Sunday, 26 August 2012

Even Ghosts Die Too

Sam at the wonderful Ghostsigns blog drew my attention to a photo taken in 1983 by Scott Phillips of an incredibly well-preserved Dubonnet wall ad. The question for Sam - and for me - was whether the ad still existed today. The photos below show the results of my investigation.

Scott Phillips' photo at the top, posted on his blog last week, already seems to come from another age. Although the basic street layout is almost identical, the colours and shapes of the vehicles show the picture's vintage. And then there is the very vivid painted ad. Such things are just not seen in Paris anymore, as my picture beneath shows, so what happened to the ad in the 30 years since the original photo was taken?

My guess would be that rather than it being simply a case of age and weathering, the ad would have been a victim of changes in advertising rules for alcoholic drinks. Although the painting was something of a rarity, the fact that it could be so clearly read - and was promoting a product that still exists - meant that the authorities had to do something about it. 

By zooming in closer to the photo and playing around digitally with the image it is possible to see that the Dubonnet name is still legible at the bottom. Above that though, it seems that efforts to scrub away the brand name have revealed traces of even older ads beneath. Whispers of words and splashes of colours are visible, but their messages stay frustratingly out of reach.

There is one other mystery. Although it seems that work will soon begin on a large-scale development that may make these walls disappear completely, this does not explain why the rather attractive windows that were visible between the two ads in 1983 have since been walled over (the other windows further back are still open to the air).

Perhaps we may as well ask why they don't make yellow cars anymore.

Note: the wall is situated alongside the Vaneau Metro station (visible on the right-hand side of the photos) in the 6th arrondissement.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Les Mercuriales - the Twin Towers of Paris

If there is one part of Paris that really was inspired by New York, it is the twin towers of Les Mercuriales. Situated in Bagnolet on the eastern city limits, these two skyscrapers were built in the early 70s to mirror the design of their contemporaries, the World Trade Center towers in Manhatten.

Like the World Trade Center, they are two separate towers linked at ground level and sharing underground facilities. The two towers, completed in 1975, and are named Levant (eastern) and Ponant (western), with both containing 33 floors. However, although the architects, Serge Lana and Alfred H. Milh, were inspired by a construction across the Atlantic that predated theirs by only a few years, their towers topped out at 122m, only a little over quarter of the size of those of the World Trade Center!

For this reason, although obviously tall, the towers really look as if they should be higher. Indeed, with facades that reflect the sky and the fact that it is quite easy to lose sight of them from ground level, I am quite happy to include such massive structures on a blog about the invisible!

When originally planned, these towers were part of a larger project for a business district to balance that of La Defense to the west of Paris. If this scheme had gone ahead as planned, Paris would have been bookended by two ranges of high-rise buildings. A financial crisis in the mid-70s put paid to that though and Les Mercuriales remain alone in the east today.

A curiosity connected to the scheme is that one of the architects, Serge Lana, was a militant communist. Why he should have been inspired by the World Trade Center and involved in a project to build a business district is not clear, but as he spent his entire career in the eastern suburbs of Paris, he was perhaps motivated by a desire to spread wealth across the capital.

This did not happen though, and - because of these towers - Bagnolet earned the nickname of the 'La Defense des pauvres'. This is somewhat unfair, as although the surroundings remain distinctly working class, the two towers have always been a success, with occupation rates never dipping below 85%.


At ground level, the environment is not especially inspiring, but certainly very active. As an important interchange on the country's motorway system, it was the logical site to build the Paris base of the Eurolines cross-continent bus service (a place I wrote about a while back). On one side road, coaches from across Europe are parked up, resting before embarking on another epic journey. The drivers wander idly around, checking their vehicles and communicating together hesitantly in myriad languages.

The sweep of the motorway and the concrete curves of the Bagnolet interchange are visually interesting, but noisy and somewhat overpowering. Climb the steep staircase that leads from the bus station in front of the Bel'Est shopping centre though and you'll soon find yourself in another world. This is the Parc Jean-Moulin les Guilands, an area of immense greenery that sits above the east of Paris. The Les Mercuriales towers are of course still visible from here, but are shrunk down to the size of a couple of matchboxes. Hugged by trees and framed by sculptures they look a little less lonely and not unloved.

Monday, 20 August 2012

New York in Paris?

It is a curious paradox that cities with strong identities often wish to dress themselves up as somewhere else. Paris may well be one of the most instantly recognisable cities in the world, but it seems that this fact is no longer sufficient for those in the lifestyle branding industry.

Take the new Canal Square development in the 19th arrondissement. Its launch in June was accompanied by an aggressive marketing campaign around Paris and in the local press based around the phrase "Paris Style New York Touch". But what exactly is there that links a new build in a quiet corner of the city to the American megalopolis?

According to developers, it would be a combination of two factors; 'modern' living in 'loft-style' apartments, and a district that combines a post-industrial waterway and a disused railway line. New York is today shorthand for any such area around the world, but would any New Yorker feel at home in this part of Paris? 

The developers clearly think so, and even go so far as to rebrand the entire 19th arrondissement as 'East Village' on the official website. Cycle paths, canals, tramways, parks..."c'est tout le 19e arrondissement de Paris qui passe à l'heure américaine" excitedly claims the website, without specifying exactly why these things should be linked specifically to New York. 

With the development still just mere visuals and not expected to be delivered before 2015, it is difficult to get much of an impression of what the reality may be in what is a very small space. Although almost touching the modern Parc de la Villette it is in fact situated in an archetypal Parisian working-class district. This may no longer mean much in the way of industry (it in fact replaces an urban heating facility, which is still visible on Google maps), but it does mean an abundance of mostly banal social housing and little commercial activity.

Clearly this is an attempt to move a district upmarket and attract young (wealthy!) professionals. Not a surprise for developers who are looking to make maximum profits, but the Paris city authorities have also given the scheme (and is associated marketing) their backing, and their logo features on the scheme's promotional material. Is the only way to promote Paris to this target group today to brand the city as a satellite of New York?

With prices reaching upwards of €1 million, anyone tempted to set up home here will clearly need to be very financially secure. And these rather hefty prices (particular for this district) do not even cover the 'Manhattan' option for apartments which includes brick interiors, 'imitation cement' floors and home automation!

Attempting to increase the social spectrum of a district and potential disposible income of its residents is no bad thing, especially of these in-comers also choose to place their kids in the local state schools. The problems arise if this 'regeneration' displaces people or facilities. Hopefully this will not be the case with the AICV cycling association, installed in the railway arches alongside the development site.

This association, employing young people from troubled backgrounds, rents and repairs bicycles, and organises lessons for local kids and adults. However, the centre is still under threat from the SNCF who own the arches. With an influx of high-earners to the area, this spot could clearly be rented out at a much higher price. However, we can only hope that the New York touch promoted by city authorities includes such quirky places, and will not be a sterile, sanitised model.  

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Story of the Oldest Tree in Paris

The oldest tree in Paris stands in one of it's most touristic areas, but how many of the city's visitors take a second glance at it as they walk past?

A reader of this blog, Aleksandar, recently asked me to confirm that this tree did indeed exist. He had been attending a Green Infrastructure Symposium in Toronto where it was mentioned that although the Canadian city can boast a tree that dates back to around 1650, there is an older survivor in Paris.

I won’t claim any credit for hunting this particular tree down though, as it has been documented and described at a number of different places. It stands in the Square René-Viviani–Montebello, alongside the even more ancient Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre church (and opposite Notre Dame). Unlike the Toronto tree - which apparently was once part of the original forest in the northern part of the city - this tree was a deliberate introduction from another part of the world. This is its story.  

Like much of Europe, the Paris region was once a great forest. By the middle ages though, many of the forests had been cleared, and Paris was very much a managed environment. It is difficult to say what flora was around at the beginning of the 16th century, but we do know that the King's gardener, Jean Robin, planted some seeds in in the city in 1601. Imported firstly from the United States and then England, these seeds were from a species that would eventually take his name, the Robinia pseudoacacia.

As well as in the Square René-Viviani–Montebello, another tree grew on the Ile de la Cité, approximately where the Place Dauphine is today. Although this tree did not live for long, it did produce some cuttings, one of which was planted by Jean Robin's son, Vespasien (a name more commonly associated with public toilets in Paris!) in 1636 in the Jardin des Plantes. This tree has also since died, but an offspring does still stand in the gardens today, making it probably the second oldest tree in the city.

The Robinia pseudoacacia is a tree that grows rapidly but not to huge heights (this one stands 15m high, but the average height is around 10m). Although Robin was surely unaware of this fact when he introduced the species to France, it is also a well-suited to cities because it has strong resistance to urban pollution. The tree's wood rarely rots and is also extremely hard, but this particular tree's trunk is even harder than usual, and for one simple reason - it has been injected with cement!

Although the tree is still perfectly healthy today, without the assistance of the city authorities it would have died several years ago. Suffering under its own weight, it has become a superplant, solidified with cement and propped up by concrete supports, sometimes disguised as trunks and branches.

This delicate management also extends to the parasitic ivy that covers the lower parts of the tree. It is regularly cut back to ensure that it doesn't choke the tree, but encouraged lower down where it covers the concrete supports and the tree's own wrinkly skin, which the city's gardeners judge to be unsightly.

Why this particular spot was chosen by Jean Robin is not known, but it does mark an important and ancient fork in the city. Coming from the river, if you walk to the right of the tree you will be on the Saint Jacques pilgrimage route, heading down towards Spain. Go to the left of the tree and you will be on the Roman road in the direction of Lyon and Italy.

As an additional protection - but also to offer a place of contemplation - the city authorities recently built a circular bench around the tree. This bench was hand-woven in middle-age style using chestnut branches, but again it is seemingly mostly ignored. Although we often don't see the wood for the trees, it would be a shame not to spend a little time alongside this particular plant.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A Summer in Saint Denis

Situated just to the north of Paris, Saint Denis is the kind of place that might like to be label itself as edgy-chic. The reality though is that the town’s edges are pretty sharp and there is precious little that is chic about Saint Denis at all.

Take a walk around the town's peripheries and you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire place is just one giant squat. There is though an undeniable energy about Saint Denis, and this unpolished aspect leads to some very unexpected encounters.

Take the 6B for example, a recently established centre for artistic creation. It can boast a prime location between the canal and the river Seine, but is based in an abandoned 1960s office block. The centre hosts events year-round, but is also the HQ of a summer-long festival called the Fabrique à Rêves. Ostensibly this festival is being held in the building's 'garden', but the location would be better described as a wasteland or building site.

Nevertheless, the grounds have been charmingly engineered into a venue that includes stages for concerts, a giant sandpit (for beach volleyball or football) vegetable plots and refreshment stands. The terrace of the main bar leads directly down to a canalside path which could be picturesque - if it wasn’t for the fact that it is directly opposite the wooden shanty town of a travelling community.

The festival, which runs until September 9th, also regularly leaves the centre to create happenings (including a psychogeographical drift) at other locations around the town, and there are also some curious installations on display. The most surprising of these is surely Djamel Kokene's 'Petit pan de mur jaune', a half-demolished house situated near the town's main train station that has been painted entirely in yellow.

Further down from the 6B where the canal joins the river Seine, the sounds of African and Carribean music rumble through the air. Vans – far from the polished ‘gourmet trucks’ that today cruise around Paris – offer grilled chicken and beer, and improvised dancefloors regularly pop up alongside the river.

Walking back towards the town centre, you might find activities taking place at the La Briche artists studios which sit alongside garages, warehouses and a very busy African cash and carry store.
The centre of Saint Denis - if truth be told - is not an immediately inspiring place. Although it is still host to one of the largest and most cosmopolitan markets in the Paris region on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, there is little remaining to suggest that this was a thriving and wealthy community in the middle ages (despite the worthy efforts made by the town to promote this aspect of its history).

One place where the town's history is interestingly on display though is the fascinating Fabrique de la Ville, an ancient townhouse stipped down to a bare skeleton. Above the building is a curious red-spotted plastic covering, and alongside is scalfolding and platforms that enable you to trace and observe the history of the building through the ages (open Tuesday to Friday afternoons, and some Saturdays).

The house is situated almost directly opposite one of the the jewels of French architecture, the magnificent cathedral, often considered to be the world's first gothic building. This church, so incongruous in today's Saint Denis, is at once the reason for the town's importance and its subsequent decline.

Saint Denis traces its connections to royalty back to the 5th century when the Roi Dagobert had a shrine built for Saint Denis, then subsequently chose the location to also be his own final resting place. Almost all French kings and queens were also then buried at the site, but the town was to pay heavily for these links during the French revolution. The royal tombs were ransacked and the town was even forced to change its name to Franciade for a period.

The royal tombs now have pride of place again inside the cathedral (although you'll need to pay an entrance fee to see them), but the individual bones - thrown in a communal mass grave during the revolution - were completely mixed up, and are now found in an ossuary in the crypt of the church. 

Post-revolution, the history of Saint Denis is largely a working-class one, and this is interestingly displayed in the town’s museum, which is situated near the cathedral in an old Carmelite nunnery. Like many local museums it is a curious mix. It contains an excellent collection of material on the Paris Commune, but these often anti-clerical messages are somewhat bizarrely displayed alongside the painted religious messages left on the walls from the building’s past. On Sundays it only costs €1 to visit the museum, and you'll find yourself exploring the building almost completely alone

It is not really worth looking for anywhere to eat or drink in Saint Denis, so why not attempt the walk back to Paris along the canal Saint Denis? The 6km path - which leads to the La Villette park - takes you past the looming Stade de France, under various motorway flyovers and through a variety of industrial estates, but like Saint Denis as a whole, it is not without a certain charm!   

To begin the visit, take the RER to the main Gare de Saint Denis, then head towards the Seine via the pedestrian tunnel that runs beneath the tracks. Djamel Kokene's 'Petit pan de mur jaune' is just on your right, and the 6B centre is just beyond, also on the right-hand side.
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