded with the crowd, telling them that it was the wish of the family to bury him in Neuilly. The crowd eventually parted and let the coffin be taken to the cemetery for burial.

The Neuilly cemetery on the day of the funeral, and (quite possibly) the same scene today.
The Prince Pierre Bonaparte was arrested and imprisoned in the Concièrgerie - with the assent of his exasperated uncle - but was later freed after the court decided that he had been provoked and had accidently killed Noir during the scuffle. Although Victor Noir's death had lead to protests and demonstrations across the city, as well as a whole series of articles in the press attacking Napoleon III's regime, the empire survived - until later on that year when the Prussians invaded France.

Many of those who had been involved in the protests following the death of Victor Noir, including Louise Michel and Jules Dalou, took part in the 1871 Commune in Paris, and were forced into exile after it was violently put down. Revolutionary activities, to which the name of Victor Noir was now indelibly linked, were no longer in evidence, and the young journalist was able to lay undisturbed in Neuilly for the next twenty years as the Third Republic entered a period of relative tranquility.

Victor Noir may have been removed from the cemetery in Neuilly, but he lives on in the name of the street that surrounds it.
As the exiles slowly returned to Paris, the name of Victor Noir began to circulate again. Was it not now time to give him the monument he deserved? A public subscription was launched to raise the necessary funds, and one of those present at his funeral, Jules Dalou, was given the job of creating the sculpture in bronze. He chose a realistic model of his moment of death (taken from press sketches made at the time), his hat dropped at his feet. The remains of Victor Noir were then transferred to Père Lachaise in 1891, and his tomb became a shrine to revolutionaries - and much later, to another kind of public.

When Victor Noir was moved from Neuilly, not all of him made it to Père Lachaise. As the remains were being removed from his original resting place, his brother Louis asked to be left alone for a moment alongside the coffin. A witness declared later that he'd stumbled across the scene and found Louis removing his brother's skull. He said nothing to anyone else at the time, and Louis apparently kept the skull in a glass case in his home, talking to it regularly! After Louis died, the skull was eventually taken to his tomb in Père Lachaise where it joined the rest of his body.    

Looking at the sculpture today, we see a rather heroic, romantic figure, handsome and svelte, but in reality, Victor Noir had been an unexceptional young man. He was a rather overweight and plodding character who had been due to marry his 16 year old fiancée when he died. He had not been a revolutionary in action or through his writing, but just an individual who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and confronted by the wrong person in the wrong mood. 

It is the image of a man who became a revolutionary symbol despite himself. What is even more unlikely though is his current status - as a fertility symbol. He was someone who was quite possibly still a virgin when he died, but this reputation comes from two elements. For some reason, Dalou chose to emphasise a certain part of his anatomy, but nobody seemed to notice this until the 1970s, when certain tour guides at the cemetery invented the fertility myth.

Since that moment, women looking to fall pregnant visit the tomb and rub themselves against the sculpture, and some parts are very clearly 'polished' (nose, mouth and chin, the tips of his boots - and of course his genitals!). He also regularly receives flowers, as can be seen in the photo at the top of the page, as well as messages in his hat.  

His death may not have lead to the downfall of an empire, but who can say that it has not indirectly lead to the birth of a few babies in the city?

Monday 12 March 2012

Not fade away...

It is said that nature abhors a vacuum, but one could also say that cities abhor a blank wall. Rather than leave walls for what they are, such spaces are often filled with a vast trompe l'oeil which transforms them instead into something they seem to be. I am not a fan of these creations, which impressive though they may be tend to veer towards the twee, but I have discovered that they can give interesting results when over time they are absorbed into the fabric of the building.

In the 16th arrondissement, near the Marché de Passy, what must once have been an attempt to recreate the facade of a typical Haussmannian building has instead become something that looks like a Roman ruin. What was supposed to be a vision of life in a quiet square has instead become a representation of death. As the picture has faded, crumbled and cracked, it has come to look like a scene uncovered at an archeological dig, and is today surely far more atmospheric than when the paint was fresh.
Sitting alongside the decaying buildings of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, this rotting creation seems completely at home. Added originally to bring a little colour to the Rue Buffon, it has instead taken on the predominating shades of rust and grime in the vicinity, making it look as old as the buildings themselves.

Inside the museum we can see the skeletons of long-dead creatures, but this picture too now looks like the fossil of some primitive life form. It is as if someone has sliced through the building and revealed traces of an ancient petrified forest.

Soon somebody will probably decide that these creations need to be cleaned up, to bring a more vibrant and colourful aspect to the respective quarters. This rebirth though would in fact be a death, as it would remove the organic attachment they have developed to the building on which they have been grafted.

Looking at this accidental art, I can't help wondering if it would be possible - in a similar manner to the current mode for vertical gardens - for architects to commission works of art that would develop and age with a building. It would certainly be more interesting than relying on the artifice of the trompe l'oeil.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

The Rue de Lota: the house where Mitt lived


As Invisible Bordeaux has already told us, Presidential candidate Mitt Romney remembers his 30-month stint in France as a Mormon missionary in the 1960s as being marked by buckets for toilets and hoses for showers. For the period spent in Paris though, in a neo-classical house in the wealthy 16th arrondissement, it is unlikely that there was such hardship.

His final months in France were spent with the country's Mission President at 3 Rue de Lota, in a home that fellow mission volunteers described as being a palace with servants. Today the opulence of the property is still evident (despite the fact that it is currently unused), but coming after a tour of some smaller cities in the west of France, where he lived in more rudimentery accommodation, it is surprising that the house did not make more of a lasting impression in Mitt Romney's memories of his mission abroad. 

As Romney has not spoken of his time at this house, it is not clear what he knew about the property. Did he know for example that it had a link to the United States? 

The house was built at the very end of the 19th century for Douglas Fitch, the heir of a wealthy American shipping family that had emigrated to France and settled near Marseille. Fitch had recently inherited the family chateau (the Chateau de Pradines) on the death of his father, and although although he didn't sell that property, he did almost immediately marry a comtesse named Marie-Thérèse Gouttenoire de Toury, and set about moving to Paris. 

The scale and decoration of the property they built show that they clearly had vast sums of money to spend (a further sign of the wealth of the Fitch family is the fact that the young Douglas had even had his portrait painted by Renoir). As a pied de terre in Paris, it is certainly impressive, with its largely classical forms supplemented by several more modern touches.

For the mormons who made it their home 50 years later, several features particularly stood out. There was the magnificent cast iron staircase and the vast rooms, but above all, there was the huge stained glass window on the facade. This window provided titilation for some of these rather repressed young men, who remember it featuring a lady with bare breasts. The creation features four women representing the four seasons, but seen from the outside, it seems that summer is only in fact revealing barely a single breast. This was probably excitement enough though for the group of mormons living beneath it!

Douglas Fitch lived until 1951, but it is not clear whether he lived in this house until that date. His Renoir portrait is listed as being housed in the Chateau de Pradines until the year of his death, so it is likely that the various properties owned by Fitch were sold at this point. The mormon community purchased the Paris property in 1952, and retained ownership until the 1970s, when it became the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. Were they too attracted by the nubile young ladies in the window?

Top: an addition to the facade when it became an embassy. The golden leaves frame three letters; EAU, the Émirats arabes unis. Bottom: the embassy has now moved to a new address, and the building is awaiting a new occupant.
The house had made a lasting mark on many of the mormons who spent some time there, but what Romney made of it - as well as the time he spent in Paris - remains a mystery. He arrived just as the 'mai 68' movement was winding down, possibly just after his release from hospital in Bordeaux, but the city would still have been simmering as summer arrived. Walking the city's streets dressed smartly in shirt, tie and name tag (the default mormon missionary uniform), he must have made a curious contrast to the protesting students.

Mormons on mission cannot smoke, drink or date, which must make Paris a cruel place of constant temptation. Trying to recruit new members to the mormon church in France is surely a thankless task at the best of times, but as the city revolted, proclaiming amongst other things that 'Dieu est mort', it must have been a hopeless period for Mitt Romney. 

What we do know is that the war in Vietnam was often a bone of contention between Romney and the French students. Romney would defend his country's position, seemingly not seeing the irony in the fact that his time in France was what was keeping him out of the military draft.

As Paris veered back towards normality, Romney passed his final months in the country living very much out of the way in what remains a quiet district of diplomats and embassies. The passage through Paris for many young Americans leaves a lasting impression for the rest of their lives, but, Romney, without the opportunity to indulge in women, cigarettes and alcohol, was seemingly glad to go back to the United States. 

Read about the first part of Romney's stay in France on the Invisible Bordeaux blog.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Murmurs of menace

Outside any consideration of the artistic merits of street art, what it does always give you is the pulse of a city. Faces may be closed and tongues tied, but the creations on the walls will always tell you the sentiments of its inhabitants.

Reading the walls of Paris today, you can't help feeling a vague sense of menace. It does not look or feel like a city held in the clenches of a financial crisis, but this is election year, and these are strange times in the city.

Near the Place du Colonel Fabien, where the French Communist party has its headquarters, the mysterious Zoo Project has temporarily moved away from his beasts and painted human forms. The slogan alongside these cyborgs brings a touch of nonsense to the scene - it's not always man exploiting man. Sometimes it's the opposite - but the message here is clear enough. No-one is innocent, everyone is to blame.

Beneath, a parasite has leeched onto the creation. One of the candidates at this year's presidential elections, from the far-left Lutte Ouvrière party, has attached a message of her own - workers should not pay for capitalism's crisis. Near to the Place de la République, another creation - or is it just a paint bomb - sends deep red fingers down towards a poster from the Front de Gauche urging voters to 'prendre le pouvoir' (seize power). The two seem to go perfectly together, but which came first? Are politicians now deliberately using street art to help get messages across?

Elsewhere, the messages are less political, but no less threatening. At the back of a small garden is a life-size cutout of a young girl. Deliberately or otherwise, this girl stands alongside the now closed Hopital Saint Lazare, an establishment that at various times in its history was a women's prison and the rounding up centre of the city's prostitutes. Probably the work of duo Leo & Pipo, she stands silent as a ghost, fixing and following with her eyes those who pass her by. 

Far noisier is the latest creation by Mère Moustache. A hommage to one of the most famous moustaches in recent history, that of Salvador Dali, it also brings the macabre to the city walls. The skeletal figure has dropped a bouquet of roses to the ground, but as they fall the petals are transformed, slowly forming a pool of blood at street level.

The ghoulish crown prince of surrealism seems to be smiling, so we can hope this is all just a joke. Menace may be in the air, but the majority of Parisians still see a future made of red roses rather than blood.
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