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.

Chief amongst these is clearly the incredible auditorium. Looking like a large white bosom from the outside, the interior, with its soft, comforting acoustics, is distinctly womb-like. That there should be such feminine features in this building though should not come as a surprise when we consider that it was designed by an architect who readily claimed 'beautiful suntanned women' as being amongst his chief influences.

My work is not about ‘form follows function,’ but ‘form follows beauty’ or, even better, ‘form follows feminine" wrote Niemeyer, and the curves of this building (it's very difficult to find straight lines anywhere in the structure) offer a physical representation of this statement. Nevertheless, with this building Niemeyer proved that beauty could also be functional. Lining the inside of the auditorium are 121,000 backlit aluminium strips, which are not only spectacular but also play a practical role. The metal strips attract dust, which is then sucked up from above by a series of (invisible) air ducts!

The auditorium was completed in 1980 (10 years after the rest of the building), but although it is clearly futurist in design it looks strangely older. Entrance to the pod is via sliding doors that are seemingly inspired by 1950s and 60s science-fiction, but what other kind of doors could have been put into such a structure?

Another peculiarity of the building is its artificial 'natural' light. Security concerns dictated that the functioning of the building should be invisible from the outside (we can imagine that this building was once one of the most observed in Paris by various national and international secret services), so Niemeyer placed the entrance foyer underground. Beneath this is also another layer of meeting rooms and a cafeteria, but for an architect who valued natural light in his structures, these constraints posed a difficult challenge.

The solution seems to have been to create gaps around the peripheries of the various spaces which give the impression of leading up towards natural light sources. With (artificial) light coming primarily from these zones, there is little in the way of very apparent neon lighting in the building.

Niemeyer's other concern for this building was that it should feature no unnecessary decorative features, and that it should be a simple 'maison du travailleur'. To achieve this, he used a particularly raw mix of concrete, which was laid out in what at first seem like wooden planks. One wall in the basement is so unrefined that it looks as if it was formed from some primeval hacking away of the natural stone found on site - which is quite possibly the case!

Using the material in this way gives the building a surprisingly warm and organic feel, and throughout it is a very sensual place. For the final surprise though, you have to head up to the 6th floor and the rooftop terrace.

If much of this structure is reminiscent of a bunker, the rooftop terrace is the lookout post. The building's canteen was originally also situated on the top floor of the building, meaning that whilst it was impossible for people outside to see inside the building, those inside could easily observe everything happening in the city beneath them.

Once more in a kind of sculptured concrete (elements here that in fact hide 'ugly' functional equipment such as air-conditioning units), the terrace offers impressive views across Paris. From here it also easy to see - and to walk - the buildings curves, but to see the hammer and sickle shape formed by the building, the pathway in the garden, and the stairway and lift block, you'll have to rely on Google maps!

Siège du Parti Communiste
2 Place du Colonel Fabien, 75019 (M° Colonel Fabien)
The building is generally open during the Journées du Patrimoine in September, and sporadically at other times during the year.


Eric Caillé said...

Superbe! Merci.

SM said...

Beautiful pictures, that really show the stark yet strangely warm interiors. Also I have very much enjoyed your musings detailing our favorite city world.

Kiki said...

This is a spectacular post, Adam! Thank you very much - so interesting and such a wealth of wonderful photos. I too would never have been able to imagine something so sensual in a Communist Party's HQ... but then I never spent a thought on this either. You really have a special knack for the unusual and well hidden! Happy New Year to You.

aleksandar said...

Oscar Niemeyer was one of my favourite architect [I am an architect myself] but I was until now totally unaware how fascinating this building is. Thank you Adam.
Aleksandar, Toronto

gee said...

can you suggest good cheap eateries within walking distance of main stations, great blog

Anonymous said...

Adam, thanks for this post. I know the building well from the outside, but found your virtual tour of the interiors fascinating, and surprising. Jill

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