Wednesday 30 January 2013

A Murmuration of Starlings

On and around a condemned building in the Rue de l'Orillon, a group of starlings is currently putting on a performance each evening at dusk. But for how long?

Around an hour before sundown they begin to gather. Not in trees or on rooftops but instead on the metallic branches of an giant television antenna. A clandestine and somewhat dangerous-looking installation, it nevertheless provides the perfect look-out spot across the city.

They arrive in groups of 15-20 birds, feral packs that have spent the day scavanging across different parts of the city. The birds jostle for position on the arial, before setting out on their mass pre-bedtime swooping, twisting display.

Sunday 27 January 2013

The Swimming Pool that Sank and other Watery Tales

Having a fascination with obscure - but atmospheric - vintage Paris postcards, I naturally couldn't resist this curiously framed river shot, taken from the bankside in front of the Hotel de Ville.

It is rare to see Paris cloaked in such a gloomy London-style pea soup fog, particularly in postcards, but the subject of this picture is not the weather. Instead, the photographer has focussed his camera on three fantastically grimy children onboard a barge.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Celebrating Oscar Niemeyer at the Siege du Parti Communiste

I have previously written about the Paris HQ building of the French Communist party on this blog, but last weekend gave me the opportunity to explore the interiors - and to take plenty of photographs!

To celebrate the life of Oscar Niemeyer, the building's architect, who died at the end of 2012 (aged 104!) - the doors of the French Communist party HQ were opened to the public for the weekend. Naturally, for a place that has prided itself on its secrecy, not all doors were open, but it was possible to visit the most interesting parts of the building.

Sunday 13 January 2013

L'Albatros: a Skeleton of Silent Film

When researching my recent post on French silent film star Max Linder I was surprised to discover that the studio in which he made most of his films was still standing. At the earliest opportunity I headed out there - camera in hand - to investigate.

The story of the studios goes back to 1904, when Charles Pathé, in competition with Georges Méliès and the Star Film company, decided to add a new facility in Montreuil to those he already owned in neighbouring Vincennes. The location he chose was an old race horse stables, with the horse boxes being transformed into dressing rooms!

Far more modern was the glass construction he built alongside for filming. Although it may have been unbearably hot in summer, the idea was that it would let in a maximum amount of natural light, a necessity in a time before sophisticated lighting rigs on sets.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Les Echelles du Baroque: a Post-Modern Pastiche

In the 1980s, Paris and its surrounding towns developed a taste for the post-modern architecture of Ricardo Bofill and his disciples from the 'Le Taller de Arquitectura' movement. To see how their schemes fit into today's city, I took a walk around the Place de Catalogne.

Like most architects, Bofill is not somebody who has ever lacked ambition. Asked to redevelop an area behind the Montparnasse train station, Bofill - who was already behind a series of mega developments in the Paris suburbs - proposed 'les Echelles du Baroque', a huge and rather pretentiously-named apartment block.

Curving around a roundabout, and spiraling backwards into two distinct plazas, the development contains the considerable total of 274 apartments. Nevertheless, forced to respect planning restrictions in Paris it contains only 7 floors (despite being in the shadow of the 59-floor Montparnasse tower, built 10 years earlier). 

Walking around the development, the first thing that strikes me is how dated it looks. This is not necessarily a bad thing - after all, art deco or art nouveau architecture is equally date-stamped, but this scheme was supposed to be a timeless one, a reminder of classical forms and structures. 

The 'Le Taller de Arquitectura' team is said to include not only architects, engineers and planners, but also musicians, film-makers and philosophers. Although based in Barcelona, the team has built more apartments in France than in any other country (over 2000 in France against 1500 in Spain). Why though were the French so taken with this particular style and ideology?

The answer probably was that it flattered them (Bofill cites both Mansard and Ledoux as his key influences) and it was hoped that it would change public attitudes towards architecture following the uncompromising constructions of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, Bofill claimed that he wanted his constructions to reconcile the public with modern architecture and to create 'monuments for the people'.

Outlining his motivations, Bofill states that he tries " decipher the spontaneous movements and behaviour of people, and to detect the needs of change that they might unconsciously express." But if these desires and wishes are never consciously expressed, how could he be so sure that his take on 'classical' city designs - which he claims are embedded in humanity's collective conscience and memory - are what people really want?

The problem is that none of this seems entirely convincing. It may be modelled on baroque designs and feature classical Doric columns, but it is - as writer Andrew Ayers put it - "a Legoland 'Versailles for the people' classicism" in pre-fabricated concrete.

In many ways it is an architecture that seems more suited to the new towns where Bofill first worked in France, places such as Marne la Vallée (the Palacio d'Abraxas) and Saint Quentin en Yvelines (les Arcades du Lac) that had no specific identity and were looking for something a little regal (whilst also keeping costs low). In Paris, Bofill's architecture can always be compared to original classical models, and quickly revealed as the pastiche it is.

Although Bofill's desire has always been to create neighbourhoods by stitching disparate entities together into the city fabric, there is little evidence that any kind of community has developed here in the 25 years since this project was finished.

It is in fact something of a forgotten zone, a passageway for cars crossing the city. Indeed, although the development has the curved form of an Italianate piazza, it remains simply the edge of a roundabout.

Bofill's golden age in France has clearly passed. His group has produced very little in Paris and the surrounding area in the last 20 years, suggesting that this was an post-modern experiment that never really worked.
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