Monday 30 April 2012

Guillaume Gillet - a centenary in concrete

French architect Guillaume Gillet would have been 100 this year, and to celebrate this anniversary an exhibition has been organised in Royan, home of his one true masterpiece, the Notre Dame church. A recent visit to the town gave me the opportunity to learn more about the designer of the Palais de Congrès in Paris (a construction I find both dreadful and fascinating), and discover how a key part of Paris almost looked very different today.

In the introduction to the exhibition, the word 'controversial' is used to describe the creations of Guillaume Gillet. Although he himself declared in 1965 that "nous vivons un âge d'or de l'architecture", public opinion today generally does not share this viewpoint. Nevertheless, his whole career was spent working in a post-war period known as 'les trentes glorieuses' in France, when large areas of the country needed to be quickly rebuilt and funds were abundant. It was an age when anything seemed possible, and architects were given vastly more freedom to imagine constructions than they have today.   

Indeed, freedom seems to be something of a leitmotif throughout Gillet's career. After studying under Auguste Perret (see previous post), Gillet found himself a prisoner of war before his career had even begun. He spent nearly five years as a prisoner in Germany, but he was far from inactive. After befriending several other prisoners with a similar background to his own (and who he would later work with throughout his career), he designed and decorated a small chapel within the prison camp.

Perhaps eternally marked by this experience, Gillet spent most of his career designing both churches and prisons. It was one of his first constructions though that would prove to be his chef d'oeuvre, the Notre Dame de Royan church. Gillet himself became so associated with the building that he requested his ashes to be placed here after his death - a request that was finally accepted in 1996, 9 years after his death.

During the Second World War, the town - an important port on the Atlantic coast - was occupied by the German army, and by the end of the conflict over 85% of the town's buildings had been destroyed. Rather than just disappear from the map, the town authorities decided to give the town a completely new identity, centred around a prominent new structure, the Notre Dame church. 

Built entirely in concrete, it is a spectacular construction, albeit one already in need of renovation. Although a material derided by many, the church truly shows the capacities of concrete to produce the monumental. V-shaped columns shoot skywards around the structure, supporting a roof which is only 8cm thick. Spiral staircases and sweeping balconies complete a building which impresses through it's somewhat austere simplicity.  

The high salt content in the sea sand used to make the concrete is slowly corroding the metal reinforcements. Coupled with the aggressive coastal conditions, the church is suffering, particularly on rainy days. On the day I visited, large dustbins had been placed all around the church to catch the numerous leaks.

As with many architects, the career of Guillaume Gillet was marked not so much by what he built but also by the projects that never made it off the drawing board. Two of the most significant of these were planned for riverside spots in Paris. The first was a proposition for a permanent Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace alongside the Seine at the very edge of the city. Based very much on his Pavillon de la France which was built for the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels, it would have made an impressive addition to the Paris skyline in a position where finally nothing has ever been built.

Sketches for a proposed Musée de l'Air et de l'Espace, © Fonds Guillaume Gillet
Gillet's other principal project was one that came much closer to being built, and one which would have been far more controversial. For over 15 years, Gillet - with associate René Coulon - worked on propositions for buildings to replace the underused Gare d'Orsay on the city's left-bank (later of course to become the world-renowned Musée d'Orsay). Having become little more than an unneccesary additional stop for suburban trains, the station was long scheduled for demolition, and the two architects produced a series of propositions.

An initial rather banal plan for a headquarters building for the Air France company was not developed, but a design for a luxury hotel and conference centre did later win a competition (ahead of an even more radical project from Le Corbusier among others). However both changing tastes and a financial crisis put paid to the project before work could begin. The station was eventually given protected status, and a decision was made to preserve it and transform it into a museum. 

A proposed HQ building for Air France dating from 1957 (top) and the much more daring (and accepted) proposition for an international hotel from 1961. © Fonds Guillaume Gillet  

Gillet's proposed building is not a bad one (and certainly more interesting than the hotel and conference centre he did later build at Porte Maillot), but it would have radically changed the left-bank skyline. However, the Eiffel tower had of course also done something similar a century earlier.

It will remain though an architecture of the invisible, a ghost structure that will now haunt me when I pass by the Musée d'Orsay. To remember Gillet though, it is far better to return to Notre Dame de Royan, as he himself was to do.

Guillaume Gillet, architecte des trentes glorieuses
Until 21st June 2012
Musée de Royan
31 avenue de Paris

Thursday 19 April 2012

Inside the Palais d'Iéna

A temporary installation by an artist friend at the Palais d'Iéna gave me the opportunity to explore the often difficult to access interior of Auguste Perret's masterpiece.

As part of the current 'Ca et Là' (This and There) exhibition running at a variety of sites across Paris, Italian artist Davide Bertocchi has installed a pièce entitled "Apologie de l’aléatoire (Pendolo)" on the monumental staircase inside the Palais d'Iéna. The sculpture is a play on Foucault's pendulum - by being resolutely anchored to the ground, and moving at the same time as the rest of the world! 

The choice of this spot in the Palais d'Iéna was essential for Davide, as the staircase - which sweeps in two separate directions - provides an interesting dynamic for the piece. It is us who move around the sculpture whilst it remains solidly and regally positioned in the centre. 

Despite being a close neighbour to the Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris and the Palais de Tokyo, the Palais d'Iéna has no links to the art world, and Davide told me that the building managers were initially hesitant about accepting his creation. However, now that it is in place, he informs me that they are delighted with it!
Built at the end of the 1930s, at roughly the same time as it's more well-known neighbours (the Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris and the Palais de Tokyo - which make up two wings of the same building - as well as the Palais de Chaillot (Trocadero)), it was originally designed as a museum.  

Perret - who has often been mentioned before on this blog (here, and here, and here) both designed and built the structure (with his Frères Perret company, the city's foremost concrete specialists), and it is often considered to be his greatest achievement. However, the building has never really had the occupiers it deserves, and has therefore always remained off the city radar.

Quite a well-known structure is also close by.

The concrete here gives an almost organic feel to the interior

The first occupier was the Musée National des Travaux Publics, which had the misfortune to open just as war broke out, and was also possibly the dullest museum in Paris. Displaying little more than scale models of bridges, dams and mines, it attracted fewer than 30,000 visitors a year and was closed in 1955.

Today it is used by the Conseil économique et social, a rather obscure assembly which advises French lawmaking bodies on questions of social and economic policies. Given its role, it has remained closed off to the general public for much of its existence, but recently there has been a move to more openness - which is reflected in their acceptance of a temporary art installation.

The interiors have kept a certain vintage feel

The hémicycle under a magnificent glass rotunda

Traces of a previous existence.

You can see Davide Bertocchi's installation in the Palais d'Iéna until May 21st, weekdays from 9am - 5pm. To enter the building you will need to present an identity card or passport, but once past security, you have free access to much of the building. Photography is accepted if it is not for commercial purposes.

The Palais d'Iéna
Place d'Iéna, 75016
M° Iena

Friday 13 April 2012

The Archeology of Street Art

For the last two years, the view from my window has been of an extra-large gorilla painted by urban artist Zoo Project. Since the beginning of the year, the beast has slowly started to disappear behind fresh concrete walls.

The gorilla was the most visible element of a miniature street art gallery, situated on the site of a building, demolished in 2008, which had contained elements that dated back to the early 18th century. When the building was demolished, what would we have learned from that period if urban artists had been active when it was originally built? And if the current building (and it's neighbour of course) lasts three hundred years what will future generations learn from today's urban artists?

The creations of urban artists are designed to be ephemeral, focussing largely on the subjects and concerns of the day. Most fade away, are removed or are replaced by more recent creations, but others - like the gorilla - may find themselves preserved by accident. Like frozen mammoths slowly thawing out from under centuries of arctic ice, these creations may give future societies a glimpse of how other beings once lived.

One website, Graffiti Archeology, has spent ten years grouping together photographs of graffiti hotspots in order to record individual creations for posterity and to show how these sites have developed over the years. Less an archeology, it is more a careful archiving of creation, enabling us to travel backwards and forwards through time.

Such sites - if they survive into a digital future - may prove valuable, but they will never provide the surprise of the unexpected unearthing of a historic treasure. This one is now going into hibernation, perhaps to one day play the role of a future prehistoric cave painting.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Vigie Nature: does Paris count as a city of nature?

The Muséum national d’histoire naturelle has launched its annual publicity drive around its participative event, Vigie Nature, which encourages people to rediscover nature in their immediate surroundings. I spoke to Romain Julliard, organiser of the initiative, to find out more about the activities and why nature is important in a city like Paris.
Romain Julliard, ©Stéphanie Jayet
What is Vigie Nature?
Vigie Nature is a participative science initiative which has already been running for several years. We began with an observatoire des papillons du jardin, initially asking amateur enthusiasts to work with us, and since then we have opened it up to include other animal and plant observations, and made it possible for anybody to join in. This year we are promoting three main initiatives for the general public; sauvages de ma ville, in which we ask people to count wild plants in urban areas, the observatoire des oiseaux des jardins, which is a survey of bird numbers in parks and gardens, and 50 000 observations pour la forêt where we would like people to count specific insect and animal species in forest environments.

Can anyone get involved?

Yes, all people need to do is visit the respective websites, choose your zone – a street, a forest, a park or a garden, according to the initiative you want to take part in - spend some time observing and counting, then log the results on the website.

Why is it important for city dwellers to take part in activities such as these?
It is a way of bringing people closer to their surroundings and helping them to understand what lives alongside them. People are becoming more and more divorced from nature, and we have noted - particularly amongst the younger generations - certain far-fetched ideas about the natural world. We would like them to develop more emotional links to nature.
Paris has the image of being a very organised and not particularly green city. Is there room for nature here?
Paris is home to a surprising number of wild species. For example, over 50 types of birds have been counted in the city, as well as other animals and plants. Many species have learned to adapt to city life, even if others have found it very difficult. For example, through this initiative we have noted that certain species of butterfly have struggled in urban environments whereas bee keepers tell us that bees thrive in city environments.

Cities were designed for the needs of man. Is it really important if nature is absent from them?
It’s a good question. You could argue that it isn’t an absolute necessity, but at the very least I would say it is important for our spiritual well-being. In any environment diversity is important.

Is it the goal of Vigie Nature to influence how cities are designed? Should the integration of nature be an essential part of all urban planning?
We have no specific role to play in this domain, beyond bringing to the attention of decision makers the results of our studies. As far as cities are concerned, I think it is important that nature does not become a point of conflict. Nature in cities should be – as far as possible – for the benefit of city dwellers, and not closed off in unaccessible zones. Outside of the cities themselves, our principal concern is the development of the urban sprawl.
For people wanting to get involved, what are the best places in Paris to observe nature?
Well, the idea of these initiatives is that people just observe areas that are local to them, but if they are interested in spotting as many species as possible, there are several interesting areas. If we concentrate just on birds, obviously the large parks – such as the Buttes Chaumont – are good areas, but cemeteries are also very popular with birds. More surprising areas would be the friches (post-industrial waste lands) on the edges of Paris or the old Petite Ceinture railway line. However, two of the best places are closed to the public. The gardens of the Elysees palace (nb - home of the French President) and the Hotel Matignon (nb - home of the French Prime Minister) are two of the only places that Great spotted woodpeckers have been seen in Paris!

To get involved:

Thursday 5 April 2012

Is it possible to be a flâneur in Paris without walking?

It is a truism to say that Paris is a city designed for pedestrians, but what is the experience for those who have trouble walking? Is it still possible to be a flâneur if physical problems prevent us from wandering freely around the city? 

This was the crux of a mail I received from Patti, a reader of this blog, who is a regular visitor to Paris, and who until recently spent "lots of time nosing around alleyways and side streets". Unfortunately, she developed a problem in one of her knees last year which prevents her from walking very far, but she's determined to still keep exploring the city. She signed off with an imploring question - "what would you do if you couldn't walk properly?"

It is a question that immediately demands contemplation. What would I do? Most of the production of this blog stems from my interaction with the city on foot, and I realise that I take for granted the fact that I can turn at any corner, walk up and down steep staircases, and chance upon discoveries in cobbled backyards. Stopping to reflect, it becomes evident that Paris - like much of France - is wonderful for walkers, but an obstacle course for the disabled.

In the absence of a psychogeographical study of the city through the perspective of the disabled we can only pose questions. Does modern Paris offer free exploration to all of its inhabitants and visitors, or are whole swathes of the city off-limits to those who cannot walk properly? Does this change the way we view and interact with the city, and is it still possible to experience the serendipitous discoveries of the pedestrian if we are not on foot? 

Certainly, relying on other means of movement does not always give satisfaction. Patti points out that she "cannot afford to take taxis everywhere", but such trips - where scenery flashes by unfocused - are rarely more than frustration to the flâneur anyway. The Metro is also out of the question, firstly because it divorces you from your surroundings, and secondly because in Paris it is a warren of steep staircases with very few escalators or lifts. So just how do you explore the city if your movement is restricted?

I posted the question on Twitter, and received a number of interesting suggestions.

For several people, including @Jacquesjer, the answer is the bus, and @MargaritaIP explains exactly when it is best to do this, "take the bus during off-peak hours, mid-afternoon, sit and enjoy central Paris". @mackhart, who has had similar mobility problems, gives specific examples. "When our knees gave out we enjoyed taking the bus 68 and 69 which covered most of the city between the two"

This is a suggestion I would tend to agree with, and one I have even previously written about on this blog. (Interestingly, in the comments to that post there was an interesting mini-debate on whether public transport can offer pscyhogeographical interaction with the city or not). It is also worth noting the free 'Arch-Bus' series of downloadable PDFs which point out modern architectural highlights on 12 bus lines across the city (currently published in French only).

Other forms of transport were mentioned. @LostNCheeseland suggested a "boat cruise" whilst @jbrowneparis mentioned the city's "rickshaw and pedicab services".

Two other people questioned whether mobility is essential or not for the flâneur. As @dogjaunt says, "place yourself where people walk past YOU. Sit there for a bit, find another good spot. It's all about observing anyway". Finally, @FUNDAMEMORIA offered a poetic solution to the problem - "read Baudelaire in a cafe, and imagine walking..."

Is this a situation you have ever been confronted by, and how did you deal with it? What advice would you give to an ardent flâneur in Paris whose movement is restricted?
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