Friday 28 September 2012

The Forgotten Shopping Centres of the Rive Gauche

Dotted around the chic streets of Paris's rive gauche are a series of hidden rabbit warrens. These forgotten shopping centres, mostly built in the 1960s and 70s, provide a fascinating frozen-in-time snapshot of another - not so distant - era.

These shopping centres are to be found around the feet of large apartment blocks. With their enviable situation in wealthy areas, their running balconies and large, functional spaces these are the kinds of apartment units that sell for a small fortune. And yet at their heart are urban experiments gone wrong.

Clearly the Galerie Marchande was an integral part of the initial building design, and perhaps even a key-selling point for early purchasers of the apartments. These galeries were - and still are - highly-stylised spaces, with public art and carefully thought out lines and colours. Unchanged though since the day they were built they have become anachronistic and completely disfuctional. Non(sense)-spaces in a crowded city.

There is something vaguely comical about some of the scenes. They are empty stage sets, waiting for a return of the ghost performers from another time. Cordoned off, sometimes behind glass walls, there are escalators - thick with dust - that no longer move, and communal zones where people no longer meet or rest.

Designed to attract and retain both residents and passers by, there is today a distinct lack of human activity in these spaces. But it is still there. There are the survivors - key cutters, fast-food outlets, repair shops - spaced out in isolation. There are zones that have changed function - shop units that have become office spaces, profiteers that have ensured the death of the galleries at the weekends - normally the busiest period of such facilities.

In one underground corridor near the Rue du Cherche Midi there is an anonymous black door. There are no windows, no face to the outside world, but just a name to make us guess about what is on the other side. It is the entrance to a night-club, a door that only opens after dark. But who comes here? I later find out that it is a Swingers club, the discreet and anonymous doorway at complete odds with the open exchanges that take place inside.

Sometimes these are places with slightly longer past narratives. The Passage du Départ, opposite the Montparnasse shopping centre, is mentioned in a guide book published in 1910. The new passage was clearly built in place of the old one, providing historical continuity in a radically transformed district.

Like the others though, it is now a space looking for an identity. Here the units are largely empty, but at its heart is a mature garden with trees and plants that have flourished whilst commerce has faltered. 

So what has killed these spaces? It is not the result of an economic crisis, or of neighbourhoods that have dived downwards. These are rich areas, and the galleries are still clean and solidly in place.Were they ever a success, or is their zombie-like form the result of poor planning, a solution for a need that never really existed?

Sitting inside apartment blocks that are highly-desirable, there is no question that these spaces will be demolished. What is likely to happen though is that they will slowly move from the public to private sphere, becoming less and less accessible. Another part of the city taken away from its residents.

Monday 24 September 2012

Five reasons to visit Boulogne-Billancourt

Boulogne-Billancourt, touching the south-west corner of Paris, is today a rather bourgeois dormitory town but it can boast a rich industrial past and a fine selection of avant-gardist architecture. Although you are now more likely to come across advertising executives than factory workers in the town, there is still much that gives you an insight into its interesting history - and also a look into its future.

The Parcours des Années 30

Boulogne-Billancourt is intensely proud of its contribution to modern architecture, and rightly so. In the 1930s, large parts of the town - particularly a district somewhat curiously in the shadow of the Parc des Princes football ground - became a kind of workshop for new architectural styles. The leading architects of the day, including Perrault, Le Corbusier and Lurçat, worked on projects for artists' homes and studios, producing a wide variety of styles and forms.

Today the area is extremely wealthy, with the buildings owned mostly by showbiz personalities and media executives, but visits around the area are encouraged, and it is occasionally possible to visit the interiors of some of the houses.

The local authorities have produced an excellent guide to facilitate visits, called the Parcours des années 30, which is available (for free - but in French only) as either a printabe PDF file, or an mp3 audioguide.

The Town Hall

If there is one building from this golden age that deserves special attention it is Tony Garnier's town hall building. Municipal buildings throughout the country had always previously been ornate and ostentatious, with town halls in particular being designed to show off the wealth of a community. Garnier's town hall though, planned with the Socialist mayor of Boulogne-Billancourt, André Morizet, promoted openness and functional simplicity, and was one of the country's first democratic municipal buildings.

Being a functioning municipal building it can be difficult to get inside without a good reason, but if you do succeed you will be rewarded by the luminous and elegant interiors.

A Musée des années 30 is situated alongside the town hall. With the abundance of buildings from the 1930s in the town it is somewhat strange to find a museum celebrating the decade housed in a rather soulless modern building, but it is nevertheless worth a visit.

(M° Marcel Sembat)

The Musée Albert Kahn

The musée Albert Kahn is also a remnant of the 1930s - but not intentionally! The museum, best known today for its impressive gardens, is not the result of a generous donation, but rather the by-product of the bankruptcy of the Kahn family bank in 1932.

After Albert Kahn was declared bankrupt his property was purchased by the local authorities, and the gardens, which Kahn had begun creating in the previous century, were opened to the public in 1937.

Alongside the gardens is a museum space displaying the results of another of Albert Kahn's projects, his Archives de la Planète collection of anthropologic photographs and videos. Kahn wanted to create a huge database of up-to-date visual information on cultures around the world, but the fact that he was obliged to put an end to this project after the collapse of his bank has instead created a fascinating historical resource.  

Musée Albert Kahn, 10-14, rue du Port, Boulogne-Billancourt (M° Boulogne - Pont de Saint-Cloud)

The Parc Rothschild

The Parc Rothschild is a curious place. It is very difficult to find the entrance, but once inside you'll find relaxing English-style gardens leading down to an ornamental lake - all looked over by a graffiti-strewn ruined chateau! Originally owned by a member of the Rothschild family, the house and gardens were occupied by the German invading army during the Second world war, then taken over by the American forces after the liberation of Paris. When the property was given back to the Rothschild family it was in an extremely poor state and it has been so ever since. It was eventually sold to a Saudi Arabian in the 1970s - who has since done nothing with it. Various renovation projects have been proposed, but all have so far been scuppered by the fact that nobody seems to know exactly who owns the house.

Another curiosity of the site is the Chateau Buchillot. Originally on the same estate as the Rothschild chateau, it has today been carved away from it by the very busy A13 motorway. It is nevertheless in far better shape than the Rothschild domain, and today houses the musée Paul Belmondo which celebrates the sculptures of the father of actor Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Parc de Boulogne - Edmond Rothschild, 3, rue des Victoires, Boulogne-Billancourt (M° Jean-Jaurès)

The Ile Seguin

The Ile Seguin was previously the site of the town's principal industrial installation, the Renault car factories. The last car left the production line over 20 years ago, and since then there has been fierce debate about what should happen to the site. No final decision has been taken, but the industrial buildings have pulled down and the land cleaned up. 

Since then, this large island on the Seine has become a strange temporary zone, filled with pop-up parks and structures made from scaffolding and recycled containers. Amongst these is a restaurant run by the 'Les Grandes Tables' team who have made a speciality of opening kitchens in post-industrial spaces.

Whilst most projects for the site involve intense development and landmark buildings (120 metre high tower blocks!) on what is a piece of prized real-estate, there is also pressure to preserve some links to its industrial past. This need has been temporarily addressed by the creation of a Pavillon de mémoire et d’information, a structure (pictured above) which retraces the past of the island and its possible future. The Renault group has also gone back to the future by opening a test track for electric cars on the island. This facility is regularly open to the public, who are welcome to come and test drive the vehicules.

Access to the ile Seguin is via the Pont Renault, a short walk from the Pont de Sevres Metro station.

Monday 17 September 2012

Four years and counting

On September 17th 2008 I published the first post on this blog - or rather first posts. The initial post was a mission statement, an attempt to define a blog that has since always remained rather slippery and amorphous. The second was the first real post, a look at the Grand Garage Haussmann car park, a type of building that has become something of a recurring theme ever since.

Nobody commented on that first post. Indeed, looking at the Blogger stat tool, it seems that the page has only ever been visited 170 times in four years. Starting a blog is something of an irrational activity though, and it takes a good period of time before you move beyond the feeling that you are merely communicating with yourself.

Much has changed in Paris over those four years, and several places that I have written about have either closed down or changed radically. This is not something that I lament however, as cities must evolve to survive. Like the urbex fans who wander around modern-day industrial ruins, it has never been my goal to seek preservation, but rather to highlight the forgotten and overlooked before it disappears.    

Is the Grand Garage Haussmann one of the city survivors? As I noted in my original post it apparently hadn't changed in the first 70 years of its existence, so why should it have changed in the last four? I went along today to confirm, and was pleased to see that it was still as scruffily spectacular as ever.
In 2008 I noted with appreciation the architecture and design of the building, without paying too much attention to its story or to the characters behind it. Now I'm curious to know from exactly when the building dates, and who was its architect.

Looking on this blog - which has since often been of immeasurable assistance to Invisible Paris - it seems that the land on which it was built belonged to a certain Mme Van Droogenbroeck. After first attempting to build an eight and then a six-story apartment block on the site, she eventually settled on a project for a four-story car park. Planning permission was given in 1938 for a building designed by a mysterious architect listed only as Mousty, based at the time at 37 rue de Chaillot in Paris. 

Although built as war broke out, it has survived unchanged for over 70 years and still retains a lightness, a timeless elegence and charm, and - with its red and white checkerboard facade - a certain joie de vivre. On top of this, it still clearly serves a useful purpose in its surroundings. It is a longevity we can all aspire to!

Thursday 13 September 2012

10 Ideas for the Journées du Patrimoine

If it's the middle of September it must be the Journées du Patrimoine, the weekend when heritage buildings and sites are freely open to visitors across France.

Here is a list of 10 sites in Paris that should be of interest to an Invisible Paris reader, some of which have already been featured on the blog, others that will probably be featured in the future...

1. The Musée des Moulages Dermatologiques
From its origins as a 17th century out of town hospital for plague victims, the Hopital Saint Louis became a specialised institution for infectious and skin diseases. As part of its role as an educator of future doctors, a service was set up to create moulds of most of these diseases, working directly from the bodies of the patients. The results, displayed in a rarely accessible museum, are frighteningly life-like and often extremely gruesome. It's a fascinating collection, but not one for the faint-hearted!

Click here for access information and opening times.

2. The Gare de Lyon
Visits will be organised throughout the weekend around the station, taking in the wonderful fresques in the main hall and the ornate Train Bleu restaurant. However, what attracts me most here is the opportunity to visit the famous clock tower!

Click here for access information and opening times.

3. The Pitié Salpêtrière
Yes, it's another hospital, but the Pitié Salpêtrière is always a fascinating place to wander around (as I once explained on the Soundlandscapes blog). The Journées du Patrimoine though will offer, in addition, a long list of interesting-sounding organised events.

Click here for access information and opening times

4. Le Corbusier's Cité de Refuge

One of Le Corbusier's lesser-known buildings perhaps, but this structure, designed for Salvation Army to house those struggling to find somewhere to live in the city, is colourful and playful.

Click here for access information and opening times

5. The Institut de Paléontologie Humaine
The real interest of the Journées du Patrimoine is to get inside places you wouldn't normally be able to access. I've long had a fascination with this building, with its ornately carved facade, as well as with the articles relating to the origins of our species that are displayed inside, but access is extremely restricted. This will be my opportunity to visit.

Click here for access information and opening times

6. The Palais d'Iéna
The architect Auguste Perret was behind a number of interesting buildings in Paris, but this was his masterpiece. I recently visited the interior, but access is complicated and you need freedom and time to explore the building, particularly the wonderful auditorium. This weekend will offer that opportunity.

Click here for access information and opening times

7. The Résidence de l'Ambassadeur de Serbie
I interviewed a Serbian journalist on Invisible Paris about this building in 2009, and she outlined just how sumptious and well-positioned it is. This weekend is your only chance of the year to see it for yourself.

Click here for access information and opening times

8. The Caserne des Sapeurs Pompiers de Paris
Although there are many fire stations across Paris, the headquarters of the service is in a large building near the Porte de Champerret in the 17th arrondissement. For the Journées du Patrimoine this year, access will be given for the first time to a private area where the history of the force, its successes and those who died in service, is remembered. There will also a display of vintage fire engines, and perhaps even access to the central clock tower that has long intruiged me. Oh, and of interest to some perhaps, there will also be lots of firemen.

Click here for access information and opening times

9. 36, Quai des Orfèvres
A very famous address, particularly to fans of Maigret and readers of crime fiction. Somewhat surprisingly it will open this year for the first time ever during a Patrimoine weekend, so expect it to be a popular site (with possible long queues). On top of having access to address, you will also be able to investigate a crime scene and have your fingerprints taken!

Click here for access information and opening times

10. Mémorial du Bazar de la Charité
On May 4th 1897, 130 people - mostly female members of the aristocracy - lost their lives in a terrible fire in a temporary building holding a charity event. In the following years a church was built on the site of the tragedy, and a small memorial area was placed to the rear. This micro-museum and place of remembrence is only ever very exceptionally open to the public, with the Journées du Patrimoine being one of those occassions.

Click here for access information and opening times

Monday 10 September 2012

Gordon Bennett - What a Strange Address!

English people finding themselves on the Avenue Gordon Bennett - probably when attending the French Open tennis tournament or visiting the Serres d'Auteuil - must smile in surprise when they see one of the street signs.

For those not familiar with the name, 'Gordon Bennett' has been used as an expression of surprise in England (and if anyone can tell me if it's used elsewhere in the world I'd be interested to know) for at least 80 years. Although the expression is probably dying out now, its origin remains one of the mysteries of the English language.

Is there a connection to this Gordon Bennett, labelled here as an American journalist who lived from 1795 - 1872? The answer is probably not - but it might refer to his identically-named son!

A quick visit to Wikipedia will tell you that James Gordon Bennett Sr was the "editor and publisher of the New York Herald and a major figure in the history of American newspapers" . He had though been born in Scotland, eventually emigrating to the Americas when in his 20s. A self-made man, he put years of failure behind him when starting the Herald, a paper which eventually boasted the highest-circulation in America.

The city of Paris calls him a "pionnier du journalisme moderne" in its listings of street nomenclature, but many have said that his pioneering was actually of a sensationalist, tabloid style of journalism.

His son, James Gordon Bennett Jr, took over the running of the paper, but became more famous for his wild living. Born into what had become a rich family, he spent his life - and money - enjoying adventures and luxury. His name though is remembered today for three reasons. He was a promoter of certain sporting events, some of which, including an international hot-air balloon race, still exist today.

Secondly, he is credited by the Guiness Book of World Records as committing the 'Greatest Engagement Faux Pas'. Legend or otherwise, it is said that his engagement to Caroline May was broken off during the party in which it was being celebrated, after Bennett - having obviously consumed too much alcohol - urinated in a fireplace in front of the guests.

Finally, such tales have led many to believe that it is this Gordon Bennett who is celebrated in the expression. The thinking behind this is that stories of his behaviour would naturally provoke shock, but it is more probable that the expression actually stems from the very Londonesque 'Gor blimey' (meaning God blind me).

There are however here two secondary mysteries. Why is Gordon Bennett celebrated in Paris, and why is such a short and seemingly insignificant road classed as an Avenue?

Although the street celebrates the father, it is probably the son who was behind the initiative. Bennett Jr was educated in France, lived for a long time in Paris and was behind the opening of the Paris Herald, a forerunner of the International Herald Tribune. He later also died in France and is buried in the Cimitière de Passy. During his time in the French capital, he must have had many acquaintances in positions of power, and managed to pursuade somebody that a street name in honour of his father would be a good thing.

The street runs through the Bois de Boulogne, and was originally situated in Boulogne rather than Paris (which also explains the older and non-standard road signs at one end). Although we have become accustomed to linking the word Avenue with prestige, in this instance it expresses not its importance but rather its rural nature.

Although a dictionary definition of an avenue is a large tree-lined road leading up to an important building, Wikipedia also labels an avenue as being "un chemin frayé dans la nature" (a path cleared through nature).

The road may be in a quiet corner of Paris, but it is certainly one with an interesting name!

Tuesday 4 September 2012

The Colours of Montreuil

Perhaps it was the warm sunny weather, or perhaps it was the contrast with ghost town that Paris had become in August, but on a recent walk around the suburb of Montreuil, it suddenly felt like the most colourful place in France. Impressions of this atypical town in photos and words.

Parc Jean Moulin les Guilands
In this urban wildnerness that dominates the east and south east of Paris, only one colour stands out; green. The grass was long and thick, the trees - before the attacks of autumn - heavy with foliage, and even the park pond was covered with an olive-tinged viscous algae. Just outside one of the entrances to the park though I was surprised to see that everything else was in similar tones too, from furniture to fences, weeds to graffiti. 

The Marché de la Croix de Chavaux
On the previous day I'd been in Boulogne to the west of Paris, a town that may as well have locked up its doors and pulled down the shutters for the summer. On a Sunday morning at the Marché de la Croix de Chavaux though, suddenly I found people, noise and well as plenty of colour! As it was the Eid festival at the end of ramadan, there was also an air of light-hearted festivity, with groups relaxing over coffee and sticky cakes, despite the swarms of wasps that these treats had attracted. With their brightly-coloured shutters, even the shops that were closed contributed to the party.

École Nationale de Musique et de Danse de Montreuil
The Croix de Chavaux shopping centre is a pretty standard 1960s concrete development, but at its heart stands the extraordinary École Nationale de Musique et de Danse de Montreuil. Looking at the vintage photos on this website, with its accompanying polychrome air vents and orange plastic benches it was clearly once an even more astonishing experience.

You can find unusual structures throughout Montreuil, a sign of the self-sufficiance and self-confidence of a place that often feels less like a suburban neighbour of a big city, and more like a provincial town.

The Terrain Habibou Sow
I was attracted here by the pitchside graffiti and murals, but also by its proximity to the centre of the town. In fact it's so close that a misplaced pass could easily send the ball through the window of the neighbouring Monoprix. This space used to be a pitch without an identity, but in 2011 it was given the name of a local man who had been murdered on a bus. A sign of the times perhaps that local heroes are the victims of territorial battles, but under the observation of surrounding blocks of flats, it at least gives kids a safe place to kick a ball. 

Rue du Capitaine Dreyfus
The Rue du Capitaine Dreyfus is a pedestrianised street that runs through the heart of Montreuil. Whereas such features have become standard and standardised in towns across the world, this street - taking its name typically for Montreuil from a hero of the French left - is somewhat eccentric and scruffy. There are few chainstores here, but rather tables spilling out of Chinese restaurants, or - as in the photo above - vestiges from another time. 

The Metro
The Metro was extended out to Montreuil in the mid 1930s, and the design and typography of this era can be clearly seen in the signage and furniture in the town such as here at the Marie de Montreuil terminus.

An Ice-Cream Van
Also next the town hall is another unusual sight - an ice-cream van. The lady selling the ice-creams was initially unsure about allowing me to take photos of the van until I explained that I'd never seen one in France before. Of course after taking the pictures I also had to sample the produce, and I'm happy to say that it was delicious - and cheap!

Having said that, I only tried one flavour (I could have had an ice-lolly made from peaches grown in the town), whereas the people in the photo had four scoops each. 'I've come all the way from the 19th arrondissement' said the lady in the wheelchair, 'so I'm going to make the trip worthwhile'.

The producer and ice-cream van operator is a Montreuil family called Martinez who have apparently been selling ice-creams in the town since 1935. Don't bother looking online for them though - if you want to find out more you'll have to head down to the Marie de Montreuil Metro stop.

The Wastelands
Like many other towns around Paris, the landscape still has the scars of a recent industrial past. This factory skeleton looks abandoned, but it is in fact currently home to a community of Roms, and a playground for their children. These people have once again been in the news and subject of debate in France this summer, but Montreuil has done more than most other communities to accommodate them. The families here can hope to find a more salubrious and safe environment soon, rather than being shifted on to another town.

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