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.


gee said...

great blog, the best on paris , but we need good cheap eating place specially at station areas, post em ma man

Travel Insurance Lady said...

Love reading your blog...keep 'em coming. I've been to the Musee des Annees 30 a couple of times and have found some surprisingly good exhibitions there.

Philippa said...

Can you just walk in and ask to test-drive an electric car on the Renault track? This sounds like great fun!

Adam said...

Philippa: Yes, that's definitely my understanding from reading articles such as this one.

Of course, you'll get the full sales presentation too and pressure to purchase one of the vehicles (unless you crash it perhaps).

Ian Bell said...

Really these are some the lovely places to visit.

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