It is an unwritten rule of architecture that things are not always what they seem to be. The Saint Eugène church in the 9th arrondissement of Paris is a perfact example of this maxim, being at once thouroughly modern yet ancient in appearance, impeccably presented yet incredibly run down. Indeed, viewed from the outside on the Rue du Conservatoire you may barely notice that it is a church at all.
The external wall that runs along this quiet street is a large map of cracking and crumbling stone. Benches were cut into this wall, but it seems that they are used only by the city down and outs who stick wine labels onto the descending drainpipes. The pointed window arches and gothic forms of the structure offer clues to the purpose of this building, but the stained glass is barely visible on this side. With a side door sporting a broken window and patches of peeling paint, this does not look like a building that was renovated only 20 years ago.
Turn the corner onto the rather quaint parvis on the Rue Saint Cécile then look face-on at the structure and the purpose on the building will be revealed. There is no spire and little decoration, but from this perspective, it now appears to be a modest parish church. It seems functional, a structure that was designed to fit a particular corner of the city, with decoration that was limited to simple gothic forms in order to not stand out too distinctly from its neighbours.
None of this prepares you for the astonishing interior of the building. Push open the door and you are transported back to the thirteenth century, to a brightly painted medieval edifice. Almost every inch of the interior is decorated in reds, greens and golds, with magnificent stained glass windows adding to the overwhelming sensation of warm colour. On a midweek lunchtime you are likely to be alone, the silence broken only by the squeak of your shoes on the harringbone parquet flooring or the curious mechnanical chiming at each hour. You are free to wander down the aisles where Jules Verne was married in 1857, around the naves lit by second empire suspended chandeliers, or to listen to the echos of the confession boxes.
Sit down and observe more carefully though and you will see that this is a 19th century creation, a curious facsimile of a medieval church interior. What is even more surprising is the fact that the structure was revolutionary at the time, being built around a cast-iron framework that would later be used by Baltard to construct covered food markets. It was the work of Louis Auguste Boileau, an architect who would later also put iron to work when creating the Bon Marché department store. By stripping away all the traditional obstructions, the large stone columns and vaulted ceilings, Boileau was able to produce a structure that would be filled with light and seem larger inside than outside. From almost any point in the church you have a clear and unrestricted view of the rest of the structure.
Returning outside, the relative ordinariness of the church is even more striking. It shares the parvis with the Conservatoire de Musique, an institution where both Berlioz and Bizet studied, but both seem to have been ousted by less spiritual and intellectual pursuits today. On the facade of the church local children have managed to kick a football on to a plinth where previously a statue of a saint would have stood. It somehow seems to be an appropriate symbol today in a largely secular society where sports have become religion replacements.