Friday 11 May 2012

Charras: then, now and tomorrow?

I have recently developed something of an obsession with Courbevoie on the Paris city limits, an archetype of the rapidly changing suburban town. There is something completely tangible about this kind of place, offering scenes of urban contrast and conflict that are today rarely visible within Paris.

A recent post on the always interesting Paris-bise-art blog lead me to one particular site in the town, but I was particularly pleased when the trail branched off into on a voyage of urban exploration.

The blog featured the Caserne Charras, a military barracks dating back to the 18th century. Although a listed 'historic monument', it was demolished in the 1960s with only the frontspiece of the building being preserved. Bizarrely this was moved across town and rebuilt at the bottom of the Becon park, a place that has become something of a home for reclaimed buildings - the Scandinavian and Indian pavillions from the 1878 World Fair can also be found here. 

Seen face on the building is still impressive, but move slightly to the side and you'll see that it is barely three metres thick. Somewhat incredibly though it is still in use, offering a shelter and storage space for the park keepers.

The caserne had occupied a large part of what is today the centre of town, so what replaced it? The answer is a huge development also known as Charras, which includes shops, hotels, appartments and leisure facilities - as well as a very unusual (concrete) rooftop park.  

In theory it is the perfect example of faulty urban planning in the 1960s and 70s, and yet it very nearly works. The sky-scraping wealth of the La Defense business sector is clearly visible just alongside, but here we are dealing with something that is very much a second division development. Whereas La Defense is a magnet for workers, shoppers and visitors from across the Paris region, Charras is a very local hub.

Much of La Defense is of a similar vintage, but - for the most part - it has been regularly smartened up and adapted to contemporary tastes. Charras on the other hand has remained firmly in the 1960s. There is a sense of abandonment here. Mirroring the abandoned cars and shopping trollies, the park is a windswept concrete wilderness, used only by the occasional dog walker or as a meeting point for pockets of teenagers.

The shopping centre is a series of short passages with bronze mirrored ceilings. Posters advertise the merits of the development, but even the photos in these show the world as it looked in 1972. It many ways it reminds me of a similar development in my old home town, a now disused shopping centre which has become a 'zombie survival experience'.

Walking along the empty staircases and corridors, it would not be too much of a surprise to come across a zombie here too. Instead of offering a glimpse of the undead though, these paths instead take you to places you do not expect. Along one, the entrance to an indoor market. Down another - sinister - staircase, an ice-rink and swimming pool complex. Plunging further down into the Dantesque depths, a twelve-lane bowling alley.

The biggest surprise though comes on the rooftop level. From what seems to be a small, dated shopping complex, you are suddenly thrown out into a massive expanse of concrete. Few people venture up here, but all are dwarfed by the scale of the high-rise towers that seem to have sprouted from the roof of the shopping centre.

Windblown and slightly disorientating, it is not an immediately pleasant environment, and yet it soon becomes strangely fascinating. It offers panoramic views, and at random intervals, a selection of mysterious geometric forms that have no clear purpose.

Looking around, you also discover that not all is mineral. There are trees and flowers here, as well as small patches of grass. Water is also evident, both in puddles captured on the surface and in the outdoor municipal baths below.

It feels more like a playground than a park. It is a reminder that architecure once encouraged us to explore and appropriate, rather than to be carefully guided. Buildings had mysteries, offering us opportunites to make new discoveries and the freedom to create our own relationships with them. This is a building that has no clear entrance or exit, which can be accessed at many different levels for many different reasons. It offers places to play, to work, to shop or just to relax. And yet it will soon be radically changed.

There is no room for in the new Courbevoie for such an idiosyncratic structure. It is a town that wants to move upmarket, away from an industrial past. The population of the town has increased by around 75% since the Charras development was built with newcomers being generally richer and younger. The municipality is now pushing for a more modern development, offering the same stores and brands as those found in neighbouring La Defense, and concrete will undoubtedly soon be replaced by grass, glass and steel.

An artists impression of what the development may look like. No specific project has as yet been chosen.


Carolyn Moncel said...

Thanks for this piece of Charras. I lived in Courbevoie with my family for five years from 2002 until 2007. According to other friends still living there, I hear that it's changing and becoming a pretty hip place to live. :) For the majority of my time living there, I rarely spent time in Charras unless I was headed for a doctor's appointment or a quick shopping excursion at Champion, but how you describe it for the most part, is exactly how I remember it. However, I can say that I did have at least one memorable moment on that rooftop play area. One day, I was playing a game of tag with my husband and children and collided headfirst at full speed with one of those metal lamps! I ended up in the emergency room and got five stitches for my trouble. Call me incredibly clumsy, and I am admittedly, but at least the experience was unforgettable. :)

Starman said...

I've been following your blog for some time. I like it a lot, but.... I have one complaint. Could you possibly use a larger font? Some of us don't see all that well.

Adam said...

Carolyn: Thanks for giving me some authentic Courbevoie feedback! It doesn't surprise me to read that games on that rooftop area ended up in the emergency room - despite all that space up there, there are plenty of unexpected things to bump into!

Adam said...

Starman: Is this now better? To be honest, I find almost all the blogger options quite ugly, but I'm not sure what works best for most people. I'll see if anyone finds any problems with this option!

Tim said...

Excellent piece about a very, very strange place indeed, and familiar territory during our four years in Courbevoie!

Is it just me, or does it look like project for the future development you've featured here has been inspired by the Teletubbies set?

Shane L said...

I've had a good few goes at photographing that blue and yellow paddling pool.

Great read.

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