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.


Chanterelle said...

I discovered this complex by accident last month on the bus ride to Orly. It immediately reminded me of a similar semi-circular complex in Stockholm, also by Bofil. It, too, is weirdly deserted, probably because the chilly monumentality makes it intimidating and unfriendly.

Adam said...

I'm reluctant to attack Bofill's developments as they seem to be quite an easy target, although if they are unfashionable today it is perhaps - as Owen Hatherley recently pointed out because of the "honesty about its dishonesty" of post-modernism.

However, it is not Bofill's undisguised faux-classicism that grates here, but rather - as you point out - the coldness and unfriendliness of the development. The aesthetics of a structure are always a question of personal taste, but it requires more style and design to build a true community.

Anonymous said...

Great post... I wonder what you make of the odd sloping fountain in the middle of the Place?

Adam said...

Hello Anonymous!

It's possibly the most interesting feature of the development, but also symptomatic of its faults. The 'Place' would have been much better served by something accessible, which would have possibly brought more life to this part of Paris. In its current state this is just roundabout art, and no more useful than those flower displays sponsored by local supermarkets.

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