Tuesday, 28 June 2011

City Snapshots: The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver

Climbing up the ladder, there’s not so far to go. Towards the clouds, to my box in the sky, leaving my worries behind. Up here the city is in my control, its people a cast of tiny characters I can manipulate at will.

Lifting ten tonne logs like they were matchsticks, concrete panels like the pages of a book, I build this city from its ruins. I'm an eagle's eye and an elephant's trunk, with the grace of a dove and the force of a hurricane.

Some days I forget what my voice sounds like, swallowed by the twisting steel and radio crackles. The sky streaks in ever-changing colours around me, and clouds roll over my head, but I can never stop. I just keep turning my arm and building your dreams.

Day becomes night and there's only me left on site. Pinpricks of light appear across the world and the faces down below have all drifted away. Going back down to earth always seems so unnatural, but soon I'll have to descend. I'm standing on the precipice, but it's oh so far to fall.

Inspired of course by this song, and also by the ever-evolving film set in front of my window!

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Défense d'Afficher - again?

I previously wrote about the ubiquitous 'Defense d'afficher' signs that can be seen painted on municipal walls around France, but my attention was drawn recently to another variation on this message.

This one was a small white plaque screwed into a brick wall in a non-descript back street, but what particularly stood out was the date of the law. This was not the standard 1881 decree, but rather one that dated from 1943 and France's infamous Vichy regime.

As the scrawled message on the plaque says, this was indeed a 'loi Pétainiste' (or rather a 'loi Laval'), but what exactly is being forbidden here?

The message writer here has spotted the date, and looked to make comparisons between France's collaborist state during the Second World War and today's perceived authoritarian rulers, but in reality the law mentioned is rather banal. However, it is also one that had a big effect on the way French cities looked.

Look back at old photos of Paris and you will see advertising painted onto all visible wall surfaces. Some of these traces remain as so called 'ghost signs', but this law is in fact the edict that signed their death warrant. It was the first law in the country that seeked to protect the esthetics of the city from rampant advertising, limiting the publicity to a restrictive maximum size and height.

Two questions remain though. Whilst the world was at war, why was the Vichy regime worrying about city esthetics? Secondly, why is a law voted by this regime still applicable today?

The first question is very difficult to answer. It is unlikey that the law had anything to do with restricting the actions of the resistance, and is probably more a reflection of the lack of important decisions the puppet state had to make.

Concerning the second question, the answer is that many of the Vichy regime's voted laws were allowed to stand after the war. As soon as De Gaulle returned to France and assumed leadership of the country, the collaborationist government was declared null and void. However, in the interests of simplicity, only the laws relating to the war were immediately repealed. All other laws were examined by jurists and very often reissued with no modifications, including the addition of a 'Mother's Day' to the French calendar!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Eiffel and the artists

In a letter sent to newspaper 'Le Temps' in February 1887, a group of artists, writers and architects criticised the soon to be built Eiffel tower, calling it "inutile et monstrueuse". Gustave Eiffel, an engineer and a "constructeur de machines", would be scarring the beautiful face of the city in an attack on generations of artistic creation. Were these cultural leaders aware though that just three years previously, Eiffel and his company had designed and built a collection of artists' studios in the west of the city?

Situated on the Rue Aumont-Thiéville near the Porte Maillot, this set of studios was built in 1884 using a new method for this kind of construction. The building is divided into six workshops each spanning an identical width, and the overall metal framework was made in Eiffel's Levallois factory. As these were standardised modules, they could be built at a lower cost and in a very short time. The rationality and simplicity of this architecture is closer to industrial buildings of the time, and in some ways anticipates the current fashion for artists to install themselves in converted factories and workshops.

The 1880s were a golden age for such constructions in Paris, but few artists' studios looked this way. The majority would have been far more pleasing to the artists who signed the letter criticising Eiffel, as they were built according to classical or neo-gothic designs. However, few have aged as well as Eiffel's, and several were even torn down before the dawning of the 20th century.

What is the role for such studios in today's city though? Artists are traditionally 'penniless', and such spaces as these would clearly be expensive to rent in Paris. It is no surprise therefore to see design agencies and osteopaths installed in some of the units, but one or two artists still seem to be using the facilities.

Finally, although this construction may have shocked or surprised when built, it has over time been surrounded by even more modern buildings. Reflected in the windows are some of constructions built by ed architectes (including their offices) in the 1970s. It's certainly not a style I appreciate, but I'm not sure I'd write a letter to a newspaper criticising it. Who knows what styles will survive the test of time?

Friday, 17 June 2011

Challenge 2: A vocabulary test

The vocabulary of the city is rich but often mysterious. Many of the things that surround us often go without names either because we are not sure what tag to attach to them, or because we simply have no need to refer to them in our daily lives. This is what lies behind a question Norman has asked me, which is the following:

"During our visits to Paris I have taken many, many pictures of devices such as this (see photo above). I am fascinated by their astounding variety in terms of design and materials. I know they are designed to protect the entryway from being damaged by carts, wagons and now cars and trucks as they enter. However, I do not know the name for them. Do you?"

Before I received Norman's question I have to admit that I had never actually thought about this particular object. Now that he has mentioned it though, I have started to see them everywhere, and it is a fascinating topic. The 'astounding variety' he mentions can give many clues about the age of a building, but also about the wealth of those who lived there - simple stone blocks for the less wealthy, extravagant iron designs for those with plenty of expendible income!

They are by nature an extension of the Porte Cochère (coach gate) which themselves are a throwback to a time of horses and large carriages. Investigating this widely-discussed feature of Parisian buildings would surely lead me to the name of the small features at the bottom.

A porte cochère in Paris with small conical devices at its base.

One book I generally turn to for this kind of research - Claude Mignot's Grammaire des immeubles parisiens offers no help though. There is no mention of these little city features, and it seems that it is obviously a sector that has not been deemed worthy of research.

Nevertheless, by flicking through another couple of sources, I come across the term. These little devices are called a chasse-roue, although they are also sometimes referred to as a boute-roue or bouteroue. In English, the term is a guard stone.

A final brief note. At the entrance to most of the buildings in which they are situated they serve no purpose at all today, but they are nevertheless destined to remain a feature of the city landscape for a long time to come. Why? Simply because they are so difficult to remove!

Note: Norman has now posted on the 'Chasse-roue' in Paris. See the many examples he has found here.

Challenge me!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Brutalist Bridge?

I enjoy more and more taking trips out into the suburbs of Paris, principally because I'm never sure what I'll find. Whereas much of Paris has a homely familiarity to me today, the suburbs can still retain an exotic eccentricity.

Take Suresnes for example. Situated alongside the Seine to the west of the city, it is a working class town that was rapidly gentrified due to its proximity to the La Defense business district (it was in Socialist hands for 40 years and is twinned with Hackney, but has now been firmly under right-wing control for nearly 30 years). This contrast between the rich and the less wealthy, the modern and the ancient, has left many traces around the town.

What is immediately obvious is that the town must have rapidly grown in the 1960s and 70s, with the architectural styles of this period taking up whole chunks of the town centre. Alongside the standard tower blocks though is something genuinely interesting, and - let's be honest - completely mad too.

Straddling the principal artery through the town is the Ecole des Arts Plastiques - an art school and gallery - but is it a building or is it a bridge? It sits proudly on this main road, seemingly considering itself to be some kind of concrete Ponte Vecchio, but in fact it offers no means of passage across the street.

I am not sure who the architect of this structure was, but it is a fascinating appropriation of the public space, and an installation which is clearly still useful despite the chosen style having long gone out of fashion.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Challenge 1: The mysterious man on a ladder

I recently added a 'Challenge me' box to the side of my blog, offering to attempt to solve your queries about Paris. Last week, I received my first question, and I'm glad to say that I was able to answer it.

The question came from Anne, and this is what she asked;

“I went with a friend today to do your street art walk and we noticed many changes since you published the walking notes, most particularly, the many works of a sad looking monochromatic fellow on a ladder. There were lots of different variations on the theme, but none were signed. What do you know about the artist?

The first step was to retrace the route of my walk (updating it at the same time!) and track down this character. It was immediately obvious that Anne was right - this fellow was everywhere! But who is he, and who is the artist behind him?

Although I wasn't familiar with these creations, the style and the character was definitely something I'd seen before. At one point, this man on a ladder even meets the character I already knew - the 'homme à la bouée', a creature already very visible in this part of Paris. Clearly the same artist was behind both, but in theory it would be easier to find out something about the creator of the man in the rubber ring rather than the more recent ladder dweller.

Just above the crouching man, is this the only 'aborted' space invader in Paris?

However, although these creations are also very visible online, the artist behind them is more difficult to dig out. As is the case with many street artists, no official credit has been taken for them, and they are not even signed with any kind of alias. All that seems to be known is that the artist refers to them as 'gugusses' - a kind of clown.

The artist's technique is a clever one. Carry the man and a very short ladder to the scene of the pasting, then extend the ladder as long as is necessary using charcoal and chalk!

Dig a little deeper though, and a name begins to appear; Philippe Hérard. A video portrait of the artist in his studio - situtated in the vicinity of these creations - confirms that this is indeed the man behind the characters. His official website also displays many other creations on similar themes.

A name then, but what about the motivations of the artist? Why does an established artist who has already developed a series of characters on canvas choose to take them outside of his studio and on to the walls of the city around him? We could assume it to be a form of publicity if it wasn't for the fact that this pasting is done anonymously. Did he feel instead that these 'gugusses' were trapped in his studio, and needed the freedom the city walls? Although I have discovered his name, I'm sure he would prefer me to be investigating the questions these 'gugusses' are asking us.

Challenge me!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past?
Challenge me to find the answers.

I am no more than an amateur, but I have acquired a certain knowledge of the city in the three years I've been doing this blog, and perhaps more importantly, I've learned where to look for answers to the more obscure questions I ask myself! More than anything else, this kind of research is something I enjoy doing. Through this service I hope to find answers for those who have asked questions, but perhaps also to other readers who may be asking themselves the same questions. So, if you have something that has always bugged you, fire away!

Friday, 10 June 2011

City Snapshots: The Magpies

The city magpies fly through Paris as the sun rises, eyes fixed on the ground, searching for the unexpected riches people have thrown away overnight. When they find something that glitters, they swoop.

Beneath my window I see them land, perching alongside the dead carcass of an unwanted sofa. They quickly strip away the carrion, throwing the iron guts into their beaten up van.

But these are no thieving magpies. Instead they are opportunists, profiting from the objects we throw out of our nests. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for the girl, four for the boy...

As the city wakes up, they fly on to the scrap merchants, transforming their pickings into a few pieces of gold.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Back in time by the Bièvre

To get something of an idea of how Paris may have looked before the Celts or the Romans, you need only visit the Yvelines near Versailles and explore the valley of the Bièvre.

Just 15 kilometres from the city centre, these primitive landscapes seem to be from a different land altogether, but this is a waterway that continues to steadily flow towards Paris. One hundred years ago, it still managed to slide its way through the city walls and on headfirst into the Seine, but by the time it arrived at that point it was a pestilent soup rather than a pristine stream.

In and around Paris it was a river that was put to work, primarily in the tanning industry. After centuries of abuse, it had become a dead channel, clogged with blood and dyes. At the beginning of the 20th century, the city authorities decided that they had had enough, covered over the stream and directed it away from the Seine and into the city's sewerage system.

Walking alongside the Bièvre in these timeless locations it is hard to imagine that this is one of the only rivers in the world that has no natural discharge. Is this a picture of how it once was along its entire length, up to what became Paris at its meeting point with the Seine?

Beyond the boundaries of Paris it has continued to thrive, and a project was recently announced to open up more stretches to visitors. Certain groups still militate for an uncovering of the river along its entire length, but in reality Paris has today developed away from one of its natural sources.

It is impossible to wind back time, but thankfully it is sometimes still possible to visit the past.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Maison des Célestins: a restaurant for the stars?

Ever dreamed of running your own restaurant in Paris? The Maison des Célestins, a 19th century ruin sitting opposite the Ile Saint Louis, could be your opportunity! New owners the Ports de Paris have just launched a call for bids for parties who are interested in transforming this historic building into a riverside bar and restaurant, and you have until September to put forward your project.

The building, on two levels - quai side below and city side above - is a throwback to a time when river traffic in Paris was mucher denser. Built in 1861, it belonged to the Prefecture de Paris and was used to control navigation in the city.

In theory, the Maison des Célestins is in a great position. With its feet in the water and its eyes on the Ile Saint Louis, it offers a perfect view - if it wasn't for the motorway that runs alongside and cuts it off from the river. Fortunately, the City of Paris has also recently announced that the road here will be significantly changed in the coming years, with traffic lights to slow down the speeding vehicles and a pathway alongside the river.

The building has been empty for several years now, and has instead become something of a canvas for street artists. The suggestions for possible projects mention nautical themes rather than grafitti, so we can expect to see a cleaned up and rather upmarket eating place here in the future. With the Rotonde at the Basin de la Villette also due to reopen as a smart restaurant soon, it seems that all riverside heritage in Paris can only be reborn as a place to eat and drink.

One final question remains at this spot though. A marker can be seen at the top level of the building pointing out the flood levels from 1910. What will happen to the restaurant if the water rises again - as everyone seems to agree is more than probable? The dream location could turn out to be anything but!
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