Monday, 29 June 2009

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

A concrete palace built alongside a hidden underground river from which thousands of the national treasures of the French state have disappeared. Definitely a part of the city worthy of further investigation!

At the entrance to the headquarters of the Mobilier National in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, the architect Auguste Perret placed two concrete guard dogs. Laying motionless on their plinths, they seemingly offer little protection to the state treasures that are stored inside the building. These treasures, perhaps tapestries from the Gobelins workshops or Louis XVI desks, are made available to ministers, bureaucrats and diplomats who are free to choose exactly how they wish to decorate their offices and reception rooms. At the end of their mandates they are supposed to return the goods, but it would seem that this does not always happen. Today, upwards of 16,000 pieces are unaccounted for.

Created over six hundred years ago, the Mobilier National has the role of storing, lending, repairing and sometimes creating a selection of national treasures. Originally based on the Place de la Concorde, by the twentieth century the Mobilier National desperately needed a newer and better adapted structure, and in 1934, modernist Auguste Perret was given the job. The creation he designed and built is one treasure that will hopefully not be allowed to vanish!

Perret was given a rather awkward piece of land to work with, nestled behind the Manaufacture des Gobelins within the grounds of the old family chateau. The terrain has a large slope, and was limited by the contours of the River Bièvre, a small stream which has today been buried underground (and which I will write about in more depth very shortly!). Perret though had a particular idea in his head, and was able to use the slope to his advantage to create a very astucious and interesting structure.

Auguste Perret was at once a rationalist, modernist and a classicist. He received a classic education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but became convinced by the qualities of concrete. For Perret though, concrete would architects of the modern era to create structures that would be the equal of those of antique eras. His buildings (the most famous of which are probably the Palais d'Iéna and the Théatre des Champs Elysées) all followed classical rules, and the Mobilier National was no exception.

Perret wanted to create a stately cour d'honneur for the building, but with the 4m slope he needed first to create an artificial ground level. Once this was in place he was able to build the three-sided structure around this courtyard. This raised platform also gave him a natural basement level where vehicles could enter directly from the rear. In many respects, he created a kind of updated version of the Hôtel Particulier with a built-in basement garage!

Although built entirely in reinforced concrete the building is nevertheless an attractive one. Perret believed in a rational use of materials and mostly chose to work only with the simplest block forms, but he often broke his own rules for purposes of decoration. He added traces of coloured marble into the concrete mix to find the perfect tint to the building and produced a series of columns which support a cornice on which the name of the building is written.

And then there are the dogs. A classical touch again, they look out across the sunken stream and make visitors hesitate before entering the building. Unfortunately though, the front of this building, alongside the Square René-Le-Gall, sees few visitors, and the dogs have slipped into an apathetic slumber. Whilst they rest, local dogs come and urinate on them, and members of the powers that be help themselves to the treasures from the unguarded rear of the building.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Hidden Treasures

Next Saturday (4th of July) the streets of Paris will be alive with treasure seekers as one of the biggest Treasure Hunts in the world takes place. This event has given me the opportunity to talk to Benoît Leoty, one of the team at event organisers Ma Langue au Chat, about the philosophy and practicalities behind the organisation of such events.

When I ask how such an original company as Ma Langue au Chat came into existence, Leoty is slightly troubled. The principal behind the company business is very simple, the organisation of treasure hunts, mostly in urban environments and primarily for business clients, but who could have found the idea for such a niche industry in the first place? Leoty first checks with Charles Carmignac, the company founder, that he can tell me the story, and once permission is given, he relates the charming tale.

Charles Carmignac met a girl at a party and they got on really well. For the first date afterwards, she organized a treasure hunt around Paris, with the objective being to find out exactly where she was. For the second date he did the same, and it continued on like that afterwards. The story has not finished yet either, as they are now engaged to be married!”. Ma Langue au Chat was born when Charles Carmignac told this story to a group of people one evening and was then asked by one individual to organise something similar for a team at his company.

Ma Langue au Chat has now been in existence for over 5 years with the real turning point towards success being the day that they won the tender for the Paris Treasure Hunt. The event has now mushroomed into a day which needs upwards of 6 months of preparation and a team of 15 staff to run it (not counting the 120 volunteers, the numerous actors situated en route and the 300 shopkeepers and artisans who will be taking part on the day). For everyone involved, the event is looked at as being a chance to meet people, discover Paris and simply to have fun. Is this the objective of all their Treasure Hunts though?

It depends on the client” says Leoty. “We have a package of standard pre-tested events, but many clients want something particular. In these cases, the treasure hunt is a medium, a way to communicate a message”. Whilst all events must have an element of fun and humour (company rules at Ma Langue au Chat!), the final message can be something serious, with sustainable development being a regular theme.

I’m also interested to know whether there is anything particular about Paris that incites such activities. For Leoty, Paris is their chosen area simply because it’s the place they know best and because most clients are based in the region, but they have also organised successful events in Barcelona, Shanghai and Morocco. “I love Paris and now see it in a completely different way despite having lived here all my life” Leoty explains, “however, the basic themes could be organised in almost any city”. Nevertheless, Paris with its old and new structures, secret passages, underground tunnels and buried rivers does retain a true air of mystery.

I ask whether this need to discover secrets and find treasures in a city environment is linked to a primeval fear of the urban, but Leoty doesn’t agree. “I think deep down we are all children and this activity helps us to rediscover our childhood. The city is normally a dull, bleak environment, somewhere we work and commute, and this helps us to see it in another light. It’s as if the city puts on a mask and suddenly becomes playful”.

Masks and play-acting are a central theme to Ma Langue au Chat’s activities. Actors are recruited to help teams begin the search and give assistance during the event, and will always be present when the treasure is discovered. Founder Charles Carmignac also wants the participants to see themselves as actors too, and to feel like they are discovering the plot as they go along. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction from the participants therefore comes from this feeling of being an actor in the city, and not just a simple passive inhabitant.

Finally, we come to the most important point, the goal and the grail – the treasure. “The treasure is absolutely essential” agrees Leoty, “it must be a huge moment involving a trick or a special challenge. It must solve the mystery and give the participants an immense feeling of satisfaction”. Jungian psychologists speak of the ‘grail legend’, in essence man’s search for what makes life meaningful, and perhaps seeking and finding treasure in this way helps us to satisfy an inherent need.

Ma Langue au Chat see their events as simple, fun activities, but perhaps they have stumbled across something that goes much deeper into our psyches!

The Paris Treasure Hunt:
Thanks first of all the MLAC team for their time and for the photos used in this post.

10 different districts of Paris are taking part in the event and the basic idea is that you choose one and pick one of the hunts on offer. In total, 80 different hunts are taking place, with one in each district being in English. Each hunt is expected to last for between 2 and 4 hours.
For more details, visit the official website.
I also recommend that you take a look at Ma Langue au Chat’s excellent and mysterious website!

An Exclusive Secret!
I asked Benoît Leoty if he could give my readers an example of a mysterious place in the city to check out for themselves and he gave me a suggestion. He gives no guarantees that you will find treasure though!

Go to Rue Lepic in Montmartre, then find the number 45. In fact, you will see many number 45s on the wall. Push open the large double doors and you will find yourself…in another street! This old cobbled courtyard is a throwback to an older era, and is a part of the city that was swallowed up when the city expanded”.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A Flight Back in Time

For professional reasons I found myself last week at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget in the northern suburbs of Paris, and although my brief was to concentrate on state of the art technology, I did manage to find some time to investigate the distinctive, historic architecture of the airport. It was my first visit to the site, but I can safely say that it is it is well worth the short trip from the capital for anybody who is interested in designs of the 1920s and 30s.

For over fifty years, Le Bourget was the principal airport of Paris. It was a place that saw the birth of aviation and the stationing of airborne troops during the 1914-18 war. The first passenger flights began around 1919, linking Paris to London, Brussels and Amsterdam, with around 6000 taking such flights in 1920. It was also the site of aviation advances and exploits, and was the place that Charles Lindbergh landed his ‘Spirit of Saint Louis’ in 1927, becoming the first man to cross the Atlantic single-handed. Over 150,000 people were present to see him arrive, and a delicate and graceful statue marking this event can still be found on site today.

As passenger numbers increased and to meet the needs of the large numbers of visitors expected for the 1937 Universal Exhibition, a new airport structure was required. The architect Georges Labro won the competition and designed a subtle, yet powerful 233m long building. The structure was a success, and with 21,000 flights and 138,000 passengers in 1939, Le Bourget became Europe’s second largest airport. But then war broke out.

Requisitioned and transformed by German troops, it was later almost entirely destroyed by allied bombardments during the liberation of Paris. However, being the only airport in Paris at the time, rapid reconstruction was needed once the war had finished, and it was Georges Labro who took on the job again, rebuilding the structure in almost its exact previous form. Passenger traffic eventually reached 600,000 travellers a year, but after the Orly, then Roissy airports were built, Le Bourget gradually slipped back into provincial obscurity.

The old and the new; an Airbus A380 flies over Le Bourget.

Despite the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace taking up residence in the airport structures in the 1970s, we should not make the mistake of thinking that the entire site has become a museum. Today Le Bourget is Europe’s busiest airport for private and business traffic, and the hangars still resonate with the noise of creation and repair. These magnificent reinforced concrete structures give a glimpse of what the site looked like in the 1920s. Built by Henri Lossier in 1922, these massive 15m by 50m units were damaged in the war and slightly adjusted afterwards, but the basic forms we see today are identical to the originals.
Although the building was saved by the installation of the museum, it does seem today to be in need of the planned restoration project. The white marble exteriors are grey and crumbling, and green shoots are sprouting out of inaccessible corners. It is interesting also to see the carved sculptures on the façade held in place by netting. These figures were designed as a celebration of the far-flung French colonies, but it seems strangely apt today to see them represented as people being tied up and ensnared.

Despite these problems, Labro’s main airport building remains an architectural wonder and a rare glimpse of a unique period in history. The charming curves and timeless design should ensure that once restored, the building will still have a very long life ahead of it, even if the footsteps of passengers are now a muffled sound of the past.

Note: If you more interested in aviation than architecture, Owen has some great photos of the Paris Air Show on his blog.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Fabric of Society

Reading an article recently, I was struck by a particular point. I may now have put down blood red roots into French soil, but I will always remain an immigrant. The whole topic of immigration is one that fascinates me, especially how it has shaped Paris throughout history, and forced the city to evolve and develop, and the article dealt with all these subjects. Taking a look at the integration of a Chinese community and the evolution of an inner-city area, the article, published in the influential Triple Canopy online magazine, was written by local journalist Jules Treneer. I decided to speak to him about the article and talk about the subjects he discussed in more depth.

The article deals ostensibly with the problem of monoactivité, namely the fact that a Chinese immigrant community has purchased a whole series of shop units across several streets in the 11th arrondissement and transformed them into wholesale textile plots. But what exactly is the problem here? In this one square mile area (Sedaine-Popincourt), 600 of the 850 shop units are now Chinese owned, and as Treneer points out, all are garish, with “names reminiscent of cheap perfumes: Lady Belle, Show Girls, Miss Coco”. The City Council and local residents believe this domination has killed community life, and a fight-back based around legislation has begun.

However, as Treneer tells me, monoactivité is not just confined to this sector. The Latin Quarter on the left-bank has seen bars, restaurants and food stores swallowed up by upmarket fashion outlets and art galleries, and banks and financial units have taken over much of the 8th arrondissement, but we rarely hear or read about this side of the problem. Is the action to remove the Chinese from the sector, simply, as Treneer mentions, a case of ‘bourgeois aesthetics’, or is it, as he also suggests, discrimination?

My interest in writing this article was not necessarily from a perspective of urbanism but rather about how immigrant populations are integrated into FranceTreneer told me. We were drinking coffee in the heart of a district that has seen waves of immigrant communities from around the world more or less successfully integrated, but what is different about this situation? During his research on the subject, Treneer was always surprised to see that members of the Chinese community were not given a voice in the French media when the subject was discussed, and it is this lack of dialogue which he believes to be at the heart of the situation.

"There is mutual distrust and a lack of understanding on both sides" he points out. Treneer himself had problems finding people prepared to talk about the subject. The controlling Parti Socialiste on the city council refused to speak to him, and it was also a struggle to find a representative of the notoriously discreet Chinese community. As he points out, “change in France has largely occurred through conflict then agreement, but here there has been neither”. Instead, the 'crime' of the Chinese community has been to not respect the unwritten laws of French society.

In the article, Treneer makes an interesting contrast with the previous dominant group in the area - Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman empire. Although they kept much of their culture, they also immediately adhered to community rules and even signed up to go to war. Contrast this with the Chinese who have successfully created a parallel society of their own, with their own shops, banks, doctors, and funeral parlours. They are the very opposite of a financial burden on the state, but the state does not like to feel unwanted and ignored.

The successful running of French society hinges on people playing the game and adhering to a system of cultural consensus" Treneer points out. “What you have to remember though” he adds, “is that the French identity and the concept of community were constructed by the state in the 19th century”. For Treneer, this shared identity, imposed by a paternalistic state, is artificial and ultimately unhelpful, leading to increased exclusion. In effect, the Chinese are now being punished simply because their idea of commerce and society does not match the dominant French model.

The French have always tried to limit the power of the market and inject social constraints into the world of commerce. The solution found by the City Council to combat monoactivité has been to use powers of pre-emption on empty units and fill them with carefully chosen tenants, but a question worth asking is whether we can stage manage city life in this manner. Interestingly, Treneer points out that many of the stores that have been chosen have been idyllic units selling organic food and handmade gifts, but not necessarily what people are likely to use on a daily basis. "Are these really economically viable? If they were, would they need this legislation?".

The truth in this particular case is a very cloudy mix. The Sedaine - Popincourt area has never been particularly picturesque and has always been dominated by textile related trades. The business of the Chinese is nothing new here, and as Treneer points out, it is more the large supermarkets that have killed community commerce. Is this then the French state trying to force a group to comply with certain rules? Treneer is an American and more used to a model of integration through work, "if you are law abiding and hard working in the United States you'll be left alone" he points out. So just what is successful integration? The individual adopting the local culture, or the individual being successful within the framework of an adopted state? Personally I'm trying for both!

Additional Information:
Read Jules Treneer's full article here.
All photography in this post, except the first picture, published courtesy of Romy Treneer.
Jules Treneer will also be working for the soon to launch Faster Times online journal.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Invisible Music

This Sunday sees the now traditional Fête de la Musique in France, and although I'm not a huge fan of the event, it does give us the opportunity to experience some unusual places in an original way. I dislike the crowds and the almost forced joyousness of the experience, but the selection of places I mention here should remain quite calm and restrained!

The following is a list of places I've previously written about on my blogs where musical events are taking place:

Chapelle St Louis, Hôpital Salpetrière: Berlioz, Mozart and Verdi in this empty, cavernous structure should be very impressive! (18:00 - 20:00)

Institut du Monde Arabe: North African music (19:30 - 23:30)

Hopital St Louis: Various styles in a wonderful relaxing environment (14:00 - 20:00)

Musée de Cluny: Just a one hour show based around the theme of women in the Orient (12:30 - 13:30)

Temple du Foyer de l'Ame: (Pictured above) Classical music performed on the organ, and a rare chance to visit this interesting building near the Place de la Bastille (18:30 - 19:30)

Finally, a special mention. Regular reader Tim will be playing at the La Tactique bar in the Rue Pascal (75005) at 15:30. I'll be there!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Art of Innocence

There has been much discussion recently on the movement of street art from its spiritual home on the walls of the city into a warmer, more comfortable home on the walls of art galleries. I previously wrote about an exhibition of street artists taking place in the 20th arrondissement, whilst Peter wrote this week about artists selling prints outside a bar in the 13th arrondissement. In the more official, organised art world, there has been an exhibition of Tags at the Grand Palais this year, private galleries are becoming specialists in the genre, and the first Street Art auction is soon to take place in Paris. Given this move towards restrictive conformity, what future is there for the genre?

I was delighted therefore to return home one evening, and discover three tiny pictures pasted on to the wall of my apartment building. Clearly created by the hands of children and placed down at their level, they were a tryptich of pure joy. They didn't last long in their temporary gallery, but shouldn't all street art be ephemeral? We can hardly talk of art in this case, but the simple pleasure of creating and sharing is a message to us all.

And on the subject of messages, here is another in my unofficial series of what Gina has helpfully labelled for me as 'drainpipe art'! She has a fantastic example on her site, whilst mine is just purely enigmatic. Who is this 'Jeune femme polonaise' and what was she proposing? The service was obviously an attractive one, as all the tear off contact details have been removed. It's just another mysterious, temporary message written on the face of the city, and one that could never be transferred to a gallery wall.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Bored on the 4th of July?

My attention has been drawn to an event taking place in Paris on Saturday the 4th of July which may be of interest to residents of the city or even people just visiting. The event is a treasure hunt that promises to take you to a hidden and secret side of the city and see “the Paris of the Parisians”. Indeed, you should even get to meet and interact with some of them! Don’t worry if you have limited French as guides and enigmas are also available in English. The event is free and desgined to be a fun way to get to know the city better, but prizes will be awarded to the most successful teams.

A website has also been created giving more details of the event and also the opportunity to win a prize beforehand. A riddle will be placed on the site, and the first person to solve it and send the correct answer will win a night in a top hotel in Paris on the night before the event (Friday 3rd of July). Good luck!

This event has been organised by a very interesting agency called ‘Ma langue au chat’, specialists in treasure hunts and other similar events. Look out for a feature on them on Invisible Paris very soon!

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Call Me Blue

"When I put a green," the painter Matisse said, "it is not grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky".
Painters were liberated from the constraints of colours over a century ago, but Parisian architects have remained rooted to a rational consensus. Mostly this can be attributed to strict planning rules, but perhaps also to some supposed laws of good taste. It was a surprise therefore to find such a striking blue streaked building in the city, but why was it that this structure's florid ostantatiousness didn't look out of place to me?

It was perhaps the weather. On another day, with rain drizzle in my eyes, I may have walked past this building and found it unsightly, but this bright blue morning it seemed a perfect fit in its environment. Later I discover that the building was born in the same year as me. I'm a child of the 1970s, and this building had that decade written clearly on its facade too. Had I found a birth soulmate, and do I have some need for colour that stems from my polychromic childhood?

In reality the building is somewhat banal, a corner block that we might expect to find in a hospital housing nurses. It is the rarity of such a bold use of colour in Paris that is worthy of note, but is it an attractive building? All colour is risk and confrontation, and it is always easier to stay neutral. I'm glad that such pockets of colour can be found in the city, but perhaps tellingly I'm not sure whether I would want to live in this blue shell all year round.

Here it is from Google Street View - visit the building and give me your opinion!

Agrandir le plan

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Red's not Dead

It used to be said that France was the largest Communist country in the Western world. Although post-war Presidents of France have almost exclusively been from right-wing parties, whole swathes of the country have long been run by communist groups, notably in coastal cities and in a red line of towns around Paris. At the height of this position of power and influence, the French Communist party (PCF) decided to build a prestigious new headquarters building, choosing the famous Brazilian modernist and party sympathiser Oscar Niemeyer as chief architect. Niemeyer, who was living in exile in France at the time, worked benevolently on the project.

The building is situated on the otherwise non-descript Place du Colonel Fabien. This place, which in reality is little more than a large roundabout, was previously known as the Place du Combat, and was named after the organized animal fights that used to take place here. It was renamed after the second world war in honour, rather aptly, of a communist militant and resistant who was killed in 1944.

The building is set back from the road, a design decision that Niemeyer took for two reasons. Firstly he wanted to hide a rather unattractive structure situated in a plot behind, and secondly for reasons of secrecy and security. It is almost impossible to see the somewhat sunken entrance from the street, and this coupled with the reflective glass windows of the façade makes it very difficult for observers to see who is entering or who is inside the building. This may seem excessive today, but this is a building that has undoubtedly been regularly under surveillance from secretive governmental organisations.

Beyond these aspects, this is in many ways a typical Niemeyer structure. Modernist in form, with its concrete body raised up on a series of pilotis, it manages to escape the block-like rigidity of other similar structures due to Niemeyer’s insistence on curves. Originally designed in 1965, the building was not fully completed and inaugurated until 1980, and it is perhaps this which has given it a slightly timeless feel. It is undoubtedly elegant from the exterior, but it is the interior which is truly worth seeing. The white dome pushing through the garden courtyard is a clue, but few would imagine the fascinating ‘space-age’ central committee auditorium that lays beneath. Visits are organised in September during the ‘journees de la patrimoine’, but only very exceptionally at other times of the year.

The interior of the Espace Niemeyer (photo taken from

With changing political situations, the Communist party influence has waned in France, and this building has become something of a heavy weight for the party. Too expensive to run, it is nevertheless much in demand (fashion shoots, conferences etc), but how could the party profit from this without renouncing on their fundamental principles? The solution has been to rename the building the ‘Espace Niemeyer’ and to rent out two of the floors to other organisations, one of which is a company producing animation films. This is not as improbable as it sounds as there is something rather graphic and cinematographic about the whole structure. For my son, who only sees the white dome, it is the ‘Tellytubby house’, but who knows where the producers of that programme got their inspiration. Could that also be a clue as to the political sympathies of Tinky-Winky and friends?

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Rough Philanthropy

Walking along the Rue Jeanne d'Arc in the 13th arrondissement it would be easy to pass by a genuine piece of social history without noticing anything exceptional. At number 45, directly opposite the quaint and attractive houses of the Villa Auguste Blanqui, stands the first social housing project built in the city, a collection of small apartments which were paid for by a man of fortune to house the unfortunate.

A plaque on the front of the building shows that it was run by an organisation called the Societé Philanthropique (who still manage the building today), and the city of Paris have helpfully put a sign in the street outside giving an outline of the story, but what is most striking about the structure is the rough brickwork of the facade. This is social housing at its most basic, clean and functional accommodation, but devoid of any decorative features that may have encouraged the poor to stay a little too long.

It was a rich banker named Michel Heine who paid for this construction through his Fondation Heine charity. He donated 600,000 Francs to the Societé Philanthropique and asked them to build a home for the 'deserving poor'. This was very much the philosophy of the Societé Philanthropique who believed (and apparently still believe) in helping the poor to help themselves, funding projects that help people get through difficult moments, to rebuild lives, or simply where the old could see out the rest of their days in dignity.

Michel Heine was an interesting man, somebody who spent many years in the USA and married into the Richelieu dynasty (he was eventually buried in the family tomb). He knew and gave financial support to Sarah Bernhardt, calling her his 'cochon doré' (golden pig!). Heine's reaction to the building he financed is not documented, but it is possible that it was severe enough to ensure that no such buildings were put up again. Later constructions managed by the Societé Philanthropique all contained decorative elements, and it is suspected that the rich benefactors who paid for them did not want to be associated with such basic, functional structures. After all, it was their names which were often featured at the entrance.

For more details on this building, see my post on Bricks in Paris.

Friday, 5 June 2009

City of Lights, Camera, Action

I'm always interested to hear how other people see Paris, so I was very happy to be contacted recently by the publishers of a new book on the city. For some people Paris is defined by its architecture whilst for others it is written out in the pages of a book, but for writer Michael Schurmann, the city is one large film set. So great is his passion that he has dedicated much of his recent life to the creation of a series of 'movie walks' which take the visitor through circuits of some of the key film locations in the city. Interested by his passion and his unusual perspective of the city, I was fortunate this week to chat with him and get a personal tour of his Montmartre neighbourhood.

Originally from Germany, Schurmann spent several years working in London, notably with the BBC World Service before a company takeover eventually brought him to Paris. He worked for several years at Eurosport as a commentator, mostly for American sports, but today divides his time between writing and freelance translation. Always a film buff, his passion grew as he got to know the city better, and today he lives on the almost permanant film set which the Montmartre hill has become. As soon as we leave his front door he is immediately able to point out the locations of two films and the previous apartment of one of France's top directors.

The staircase leading down to the Au Soleil de la Butte café, both featured in the 1995 remake of Sabrina.

Our walk takes us through some of the more well known sites such as those used in Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain, but there are many surprises en route as well. Schurmann is meticulous in his research, sometimes spending hours in front of his television, pausing films at key moments and studying a scene in minute detail. He then walks around the approximate area of the shoot until he finds the eureka moment of the exact location and the precise camera angle. In this way he believes that he has made discoveries that are not documented elsewhere, notably with the film An American in Paris (the scene location is pictured at the top of this post). As he writes in the book,

"All the books on the subject say that the entire movie was shot on a Hollywood sound stage, where the original settings were more or less faithfully re-created, but if you compare the view you're seeing (here at the top of the staircase) with the film's final tableau, the similarities seem too striking to believe that we're merely seeing a recreation in the film"

A key location in 1998's Ronin.

As we walk we chat, and I point out to Schurmann that creating a successful walk is a little like producing a successful film; it needs to have a good beginning and end, and not to lose people in the bits between. He agrees, but points out that by following a movie walk in Paris people are unlikely to ever get bored or find their attention drifting. For American audiences, Paris is always used for a reason, and when Paris is chosen as a location it becomes one of the biggest stars in the film. To use it against type and send audiences to some non-descript corner of the 15th arrondissement for example would be like using Brad Pitt in a film and only giving him a walk on part. Why go through the trouble and expense of using this star if you don't then give audiences what they want? For this reason, almost all the locations described in the book are picturesque and often feature key touristic sites.

A case of life imitating art. The epicier featured in Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain was rendered 'more authentic' for the film, but the store owner has kept it in exactly the same condition since.

I ask Schurmann if there is there any film though that has taken the risk to use the city against type, and he thinks hard. The answer he gives is also his favourite film set in the city; The Bourne Identity. He calls it 'an andidote to the saccharine that's an occupational hazard for people who watch too many movies about Paris'. This is not Roger Moore fighting Grace Jones on the Eiffel Tower, but Matt Damon hiding out in a no star hotel in a forgotten corner of Belleville. All of the locations used are logical and realistic and as Schuermann says, 'give you a real feel for the city'. It is featured in no less than seven of the ten walks in the book.

Schurmann is not a frustrated director or screenwriter, but just somebody with a genuine passion for film. I'm even surprised to learn that he would not particularly be interested in working as a location hunter. 'Can you imagine how difficult that job would be in reality?' he asks. 'Sure Paris is a dream city for making films, but how do you find locations that haven't already been used twenty times before? You need to incorporate recognisable sites, yet find angles that are completely new'.

Perhaps Paris will one day become the faded star, the actress who appeared in too many films and who began to bore the audience. Schurmann thinks this unlikely given the fact that the city authorities are so helpful to film makers and because the city itself is just so adaptable. As we walk along the top of Rue Lepic, my guide explains that this street was used at the beginning of La Vie en Rose (Piaf). 'It's so easy to make this street represent any era' he explains. 'For this film they just had to put up a few old posters, put the extras in costume and find a horse, and it is immediately the beginning of the 20th century'. However, he does have many examples of films that were supposedly set in Paris but in reality were filmed in other, cheaper cities, with Budapest being a particularly popular alternative.

We finish the walk and I thank Schurmann for showing me sites I wasn't familar with. I am not especially passionate about the cinema myself, but I find the book nevertheless to be an informative and entertaining read. Featuring over 120 films, it gives regular historical and cultural asides, and is much like going on a walk with the man himself. The tone is light-hearted and amusing, and the book always gives readers opportunities to dip in and out and organise the walks in their own manner. Finally, as Schurmann points out, 'even if you don't like the cinema and don't know the movies, you're still going to see some great parts of the city!'

Paris Movie Walks by Michael Schurrman is available from Amazon in the US, and will be published in the UK in August.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

All Paris is his Stage

If you have taken a Metro or walked the streets in Paris recently you may well have seen this poster splashed across a wall or window. It shows a man in various 'roles', and says simply 'this man is an actor. He wants to act - test him'. We are inclined to see such campaigns today as being teasers, something that catches our attention then leads us disappointingly towards another banal product to consume. In this case though, this advert is absolutely genuine. This really is an underworked actor who is desperate to land a first role in cinema or television.

Fabrice Yahyaoui, like thousands of others before him, has studied at some of the top stage schools in the city, but he has now found that he cannot get the big break. He performs occassionally in the theatre, but cannot find an agent, and without an agent, he can't get into any castings. After sending his book across the city and getting no replies, he decided to find another way to get noticed. He may not find a role through this technique, and indeed he may not even be a good actor, but he has found a certain amount of fame and says that he is now even recognised in the Metro!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Je Ne Suis Pas Un Artiste

The sun beats down hard on this dusty corner of Paris on this Sunday in May. For the passer-by, the scene in front of them here on Rue Ramponeau is a strange one. The yard is a wasteland, a collection of piles of rocks and pallets, and here and there patches of green forcing their way through the dry earth. On either side, monumental walls, covered with large, polychrome sprayed murals. To the rear, barely perceptible glass walls. This is La Forge de Belleville, a site that has been the scene of much controversy and debate recently.

Previously a key factory dating from 1912, it had been earmarked in 1991 for transformation into a small shopping centre before a group of artists decided to squat the building and eventually force the city council into a rethink. The artists were given permission to stay, this time as legal rent paying residents, on a rolling contract. The city of Paris was still the owner of the land, and paid for regular improvements to the buildings on site, and could still decide who or what could be installed here once the contract came to an end. As 2008 drew to a close and with the end of the contract nearing, the city decided to ask interested parties to bid for the new contract.

The group currently on site, known as la Forge de Belleville, strongly linked to the original artists who claim to have saved the buildings from demolition, was one of the bidders, but eventually lost out to a rival group of artists known as TRACES. This second association proposed to open the centre up to local residents, and to run regular events with community groups, something la Forge de Belleville had rarely involved itself in. Unhappy at losing the contract, la Forge de Belleville began a media campaign, bringing much of the debate down to one question; what is the role of an artist?

According to the Paris council, the artists on site had become more and more isolated, and little was clear in the way the association was being run. It was tempting therefore to make a clean change and plump for a new team, with artists who would be happy to run projects and integrate themselves in the surrounding community. A false debate for la Forge de Belleville, who believe that artists should be free to work how they please so long as they are paying rent.

The latest information is that they will finally be allowed to stay, but the debate continues. If a group of artists rents a property from the council at comparitively low rates, should they be encouraged, or even pushed towards social actions that may improve their local environment, especially in one judged to be difficult, as is the case here? Or, is the role of an artist simply to create and not be a social worker?

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