Thursday 19 July 2012

The Life Forms of the Paris Suburbs

Kenny Cupers was trained as an architect, but his career has since evolved towards investigations into architectural history and postwar urbanism. Here he tells me why the suburbs of Paris hold so much fascination for him.

Whilst pursuing historical archival research for my dissertation (n.b. a Ph.D. in Architectural History at Harvard), I lived in Paris from 2007-2009. During that time I visited dozens of housing projects and suburban neighborhoods and took thousands of photos” explains Kenny. He comes back to the city regularly, and will once again be found in the Paris suburbs this summer.

His current project is a challenging one - a monograph on the history of French mass housing. But why is he interested in the developments of this region over others?

They are interesting because they represent a period in which modern architecture really mattered to more than just architects. It was a matter of national modernisation but also of the everyday, and had significant consequences for people in the street. I wanted to understand the social ambitions of these new housing projects, how those ambitions informed their architectural design, and how these projects subsequently transformed to become regarded as one of France's primary social problems.”

Although the Paris suburbs have achieved a certain notoriety in recent years, for Kenny, all is far from being negative. Typically portrayed as a series of concrete high-rise blocks, the reality, as Kenny explains in a recent Design Observer article, is far more varied. “In the course of many visits I've found neighborhoods struggling with poverty, crime and social conflict; but I've also found urban centers brimming with energy and quiet residential quarters dotted with leafy parks and sleepy squares” he points out.

In this article, Kenny Cupers described these many developments as Life Forms, but what does he mean by this phrase?

They are ‘Life forms’ because these formal architectural environments were meant to shape social life in particular ways, but they have also given rise to unexpected forms or ways of life. Although they house people of very different origins and backgrounds - just like any other city - I think they are special because they were built for a new, more open society and because they continue to be open and unfinished today.”

His photos are also a reflection of this variety, and rarely feature the standard tower blocks. Instead, Cupers highlights colour and humour, architectural playfulness and functional public spaces. Most of all, his photos almost always feature people, all of whom are ordinarily going about their lives.

Kenny Cupers describes his project as being a search for “neither a past utopia nor contemporary dystopia — but rather the more nuanced realities of ongoing modernity”. How does he see the future of these areas though, particularly with the current move towards a Grand Paris that could – and should – finally incorporate the city’s suburbs?

I'm critical of some of the recent proposals” he explains. “Many of its proponents continue to conceive of Paris's future very much from the centre, rather than from the periphery, which is where more Parisians actually live. Better transportation, public spaces, and access to urban amenities – what many planners are focusing on – are all crucial for the future of these suburbs, but I think a change in mindset is perhaps most urgently called for. I hope my photos can contribute, if only in a very small way, to such a change.”

Read Kenny Cupers Life Forms article in the Design Observer here. The article also includes a slideshow of his work, from which several photos - which Kenny kindly gave me permission to reproduce - appear in this post.

All photos ©Kenny Cupers

Thursday 12 July 2012

The Battle of Le Balzac

Le Balzac, situated just off the Champs Elysées, is one of the last remaining independent cinemas on the city’s right-bank. With the district now dominated by international brands that independence has become more and more difficult to preserve, but the establishment’s owner is determined to continue winning the battle.

Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky gives the impression of being a happy man. He has been looking after the Le Balzac cinema since his father’s death in 1973, but his passion for film is seemingly undimmed. Indeed, Schpoliansky is known to cinephiles in the city as the man who stands on stage and introduces the films, something which he says gets him recognised as ‘Mr Balzac’ across Paris.

We are sitting in his office, a small box above the ticket desk and cafe, and a space which also functions as the cinema’s archives. Although the office is strewn with the clutter of a hoarder, the historic documents and press clippings are filed carefully into binders. The cinema was opened in 1935 by his grandfather, and he shows me the articles that were published in the French press the day afterwards. He is clearly proud of this family story, but also keenly aware of his role as preserver of the heirloom. The cinema has seen many twists in its 80 years, but he is desperate to ensure that the curtain doesn’t drop on the establishment when his own personal career ends.

Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky

At some point it will be time to pass the responsibility on to the next generation, but it seems unlikely that much will change. Schpoliansky readily admits that computers and social media are not his thing, and although he has staff who look after these aspects, the cinema itself has made little concession to changes in technology. You will not find films shown in 3D here, and Schpoliansky is against digital film. Walking along backstage corridors stacked floor to ceiling with cans of film, and through projection rooms where celluloid is being carefull wound into projectors, it is clear that this is still a place where vintage technology rules.

Schpoliansky looks back with nostalgia on the 1950s and 60s when Le Balzac pulled in upwards of 400,000 spectators a year, but he knows that such figures are impossible for everyone today. “If we have 170,000 spectators in a year – and that over three screens – I break open the champagne” he tells me, but the story is the same for the neighbouring establishments. The Champs Elysées counted 65 screens in 1970, but only 35 remain today. However, Schpoliansky recognises that France – and Paris in particular – still has an exceptional breadth and quantity of cinemas in comparison to almost any other country in the world.

Although his cinema might find life easier in a different district of Paris, Schpoliansky remains deeply committed to the Champs Elysées, an area that he believes can become a culturally important part of the city again. On a personal level it is also a place with very strong family links. “I remember walking here with my father, and it would take us about three hours just to cross the road. He knew everybody” he explains.

Bringing cultural life back to this district is one of his battles, but he also readily describes his personal mission at the cinema as a ‘combat’. It’s a fight to survive in difficult financial times, as well as in an area that – as Schpoliansky points out – “has been abandoned by Parisians”. However, he also sees his role at Le Balzac as being a fight to offer something different to cinema-goers, to ensure that spectators at his cinema are not just purchasers of tickets and snacks, but instead people that are “partipicipating in an adventure”.

Keeping the cinema alive is one challenge, but he also wants to ensure that the medium of film continues to play a small role in society. The audience at Le Balzac know that each film has been carefully chosen by a programmer – not a pushy distributor - and that the films follow a logic which Schpoliansky describes as being ‘editorial’.

The cinema’s niche is low-budget independent films with a message. Schpoliansky is keen that the films should not just be passive entertainment, but offer a perspective and a viewpoint. However, Le Balzac is far from being a highbrow amusement-free establishment.

Already there is the omnipresent Schpoliansky, a man who sports the lines of someone who has spent much of his life smiling. Then there is the cinema itself, which is also in its way an interesting – and slightly eccentric - monument. The clean 1930s lines are still visible, mixed with curious touches chosen by Schpoliansky in the 1970s. The entrance has a nautical theme (Schpoliansky’s single window in his office is a porthole that looks down onto the foyer), and sailing-themed carpets stretch throughout the cinema.

The main auditorium is theatrical, with deep red seats, a stage and a spotlight for Schpoliansky’s pre-film presentations. At the rear of the building, the very cosy screen three (which is positioned in what was the office of Jean-Jacques’ grandfather) is vintage-style, with brown leather chairs that Schpoliansky describes as “the most comfortable in Paris”.

The cinema is one of the city’s survivors, but Schpoliansky recognises that this longevity is also because it has expanded beyond just showing films. “I have a wonderful team who create events, and it is our goal to offer the ‘exceptionnel au quotidien’” he explains. These events include vintage film screenings accompanied by a live piano score for children on the first Sunday of each month, retransmissions of Opéra performances from around the world with champagne served in the foyer, and occasional gastronomic events organised by the cinema’s Michelin-starred neighbours. The standard film screening though can also be an out of the ordinary experience - the audience for the latest Ken Loach film, The Angels’ Share, for example were recently treated to a tasting of Balvenie whisky at the end of a screening.

This then is no ordinary cinema, even if Schpoliansky wants it to be a place that supports “an ordinary cinema”. You will not find popcorn or sweets in the foyer (“what a horrible idea” says Schpoliansky), only the “best coffee, biscuits and teas”. Elitist perhaps? Undoubtedly, but with the cinema industry having dumbed-down to such an extent over recent years, we should be thankful that an independent cinema that assumes its audience has a brain can still exist.

Key Dates

May 3rd 1935
The cinema opens for the first time with a screening of Wedding Night featuring Gary Cooper. Beginning life as a kind of agency for the 20th Century Fox studios, this is the first of the three principal eras of the cinema. Typical pre-war screenings at Le Balzac are therefore based around double bills featuring the likes of Shirley Temple and Charlie Chan.

Although the Champs Elysées later became recognised as the centre of the French film industry, it arrived quite late on the scene. In the 1920s there were only two cinemas on the avenue, with the majority of screens at the time being situated on the city’s Grand Boulevards, or out on the periphery of the city.

With the German army approaching Paris, the Schpoliansky family are obliged to flee Paris and the cinema is forced to close.

The family return to Paris and begin a fight to win back their cinema, but must begin again without Jean-Jacques’ grandfather who had died, in 1942, during their exile.

The cinema reopens, with Jean-Jacques’ father now at the helm. This is the beginning of the second era and for Jean-Jacques the golden age. For 23 years the cinema is associated with three others on the city’s right-bank, and sits at the forefront of the French film industry. With the Helder (near Opéra, closed in 1988 and today a McDonalds, the Scala (in the 10th, closed in 1999 after operating as a pornographic cinema for nearly 20 years) and the Vivienne (in the 2nd, closed in 1989 and since demolished), Le Balzac actively supports the rise of the nouvelle vague and French films d’auteurs.

Jean-Jacques takes over the running of the cinema following the death of his father. The third era begins in a period becoming more and more morose, with cinemas beginning to close across the city.

Jean-Jacques nevertheless chooses to expand the cinema two years after taking over. Space is found for the creation of two new screens without the need to alter the main auditorium.

Jean-Jacques closes the cinema’s third screen for a week in protest at the worsening relationship with French film distributors. The action is a success, gaining him wide press coverage and forcing the distributors to rethink their conditions.

This time Jean-Jacques closes the whole cinema for a week, once more in protest at the distributors. With the large multiscreen complexes attempting to cover all markets, Le Balzac finds its traditional offer becoming more and more squeezed. “I’m obliged to do this every 20 years” he explains, but once again the operation is judged a success.

Click here to visit the official website of Le Balzac where you can sign up for the newsletter and join the 'club' which offers a series of advantages to regular visitors.

Sunday 8 July 2012

A Bomb-Proof Metro Station

One of the many interesting things in Mark Ovenden's book 'Paris Underground' is the story of the Place des Fêtes Metro station.

The station was one of several stops on the new line 11 of the Metro system, which was scheduled to be built at the beginning of the 1930s. As the geopolitical situation worsened during that decade, a decision was taken to ensure that, as Ovenden writes, it could "later be used as a sealable air-raid shelter in the event of an attack". 

The station, in concrete, has fairly typical 1930's forms (described as Bauhaus-style by Ovenden - interesting therefore to think that the Bauhaus school of architects and designers, forced to end their activities by Hitler, influenced design that was aimed towards resisting his armies), with backlit letters cut from metal panels. To the rear, the stations also offer a simple, but attractive perspective, particular as night begins to fall.

However, the principal new feature was just inside the entrance. In the event of an air-raid, a metal shutter could quickly seal the station and protect it both from blasts and gas.

This station was identified as one that could play this role principally because of its depth. Situated at one of the highest points in the city, the platforms sit 74 feet beneath the surface. As it happened, Paris largely avoided the air-raids that many other European cities suffered, and the station was never put to the test. Let's hope that is always the case!

Thursday 5 July 2012

The Paris Archives: The Death of Pierre Curie

Inspired by my previous Paris Archives post on road-traffic accidents in the city, reader Cynthia hoped that I would be able to unearth more details on the incident that claimed the life of Nobel prize winner Pierre Curie in 1906.

"When I was last in Paris I went to the little museum based in what was their laboratory and workroom and purchased a biography of Madame Curie. However, I have not been able to find out very much about the circumstances of Pierre's death, except that it was an accident in the street. Could you find out more?", she asked. 

Given that it was an accident that involved a well-known personality and included many gruesome and maudlin elements, it should come as no surprise to learn that the incident was indeed widely covered in the press - and often in extreme detail!

Le Matin, Friday April 20th, 1906

Although Pierre Curie's death was a major news story on April 20th - the day after the accident - it was not the day's headline and was somewhat overshadowed by the terrible San Francisco earthquake that had occurred the same day. Nevertheless, it was front page news in just about all of the major French titles. One newspaper though went a little bit further than all the others in its reporting.

All newspapers explained in detail the events leading up to the accident, the accident itself and its aftermath, but only Le Matin provided readers with a photo of the horse and cart involved as well as a hand-sketched map of where the accident took place. (Click here to read the full story in Le Matin).

The 'killer cart', with a cross indicating which wheel 'crushed the skull of Mr Curie'.
As the map below shows, the accident took place on the Rue Dauphine, at its angle with the Quai des Grands Augustins and opposite the Pont Neuf. According the Le Matin, this crossroads was one of the most notorious blackspots for pedestrians in the city, despite the fact that at all times there were two police officers posted here to control the traffic.

For the newspaper, the danger came from the fact that a downhill slope leads from the Pont Neuf directly into the Rue Dauphine, and that vehicles often found it difficult to stop in time when confronted with careless pedestrians.

And it seems that there was no doubt that Pierre Curie had been careless. According to one website, colleagues and family seemed instantly to understand how such an incident could have happened. Pierre Clerc, one of Curie's lab assistants stated to Police that Curie “wasn't careful enough when he was walking in the street, or when he rode his bicycle. He was thinking of other things.” This was an opinion shared by Pierre Curie's father who when told of his son's death could only cry “what was he dreaming of this time?

So what exactly did happen at this point on the afternoon of April 19th 1906? One of the key factors seems to have been the rain that had been falling heavily that day. Pierre Curie had been at a lunch with colleagues, and was in a hurry to get to another appointment with his editor on the Quai Conti. As he arrived at the intersection with the Rue Dauphine, he tried to quickly run across the road, but unfortunately his momentum took him straight into the path of a horse and cart. After being hit by one of the horses, he slipped onto the road and under the wheels of the cart, which killed him instantly (for a particularly gruesome account, read the article published in L'Humanité).

The map in Le Matin, describing the 'théatre de l'accident' (a phrase that outlines perhaps its dramatic nature for readers) contains two possible paths for Curie, one in front of a carriage travelling towards the Pont Neuf, and one behind it. This would become a key point of the investigation as if Pierre Curie had run out from behind a carriage, the driver of the horse and cart could not have been expected to see him and to stop in time. This scenario was later confirmed by eyewitness accounts.

When the accident occurred, Pierre Curie was just an anonymous city pedestrian, but according to L'Humanité he was immediately recognised. They quote the passer-by as saying "Mais c'est M. le Docteur Curie, l'inventeur du radium, qui vient d'être écrasé", which would seem a rather strange and precise thing for someone who had just witnessed such a terrible event to say. Nevetheless, once this fact had been established, the emotion was all the greater at the scene.

Newspaper accounts of the incident did not end there though, but continued with details on how news of the scientist's death was broken to his family. Pierre Curie lived with his wife Marie, their two daughters, and his father in a house on the Boulevard Kellermann (since demolished) at the extreme limit of the city. When the police (and presumably journalists) arrived, only his father was home, but all of these people waited patiently until Marie finally came home from a day out with her eldest daughter, future Nobel prize winner Irène.

Le Matin - once again - reports that when she was told the news, Marie did not immediately react at all, and seemed not to have heard. Although she did break down afterwards, she also remained remarkably composed, ordering the Police to bring her husband's body to the house and not to perform an autopsy (which she pointed out would be completely pointless).

She was also very clear in her instructions in the days afterwards, respecting Pierre's wishes that there should be no special events or ceremonies following his death. Indeed, she ensured that he would be buried in the family tomb in Sceaux, that only family would be admitted to the very private funeral and that people should send neither flowers nor crowns. Nearly ninety years later though, Pierre and Marie were of course moved to the Pantheon.

Marie also refused the French government's offer of a pension, but did accept the offer from the Sorbonne University to take her husband's post, becoming the institution's first female professor. The accident - though a terrible event she never truly recovered from - in some ways forced her from her husband's shadow, and she accomplished many further remarkable things in the fields of physics and chemistry - all proudly with her husband's name - until her own death nearly 30 years later.
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