Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer in the park

One doesn't need to go too far to escape the dense urban centre of Paris, all stone façades and narrow streets. We decided one weekend to escape to Parc de Bagatelle located in the immense Bois de Boulogne (2.5 larger than Central Park in Manhattan). We hopped on to a métro to Porte Maillot and caught a bus which conveniently dropped us off at the entry to the park, in all a total of 20 minutes of travel time from where we live.

Parc de Bagatelle was created in 1777 at the behest of Marie-Antoinette after she aquired the property from a gambling bet she won with the Count of Artois. The park is one of the poshest run by the City of Paris, and as such there is an entry fee (not sure if this is all the time or just when there is an exhibit). You can see how much care they lavish on this property; there is no litter whatsoever, all of the plants are in excellent shape, the grass is mixed together with moss providing a lounging surface bar none. It helps too that the park is located adjacent to one of the most bourgeouis neighbourhoods of Paris, the 16th arrondisement. B and I spent a good part of the afternoon just rolling around in the grass getting completely covered in nature, much to the horror of passing snooty rich grannies.

The park was conceived by Belanger, developed by Thomas Blaikie, in an english-chinese style which was popular at the type. There are artificial grottoes and small waterfalls, pagoda pavillions, and an orangerie (a greenhouse where warmer climate plants, such as orange trees, were sheltered during the colder months), and a delicious rose garden. To add to the exotic flavour of the park there were free range peacocks all over the place. They are quite beautiful, these birds, but they produce a brutal sound. Rather like a choked up blow horn.

The park also houses a sleek restaurant/café plus a museum, this time 'round showcasing the life and work of Charles Darwin. Honestly, I wasn't that familiar with Darwin's accomplishments other than the Theory of Evolution. After this exhibit I have to say I have a lot of admiration for this controversial and pioneering spirit. It's true that the technology of today is turning some fundamental ideas he proposed on it's head, but it doesn't invalidate how radically he affected the changing of attitudes regarding science in the 19th century. I'm glad B and I took the time to go through the exhibit, even though rolling around in the grass seemed more appealing at that moment...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

La Défense

There are many interesting corners of Paris to discover, most of them having been well documented and visited for generations. However, there is one part of Paris that is less a tourist attraction, but very much a part of Parisian life. It is La Défense, the financial district, named after a statue called La Défense de Paris to commemorate the soldiers who defended the city during the Franco-Prussian war. The quartier is situated west of the city, aligned with the Louvre along the Champs Elysées and easily identifiable along the skyline by it's highrises and the Grande Arche (the rectangular arch which echos l'Arc de Triomphe). Construction of the zone started in 1958 and continues to this day in fits and spurts. The latest towers proposed for construction will all be required minimum green standards for emissions, energy, to name but a few.

Like any financial district it is buzzing with activity during the weekday, then eerily dead at night and the weekends. There are a number of people who live and work in the area, but there is an overwhelming sense that La Défense is a zone, and less a neighbourhood, even with all the shops and schools scattered about. Compared to the rest of Paris, La Défense looks and feels quite alien, as if it were a piece of an American city cut out then dropped into Europe.

It is evident that the master plan was laboriously worked out, and some of what has resulted is interesting. But the construction of the numerous towers are developer fueled and badly conceived.

La Tour Aurore, seen in the reflection of another building, which will be torn and replaced by a new proposed tower by Arquitectonica.

This boardwalk is an extension of the long reaching axis spanning from the Louvre to La Défense. On the right is a cemetery, full of beautiful trees and a lovely garden. When you reach the west side of the Grande Arche all you see initially is a garden-like space, then as you walk the length of the boardwalk you realize that, oh, it's a cemetery. It really breaks up the monotony of the surrounding corporate architecture.

Dotted along the handrail of the boardwalk are metal (bronze patina?) castings of random objects found in nature. The best one was this ear. Funny how my first impluse was to place my ear on top of it to see if I could hear anything...

Some of the local youth using the Grande Arche as a performance/practice space. It's perfect for addressing an audience as it's elevated and the stairs are perfect for lounging around on. The glass panels in the background act as a wind buffer. Apparently the opening of the Grande Arche created perfect conditions for concentrating all the wind coming off the Atlantic and buffeting away business people and tourists alike.

The best part of our field trip to La Défense was not in the district itself, but just along it in Nanterre, the Tours nuages by Emile Aillaud. The complex of 18 high rise apartments was built in 1977, and have rounded façades, which in plan, resemble clouds. Adding to the cloud motif is the patterned glass mosaic tile exterior. These buildings are magnificent from afar, really the most poetic and imaginative addition to the cityscape. The colours have been masterfully combined and really do blend into the sky.

The grounds are landscaped with swells and sinuous courves. A bit Gaudi-like. Here you can also see that some of the windows have been designed in the shape of stylised raindrops.

Up close, unfortunately the buildings are in a state of disrepair. Mosaic portions which have either been pried off or damaged have been replaced by patches of plaster, and not even in the same colour as the rest of the building. People complain that round rooms are difficult to furnish, the custom windows are difficult to replace. There are probably a lot more that is not working in these buildings because there are always discussions to tear down the buildings.

There may indeed be many 'good' reasons why these towers should be torn down, but we would then lose something that is as equally concerned with imagination as it is with practicality, something sorely lacking in the art of building today.

Monday, May 4, 2009

May Day - Rêve Générale

On the first of May most of the world steps out to show solidarity for their fellow workers. In France it is a national holiday and B and I decided to join our fellow Parisians and join the parade. There were thousands of people on the street, mostly sporting stickers on their backs saying "Rêve Générale" (meaning 'general dream' a play on the expression 'greve générale' a national strike), or "Casse-toi pov'con" (meaning get lost you poor asshole, a direct quote from Sarkozy directed at a fellow french man), or "Vive la Greve" (this one found on the back of a young political activist. They start young in France.)

There were people of all ages at the event, lot's of activists, students, and teachers, a fair number of politicians like the socialist mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë, but very few bourgeois, surprise surprise.

We also saw a lot of police everywhere in riot gear. This is one thing I've noticed about Paris. It is crawling with cops. On bikes, on foot, in the métro, at the Eiffel Tower, hanging out in their vans at Les Invalides, and from what I am told blending into crowds incognito. There is an army of police in Paris, and frankly I'm caught in between being reassured and threatened by the sight of them all. I will say though that if there is a riot I would rather there be some force trying to contain the violence than see rampant destruction.

As we walked around and saw all the different groups and unions being represented I found myself wondering about the origins of May Day as part of the labour movement. The first of May has been traditionally associated with many a western pagan and later Christian tradition to welcome the coming of spring. But it wasn't until the 1886 Haymarket Affair that May Day took on a distinctive labour connotation.

In Chicago on May 4th of 1886 there was a rally to support creating the 8 hour work day as standard (the common work day prior was from 10 to 16 hours a week for 6 days of the week) having been intially proposed by the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions in October of 1884. What started out as a peaceful rally ended up as a blody riot with many civilians and some policemen dead in the streets. This resulted in a setback for the 8 hour work day movement but the American Federation of Labour was undaunted. In 1889 the AFL president sent a letter to the First congress of the Second International meeting in Paris explaining their situation and proposed an international movement to implement the 8 hour workday for all labourers around the world. It was then that that an international response was created with a call to strike on May 1st for better hours and to commemorate those who died as a result of the Haymarket Affair.

Growing up in Canada and living in the United States I did not get any sense that Labour Day was all that important other than a holiday. There are no parades marking the origins of why the date is to be observed, no explanations in the media, no enthusiasm from anywhere. Is it because anything remotely socialist is frowned upon? Are unions and populist gatherings considered irrelevant or overly utopian in a capitalist society? Are North Americans afraid to show solidarity for each other? B's grandfathers were socialists and anarcho-syndicalists of which he is proud of and remembers by participating in May Day. And clearly I saw that same sort of pride in those on the streets this past Friday.

Even unions for sex workers!

Doing brisk business at the merguez/kebab stand. I know that vendors selling muguet are not taxed on May Day, I'm wondering if the same applies to these folks too?...

B found this nice bill lying about in the street. Makes a nice complement to our bouquet of muguet, choice flower of communists, anarchists, socialists and unionists the world over.