Friday 26 October 2012

The Trinquet de la Cavalerie

On a curve of the Rue de la Cavalerie, not far from the Ecole Militaire and Eiffel tower, stands a rather grandiose art deco car park. Even more impressive than its exterior though is the fact that tucked away on its 6th floor is an unexpected Basque pelota trinquet.

Looking above the ground floor it is difficult to imagine that this 1920s building is a car park, but in many ways this is no ordinary structure - and indeed no ordinary car park. Bring your eyes down to ground level and you'll see that alongside the entrance is an Aston Martin garage! 

My interest though is in a discreet doorway to the left which leads - via a small and creaking elevator - to the 6th floor and a terrace that offers views across the neighbouring rooftops towards the Eiffel tower.

I had been invited here to discover an unsuspected and seemingly secret world, the Club de Pelote Basque de Paris, for a tour of the establishment, an explanation of its history - and a chance to play the game myself!

One thing is immediately obvious - this is a place that was designed as a gentlemen's (sporting) club. Although the building itself sports the clean lines of the art deco movement, the interior of this club is rather stuffy (or cosy), with a predominance of wood and ochre coloured walls. It is easy to imagine members in previous times puffing away here on cigars, the smoke drifting upwards, slowly deepening the tones of the walls and ceilings.

Although the sport itself is ancient in origin, and today based roughly on the French jeu de paume, this particular trinquet - as well as the tennis court alongside and a (now closed) restaurant above - were built by an Argentinian. The facilities were for the Club de Pelote Basque de Paris, founded in 1929 by the same man - the country's ambassador to France, and many of the original fixtures and fittings remain.

Taking up most of the space is the fronton, the court where the game is played, but surrounding this are seating areas for spectators, a small bar and a lounge area. The space has become multi-purpose, offering a centre for other activities for the Basque community, including a choir.

Highlighting the 'gentlemen's club' origins of this trinquet is the fact that it only has one changing room. Even today though this does not provide any major problems as there is currently only one female member at the club!

This is not to say that there is a policy of exclusion here - far from it. The members are all very friendly, taking time to explain the rules, demonstrate the game and lead us through a practice session.

The game is fast, exciting, even rather primitive. The top players are ambidextrous, swapping the paleta bat easily from hand to hand, flicking their wrists to add spin and to search for tight angles. When I play though, it is all about just hitting the ball as hard as possible to make sure it reaches the front wall, a sensation that takes me back to schoolyard games from my childhood.

Sitting watching the game, it is interesting to take note of the surroundings. Almost everything is in wood - the ceiling above the fronton, the seats, the lockers in the changing rooms, the fittings in the lounge and corridors - and clearly most of it dates back to the 1920s. It gives the place an organic feel, the wood slightly battered and humid to the touch, an odour of perspiration in the air from over 80 years of intense physical activity.

It is tempting to imagine using the place as a local club, but annual subscriptions cost upwards of €1200 (although they are cheaper for younger members and students). These prices though are not designed to exclude, but are rather a simple necessity to ensure the survival of the club. The club pays a high rent, and although the building and its interiors are protected, the facility does not yet have listed-status to ensure that it can only ever be used for Basque Pelota in the future.

Although club membership is probably only for those truly passionate about the sport, the members did tell me that visitors are welcome to come and watch games or have a drink at the bar. The whole facility can also be rented out in the evenings if you have a special event to organise!

Thanks to the CPBP for the invitation and initiation, and to happycurious for organising the event. Similar initiation sessions will shortly be organised as part of Mastercard's Priceless Paris programme.

Monday 22 October 2012

Vintage Montparnasse?

Think of Montparnasse and you might be tempted to imagine the district's golden age during the années folles in the 1920s. Whilst vestiges of this period remain, the truth is that the most visible parts of the area today are pure 1970s concrete. Will these elements hold the same cachet for future generations? 

Planted at the heart of the 1970s redevelopment of the Montparnasse district is the famous tower. Still a controversial construction despite the fact that it is approaching its 40th birthday, it also shelters at its feet a rather banal shopping centre. But whilst the tower tries to dress with the times (a system of LED lighting that changes with the seasons has recently been introduced), the shopping centre is more of a throwback.   

The problem with being modern is that in fact you rapidly become outdated. The very definition of a shopping centre is that it is a home to fashion, so in appearance it should always look new. The Montparnasse centre has had many rebirths, but interestingly there are still many fixtures and fittings that have not changed since its inception.

The most visible element is the signage, especially in the basement (labelled rather charmingly here as the 'Rez de Metro'). The impression is that these signs have simply been overlooked, and if anyone noticed they would quickly be torn down and replaced with a uniform colour-free sans serif font.

Here the scripts are curving and multi-coloured, the mixture of the child-like and the hand-created giving a feeling of personalisation and individuality. Another vintage element in one sign (see below) is the usage of the word 'cafeteria', an anachronism today that screams 1970s.

Despite a temptation to link the C&A sign above to this theme, we won't make any reference to it here. However, just below is a small sign that I missed during my visit, but which I noticed when looking at my photos. 

It seems that the concrete corridors of the shopping centre were an instant attraction for roller-skaters, and therefore an activity that the centre managers set out to ban. This sign gives an idea of the footwear fashions of the time!

Elsewhere in Paris we admire the 'original' fittings of the covered shopping arcades of the 18th and 19th centuries, places that had also previously fallen out of fashion. The layers or time - the false ceilings, seperating walls, coats of paint - are removed, taking us back to the vision of the first architects and decorators. We talk of authenticity, of rediscovery, but what would we keep today if we could put ourselves in the shoes of an archeologist from the future?  

I'm happy to try, embracing these pockets of the outmoded before they become another version of some bland modernity. 

Thursday 18 October 2012

Defining the Priceless in Paris

A study commissioned by a multinational ahead of a new promotional campaign aims to reveal what Parisians consider to be priceless about their city. But what can we learn about Paris and its inhabitants from such investigations?

On a rainy evening recently I attended the presentation of a sociological study into what constitutes the priceless for a Parisian, organised by happycurious (a firm of social intelligence consultants) for Mastercard’s soon-to-be launched ‘Priceless Paris’ programme.

As happycurious explained at the event, the study was based around a series of empirical investigations. Firstly in a qualitative manner, through 32 face-to-face interviews, then in a quantitative manner through a larger telephone poll.

The control groups apparently included a cross-section of ages, sexes and socio-professional roles, but the agency also readily admits that only very eloquent individuals were chosen for the interviews. There is a suspicion therefore that the selected group represents only a very particular kind of Parisian (although perhaps also the kind of Parisian likely to possess a Mastercard and the means to use it!).

But what did these city spokespeople reveal about Paris and the people who live in the city? The results were in fact somewhat surprising. Whereas the standard image of a Parisian is the cantankerous complainer, the study actually revealed that they have a genuine emotional attachment to their city. As Elodie Giraud from happycurious later told me, this aspect also surprised them. “We had an intuition that this may be the case, but not to this extent. Our poll showed that 80% of Parisians are still enthralled by the city

For Elodie, the study showed that Paris is a “capital of sentiments”, where priceless moments are mostly “intimate, personal and sometimes confidential”. They are also very individual moments, unique to each person. As the report concludes, “mon Paris inestimable n’est pas celui de tout le monde.

If Parisians are globally happy with their city and the lives they lead there, the study findings - mostly a series of extracts from the interviews - are also tinged with a rather touching melancholy.

Paris is pictured as a very solitary city, where people go on introspective walks and listen to the sounds of their own footsteps in the street. They attend cinema screenings alone, or simply think about all the theatre shows about to begin - without them! 

Parisians are often strangers to their own city, wanting to get lost outside of the comforts of their own immediate districts. It is also a city that people observe passing them by, an intangible place of neon lights and flashing facades. They are admirers of the beauty of Paris but held at distance from its heart.

The priceless moments come when – fleetingly – they feel connected to the city and inspired by it. The everyday moments, work, transport, traffic jams – even the family, are forgotten, and a moment of magic – a previously undiscovered street, a building seen in another light, an evening with friends that stretches into the night – transports them into another place.

This other Paris, a kind of imaginary film set, is often mentioned. It is a place that heightens the romance of encounters, but also makes them feel slightly unreal (“j’ai presque une vie parallèle dans un deuxième Paris qui n’est pas mon Paris du quotidien” as one participant puts it. "Je ne sais pas ce que je vais garder pour de vrai" says another).

The study paints a fascinating and poetic image of Paris and its inhabitants, but at its heart is an inescapable paradox. Whereas participants described sensations such as the odour of the Metro, or “l’orage à Paris l’été et la pluie qui s’abat sur le zinc et les toits” as being ‘priceless’, the final goal of this initiative is to encapsulate these very personal moments and transform them into something that can be packaged and sold to a group. In other words, to put a price on the priceless.

Whether the future programme even attempts to sell such magic or not though is probably irrelevant. As the multinational corporation themselves state ‘some things in life are priceless…for everything else there’s…’.

=> Priceless Paris will be launched on November 14th. Initially it will be open only to card holders in France, but the programme will later be expanded internationally. Similar initiatives already exist in New York and London.

=> Thanks to happycurious for the invitation. Click here to read the results of their study (in French only). Photos copyright Audrey Felix.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Anyone for tennis at the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil?

The lawn leading up to the main greenhouse at the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil would seem to be an ideal spot to place a tennis court - but don't tell that to the garden's regular visitors. A conflict with the neighbouring Roland-Garros tennis stadium has created a storm in this genteel world.

Today there is so little space left in Paris that sites are beginning to merge into one another. Nearby, the new Fondation Louis Vuitton building is eating up 11,000m² of the Jardin d'Acclimatation, whilst across Paris at the Parc de la Villette, the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall has taken up another 19 800 m² of greenery.

The proposed redevelopment of the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil and the Stade Roland-Garros covers an even larger area, and will see the two sites moving ever closer to each other. For the supporters of these quiet gardens - one of the four botanical sites of the city of Paris - this must be resisted at all costs.

The two sites are currently divided by the Avenue Gordon Bennett, but the divisions run much deeper than a single road. In this battle for space, it is less a case of 'we were here first' (the gardens were opened in 1897, the tennis stadium in 1927) and more a case of 'we're richer and more important than you'. The French Open tennis tournament, one of the four stops on the annual Grand Slam circus, risked losing its place if it didn't expand, and the only possible direction was across the road into the gardens.

The proposed solutions involve closing the gardens for the duration of the tournament, and using them to host receptions for the multinational sponsors. A number of greenhouses will also be demolished (although only the more recent buildings 'without any architectural merit'), and replaced by more modern facilities - but on a smaller scale.

Although no work has begun as yet, there is little chance that the garden will be able to fight off the advances of its noisy neighbour. And this will of course be a shame, although not the death of the gardens.

They will still be just as pretty, and the monumental tropical hothouses just as (literally!) breathtaking. For all but three weeks a year, they will surely be just as quiet as they are today. On Sunday mornings, elderly couples will still come and read their newspapers in the shade of hundred-year-old trees as local cats tiptoe across the dew-damp lawn.

The oversized fish will still slowly glide around the pond in the grande serre, and alongside them the caged birds will still sing in vain for their freedom.

The gardens have an air of timelessness, a place of endless cycles that nothing could disturb. They invite discovery, from Rodin's scowling mascarons to unexpected picnic lawns, giant palms to prickly cacti. Interestingly, the gardens themselves morph into another green space, the Square des Poètes. A wire fence runs down the middle of a shared lawn, mysteriously dividing the two worlds.

The gardens will survive, but of more concern is the message spread by these new constructions. Paris must still be the home of all major cultural and sporting venues, whatever this may mean to existing spaces and to the development of the rest of the country. When the French Open was threatened with elimination from the affluent Grand Slam circuit, proposals were made to move the tournament out to new state-of-the-art centres in the Paris suburbs, but such radical solutions seem not to be possible in France.

These new facilities - both sporting and artistic - will continue to raise the prestige of Paris, and attract ever increasing numbers of visitors. Those already in the city will just have to squeeze up a little bit.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Get High on the Nuit Blanche

Alongside the selection of art installations, this year's night-long Nuit Blanche festival also offers the opportunity to discover fifteen normally inaccessible elevated viewpoints.

Held the first Saturday of October, the Nuit Blanche festival in Paris combines large-scale art installations and happenings with the opportunity to discover little-known parts of the city.This year's theme, 'Paris à l'infini', follows the flow of the Seine and aims to beat the normal lengthy queues by opening unusual panoramic viewpoints on the happenings taking place. Chief amongst these are the fifteen tall buildings - none of which is the Eiffel Tower - that will be opened specially - and exceptionally - for the event.   

Focus on four of these 'belvédères', all on the east side of the city.

The Tour Morland

The Tour Morland office block sits on what was the Ile Louviers, a small island on the Seine that existed up until the middle of the 19th century. Somewhat appropriately - given its controversial high-rise concrete architecture - it houses the city's urban planning offices. Although the building has often been criticised, and is today threatened by demolition, it has always had a very tempting looking terrace on the 15th floor. This is a unique chance to visit it!

From 9pm to 2am
17 Boulevard Morland
M° Sully Morland

The Institut du monde arabe

The 8th floor terrace of Jean Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arabe is a relatively well-known viewpoint in the city, offering a sweeping vista down across the Ile Saint Louis to Notre Dame. Less well-known is the Salle du Haut Conseil, the institution's meeting room and conference space situated a floor higher.

If visiting, note that the institute's museum spaces and galleries will also be open during the Nuit Blanche.

From 9pm to 2am
1 rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard
M° Sully-Morland

Bibliothèque François Mitterand

From the Seine, visitors to the national library of France are generally sent up a steep flight of steps before then being sent back down into the depths of the building. The Nuit Blanche though offers the opportunity to climb up to the 18th floor of one of the building's four generally inaccessible book-end towers. 

At a height of nearly 70 metres, it should give a fantastic view down towards one of the highlights of this year's festival, Jacqueline Dauriac's 'Suivez mon panache rose'. Installed in a waste incineration plant, it will transform the site's twin chimneys and their escaping steam into an ever-changing multicoloured creation. Pollution as art!

From 7pm to 2am
Tour 2, Quai François-Mauriac 
M° Quai de la Gare / RER C Bibliothèque François-Mitterrand

Université Pierre et Marie Curie

The highest of all the viewpoints this Saturday night will be from the 24th floor of the tower at the heart of the Jussieu university site.

At the foot of the tower, the Décor Sonore company will create a 'jardin Sharawadji', an installation built around the 'contextual sounds' of the surrounding architecture and landscape (which probably equates to people hitting buildings with a hammer). 

From 7pm to 7am
4 place Jussieu
M° Jussieu

The other belvédères:
  • Cite de l'architecture et du patrimoine
  • Musee quai branly
  • BHV (Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville)
  • Centre Pompidou
  • Hôtel industriel 
  • Gymnase Lucien Gaudin
  • Cité internationale des arts
  • Musée du Louvre
  • Les docks – Cité de la Mode et du Design
  • INALCO Pôle des langues et civilisations
  • Musée Nationale des arts asiatiques
For a sneak preview of the views from some of these buildings, visit

For the full Nuit Blanche programme see: 
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