Tuesday 27 December 2011

Industrial architecture

Paris is often called the City of Light, a name that refers to its reputation as a place of learning and ideas, especially during the Age of Enlightenment.  It's also well known as a centre of art and culture, and as a city for lovers.  Perhaps a less well-known side of Paris is its former reputation as an industrial city.

For example, the Sentier neighbourhood was until recently famous for its textile industry; the alleyways off Rue de Charonne were once filled with cabinetmakers' workshops; and the banks of the Canal Saint Martin were lined with factories and warehouses.  In recent decades industries have tended to flee to the suburbs (or to China!), and Paris has become more and more residential, but there are many signs of the city's former industrial glory for those who look hard enough.

Towards the end of the 19th century there was a rapid growth in the use of electricity in industry, and with this growth came the need for electrical power stations throughout the city.  Many of these plants were designed by Paul Friesé (1851-1917), a civil engineer and architect from Alsace.

He built his first on Rue des Dames (17th) near Place de Clichy.  Its great façade is rather classical in style, topped with a red-brick pediment bearing the inscription "Anno 1890", while the use of steel and glass gives it a modern industrial touch.  His masterpiece — alas no longer standing — was the power station on the Quai de la Rapée, between Gare de Lyon and Bercy, which was comparable in size with the famous Battersea Power Station in London.

Perhaps Friesé's finest industrial construction still in existence is the power station he designed for the Paris Compressed Air Company on Quai de Jemmapes (10th).  The administration building on the waterfront is in red and ochre brick, supported by visible steel girders.  The gable end of the main building — which contained the machinery and was once dominated by tall chimney stacks — can be seen behind. Its steel structure is more clearly visible, including the elegant cross-shaped supports above the windows on the upper level.  The complex is now occupied by the paper manufacturer Exacompta Clairefontaine.

With the opening of the Paris metro in 1900 — to coincide with the Exposition Universelle (World Fair) of that year — and its rapid expansion in the first decades of the 20th century, several electrical sub-stations (transformers) had to be built to supply the network with power; all were designed by Friesé and several are still standing today.  The most impressive of the sub-stations is situated on boulevard Bourdon, near Place de la Bastille.  It is built on a metal structure with a brick façade.  On one side there is a massive semi-circular metal-framed window, its form repeated in miniature in the row of arched windows above, and in the patterns on the brickwork.

Friesé also designed schools, banks, apartment blocks and other buildings, but it is for his work in industrial architecture that he deserves to be remembered.  Most of his surviving buildings are registered as historical monuments.

Sub-station Bastille
31 Boulevard Bourdon (4th)
(photo credit: Gérard Métron
Sub-station Sèvres
6 rue Récamier (7th)
(now Fondation EDF)
Power station
Quai de Jemmapes (10th)
(now Exacompta Clairefontaine)
Sub-station Temple
36 rue Jacques-Louvel-Tessier (10th)
Sub-station Auteuil
2b rue Michel-Ange (16th)
Power station
53 rue des Dames (17th)

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Paraic Maguire (

Monday 19 December 2011

Cinema architecture in Paris

France is the birthplace of cinema and has played a major role in the history of film: from the time of the world's first public showing of motion pictures by the Lumière brothers in 1895, through the Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 60s, to today with its healthy indigenous film industry.

France is the world's third largest film market, behind the US and India, and Paris is the city with the biggest number of cinemas per inhabitant in the world.  These are mostly multiplexes run by large corporations, but some of the auditoriums where cinematic chefs d'oeuvre  are shown are themselves works of art.  Among the best known are La Pagode, Le Grand Rex, and Le Louxor, all three registered as historic monuments of France.  They deserve a visit, whether to watch a film or just to admire the architecture.

La Pagode
La Pagode (the pagoda) is an independent cinema which was originally built as a gift from the manager of the nearby department store Le Bon Marché to his wife! Built in 1896 in the style of a Japanese pagoda, it served as a ballroom and a banquet hall until it closed in 1927.  Four years late it reopened as a cinema — the only one in the 7th arrondissement — serving up reruns of hit films to the local community.  In the 1960s it started to specialise in "art" films and quickly became a temple for cinema enthusiasts. With the advent of the multi-screen cinemas in the 1970s La Pagode was one of the few small cinemas to resist closure.  It is now run as part of a small network of independent cinemas, Étoile Cinémas.

Uniquely in Paris, La Pagode has a small garden attached where you can enjoy tea, coffee or cocktails surrounded by Japanese greenery.

Le Grand Rex
Le Grand Rex was built in the 1930s in the Art déco style, inspired by great American entertainment venues such as Radio City Music Hall in New York. Originally designed to hold 3300 spectators it has a current capacity of 2650.  The décor of the main auditorium is in a neo-baroque style with antique sculptures, pergolas and a starry ceiling. Three smaller auditoriums were added in the basement in the 1970s.

Guided tours are held every day (for info:

Le Louxor
Le Louxor, named after the city of Luxor in Egypt, is a remarkable example of ancient-style architecture from the 1920s.  Its neo-Egyptian façade is decorated with mosaics in blue, gold and black.  The auditorium was modified several times in an attempt to keep up with the changing trends in cinema — including a phase where it specialised in "exotic" films in the 1970s — but was sold in the 1980s and converted into a night club. In 1987 it became the biggest gay club in Paris called Megatown. When that club closed in 1990 the Louxor was abandoned and fell into dereliction. Threatened with destruction, local associations fought to save it from ruin and the City of Paris bought the building in 2003.  A project to restore the roof, façade and interior began in 2010 and is expected to be completed by 2013.

The Louxor will be reopened as a cinema with its main auditorium reduced in size, but with the addition of two new screens, an exhibition room and a café.  However, the cultural programme is still under discussion between the City authorities and several associations.

Getting there

La Pagode: 57 rue de Babylone, 75007 Paris
  • Metro: Saint-François-Xavier (line 13); Sèvres-Babylone (lines 10/12); Vaneau (line 10)
Le Grand Rex: 1 boulevard Poissonnière, 75002 Paris
  • Metro: Bonne Nouvelle (lines 8/9)
Le Louxor: 170 boulevard Magenta, 75010 Paris
  • Metro: Barbès-Rochechouart (lines 2/4)
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Tuesday 13 December 2011

Jardin Villemin

Jardin Villemin
Along the banks of the Canal Saint Martin, on the corner of Rue des Récollets and Quai de Valmy, stands one of the biggest areas of greenery in the 10th arrondissement. Together with the canal itself, it is a haven of peace in an otherwise hectic built-up area.

Around 1870, at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, a military hospital was established in a former convent, le Couvent des Récollets. The hospital was installed in this location, strategically close to Gare de l’Est, so the wounded soldiers returning from the front could be treated quickly. The convent building now houses the Order of Architects of the Paris region; the grounds are now the Jardin de Villemin.

The garden has four entrances: two on Quai de Valmy; one on Rue des Récollets (through the entrance of the former hospital); and one on Avenue de Verdun (next to Gare de l’Est).

For such a relatively small garden, the number of species of tree is impressive: Chestnut, Acacia, Plane, Oak, Birch; and if you look carefully you’ll find several different varieties of Maple. There are also Blackberry bushes, Sophora, a seven-metre-tall Paper Mulberry tree, Cherry trees, an Apple tree and an eight-metre-tall Weeping Willow. A grand old White Mulberry is stretched out across the ground having been laid low by a storm, but it thrives nonetheless. Near it are Rose trees, a Mexican orange tree and numerous decorative bushes: Hibiscus, Abelia, Lavender, Rosemary, Cistus.

Récollets entrance (old military hospital gate)
Next to the Rue des Récollets entrance – the only remaining vestige of the old military hospital – there is a community garden managed by a local association. It covers a total area of around 220 square metres and is divided into 50 lots where they grow over 150 varieties of vegetables and flowers. Many local schoolchildren get their introduction to horticulture here, instructed by volunteers, mainly retired people from the area. Special raised boxes allow handicapped people to participate in the experience.

The splendid variety of flora is not the only amenity in the garden. There is a playground for children, a sports area for grown-ups, a pond for the birds, a water fountain for the thirsty, a bandstand for musicians, and a large area of gently hilly lawn for picnickers and sunbathers along the canal side of the garden. Something for everyone!
Fountain, Jardin Villemin

This lawn area was added to the garden in 2000 – but it almost wasn't! There had been a plan to build apartments on the Quai de Valmy, but following a campaign by local residents and associations, the City of Paris bought the plot and cancelled the construction project. This allowed an extension of the garden to its current size with its access to the Canal Saint Martin.

There are several pleasant café-bars and restaurants on Rue des Récollets, and a larger brasserie with a terrace facing the Avenue Verdun entrance.

Getting there
  • Metro: Gare de l’Est (lines 4/5/7)
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Paraic Maguire (

Friday 9 December 2011

Canal Saint Martin

Of all the 20 arrondissements of Paris, the 10th is the one with the smallest proportion of green space. This is hardly surprising when you think it is home to two of the biggest train stations in the city (Gare de l'Est and Gare du Nord) and two big hospitals (Hôpital Lariboisière and Hôpital Saint Louis). The hospitals have small gardens within, but the train stations take up huge amounts of space, not only with the terminal buildings but also a considerable chunk of territory with their tracks that spread out north and north-east through the arrondissement on the start of their journeys to exotic places from Bondy to Brussels, Sarcelles to Strasbourg, from Livry to London.

Canal Saint Martin by night
The area has several pleasant (though small) gardens which are worth a visit. But if you really want to see the wild side of the 10th, your best bet is to take a stroll along the Canal Saint Martin. This wonderful amenity stretches over 4.5 kilometres between the Bassin de la Villette and the port de l'Arsenal, near Place de la Bastille. Part of this course is underground (covered by the Boulevard Jules Ferry and Boulevard Richard Lenoir), but most of it is open air. The visible portion of the canal is entirely in the 10th arrondissement.

The canal was built in the 19th century to provide the city of Paris with drinking water and also to serve as a means of transport for heavy merchandise in and out of the city. Its golden age was from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. During this period many factories and warehouses were built along its banks and the population of the 10th was principally made up of working class families. With the growth in road and rail transport the canal fell into disuse and almost disappeared in the 1970s when a plan was proposed to cover in the canal and build a four-lane highway along its route. Fortunately this plan was never put into action and the canal and its banks remain today a source of pleasure to inhabitants and visitors alike.

Industrial transport barge on Canal Saint Martin
Most of the traffic on the canal today consists of tourist barges and private pleasure vessels, though the occasional industrial cargo can be seen negotiating the nine locks.

The banks of the canal along the Quai de Jemmapes and the Quai de Valmy are a much-used amenity. The quays are closed to motor traffic on Sundays and national holidays to make way for pedestrians, cyclists and skaters: from 10am to 8pm in summer (April-September) and 10am to 6pm in winter (October-March). On summer evenings the quays are thronged with picnickers and musicians.

Film buffs will already know the canal scenery from the 1938 film Hôtel du Nord by Marcel Carné, or the more recent Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001).

The range of wildlife in and around the canal may surprise. In the water itself there are several varieties of fish. If you're not in a hurry, set up your rod, park yourself on a stool and wait for the roach, carp, tench, bream, trout, pike, eels or perch to bite. If you're lucky you might even catch some crayfish. If you look hard you may also spot a muskrat.

The flora along the banks is also quite varied. You'll find poplar, sycamore, plane, cherry, chestnut, beech, some of them over 100 years old. While you're looking up at these wonderful trees you will no doubt see lots of pigeons and sparrows, and also the occasional visitor from the coast – seagulls. Yes, at over 100km from the sea. But look down too! Under your feet you'll find various grasses, dandelions, plantains (not the variety of banana!), groundsel, wild chamomile.

For a wider variety of flora, take a detour into the Jardin Villemin, at the corner of Rue des Récollets and Quai de Valmy. (There will be a more detailed description of this garden in a future post.)

Getting there

Northern end (Bassin de La Villette, locks 1 & 2):
  • Metro: Stalingrad (lines 2/5/7); Jaurès (lines 2/5)
  • Bus: 26/48/54
Centre (locks 3 & 4):
  • Bus: 46
Southern end (before the tunnel, locks 7 & 8):

  • Metro: République (lines 3/5/8/9/11); Goncourt (line 11)
  • Bus: 75
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Wednesday 7 December 2011

La Rotonde de la Villette

La Rotonde de La Villette
Paris has had many different sets of “walls” that marked the limits of the city, built successively by the Gauls, the Romans and various French kings, up to the modern Boulevard Périphérique which more or less follows the current boundary.

Most were built for defence reasons, but one in particular had a different purpose. The “Wall of the Farmers-General” was built between 1784 and 1791 and roughly followed the route now occupied by lines 2 and 6 of the metro. It wasn’t meant to repel invaders, but to ensure that any merchants who wanted to enter Paris to do business paid a toll on their goods.

The wall had 61 magnificent toll barriers designed by Claude Nicolas Ledoux. All have disappeared except four: the Barrière du Trône (now Place de la Nation); the Barrière d’Enfer (now Place Denfert-Rochereau); Barrière de Chartres in the Rotonde du Parc Monceau; and the most impressive of them all, the Barrière Saint-Martin in the Rotonde de la Villette (on what is now Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad).

The rotunda is built in the neo-classical style. On the ground-floor level each of its four façades comprises eight pillars topped by a triangular pediment. The upper level is the rotunda proper, composed of 20 pairs of Doric pillars. Unfortunately, the view of one side of the rotunda is rather spoilt by the curved viaduct of the metro, but the newly-restored building can be admired in its glory from the side facing the basin.

The Rotonde de la Villette is no longer a place where tolls are extracted from passing merchants. However, those who enter are expected to contribute to the coffers of the State by other means: through tax on alcohol! It now houses a trendy bar/brasserie.

Getting there
  • Address: 6-8, Place de la Bataille Stalingrad, 75019 Paris
  • Phone: 01 80 48 33 40
  • Metro: Stalingrad (lines 2/5/7); Jaurès (lines 2/5)
  • Bus: 26/48/54
Copyright © 2011 — All Rights Reserved — Tous droits réservés
Paraic Maguire (