Sunday, May 24, 2009

Then and Now: le boulevard périphérique near porte d'Orléans looking west, Paris


Paris' last ring of city walls, the mid-19th century Enceinte de Thiers, had by the early 20th century fallen into total obsolescence in the face of modern warfare technology. Though the city began its dismantlement at the end of the First World War, redevelopment of the massive ring of leftover land on the city's periphery took decades to complete. Despite the construction of many working-class housing projects, much of the land remained vacant, and soon became a ring of slums known simply as "la Zone," pictured below in 1940.

Almost as soon as WWII had drawn to a close, France once again entered an age of massive public works projects, which included the construction of a national highway network deemed essential for any modern nation. Thus, the boulevard périphérique came into vision, an expressway circling the capital to satisfy the urgent need to bring fast automobile transportation into the region (and surely as a handy pretext for slum clearance). Construction of the ring road began in 1958 on the cleared remains of la Zone, with its final sections completed in 1973.

The path of the expressway runs largely along the admnistrative boundaries of the City of Paris, and the périphérique has quite naturally to represent the powerful physical and symbolic barrier between the city and its generally dowdy suburbs, certainly much greater than any other city I've known.

Original photo: "RV-894584" Feb. 1977. Collection Roger-Viollet. Parisienne de Photographie. 26 Feb. 2009.

La Zone photo: "PARIS - LA ZONE." 1940. Collection Roger-Viollet. Parisienne de Photographie. 26 May 2009.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Then and Now: La rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré from la rue Royale, Paris


Few of central Paris' landmarks or promenades were spared by the Paris Commune of 1871. Much like the nearby rue de Rivoli, much of the opulent rue Royale was reduced to a smoldering heap of ruins. Remarkably, the buildings and their boutiques were rebuilt, and are alive and well over a century later.

Original image: "RV-461209." 1871. Collection Roger-Viollet. Parisienne de Photographie. 13 May 2009.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Then and Now: 163 rue Saint-Honoré, Paris

May 1977-May 2009

It never ceases to amaze me just how much Paris seems to stay the same. Also note the Vélib bike share station by the sidewalk in the foreground.

Original image: "Paris - restaurant japonais Osaka." May 1977. Collection Roger-Viollet. Parisienne de Photographie. 13 May 2009.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Then and Now: Le monument de Flatters, Parc Montsouris, Paris

c. 1900-2009

Original image: " LL-30870 Stéréo." Collection LL/Roger-Viollet. Parisienne de Photographie. 12 May 2009.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Downtown Ivry-sur-Seine, Val-de-Marne, France

The town of Ivry-Sur-Seine lies just beyond the southeast end of Paris, on the south side of the city's 13th arrondissement. Ivry, like most of Paris' dreary suburban satellite towns, has very little attraction for non-residents, and as a whole does not seem particularly interesting. Its downtown however, happens to possess what I think is one of the most fascinatingly enigmatic architectural ensembles to be found anywhere in the world.

Between 1969 and 1982, Ivry's city center was nearly completely rebuilt via a series of grand redevelopment projects, almost entirely designed by the architect Jean Renaudie (1925-1981). Renaudie, upon graduation from the École des Beaux-arts, studied under one of France's early Modernist giants, Auguste Perret, before co-founding the Atelier de Montrouge in 1958. The firm worked within a fairly standard style of functionalist Brutalism in the vein of Le Corbusier, and quickly gained recognition among France's architectural community. Nonetheless, Renaudie soon tired of the functionalist creed of his peers, and began to devise a radically different vision of architecture and design. He left the Atelier de Montrouge in 1968, just in time to stumble upon the opportunity of a lifetime.

Shortly after joining the architectural team behind Ivry-sur-Seine's downtown redevelopment plan that same year, Renaudie was handed complete leadership of the project and given the full freedom to finally put his theoretical designs into practice, an opportunity that surely did not go wasted. He devised a series of housing towers linked by pyramid-like complexes that fan outward in abundantly planted cascading terraces. In great contrast with his previous work, Renaudie largely abandoned right angles for a free use of horizontal and triangular forms.

Each building represented a strong rejection of the entrenched currents of austerity and uniformity underlying Modernist architecture and planning. Renaudie's intricately arraged geometric volumes and winding passageways introduced an extreme level of intentional complexity and whimsicality, a reaction that slightly anticipated the coming wave of architectural Postmodernism. In a further break from Modernist city design, Renaudie reembraced traditional urban forms by incorporating street-level commercial space, arcaded sidewalks, and enclosed plazas. The towers rise up from the sidewalk with none of the grassy setbacks so characteristic of other mid-century highrise clusters around Paris (like the Olympiades complex, for example).

Renaudie passed away in 1981 at the age of 56, and it is nothing short of astonishing that he was able to create such avant-garde work at such a great scale by that age. Of course, Ivry's 30-year-old downtown isn't without issues. At first glance, it's buildings are nothing short of a chaotic and intimidating jumble, overwhelming in their complexity. Its multi-level passageways and courtyard nooks, hidden from the street, are generally empty and feel incredibly unmonitored and unsafe. The aged concrete looks bleak, too many storefronts are shuttered, and on Sundays the deserted neighborhood feels a bit too much like a dystopian post-apocalyptic nightmare.

Nonetheless, Renaudie's achievement marks an interesting moment in the history of architecture, on the cusp between Modernism and Postmodernism. If anything, its defiance of simple characterization is rather remarkable, regardless of one's opinion on its aesthetics. The ensemble of rigidly sculpted volumes of exposed concrete scattered with overgrown terraces is a fascinating marriage of the geometric and the organic, of futurism and primitivism, unrivaled in its originality.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

Then and Now: Rue du Vieux Colombier and the Eglise Saint-Sulpice, Paris


Original Photo: "L'église Saint-Sulpice vue de la rue du Vieux-Colombier. Paris (VIème arr.), 1906." 1906. Collection Roger-Viollet. Parisienne de Photographie. 1 May 2009.