Paris the City of Night

paris_catacombs
Photo of the catacombs by Frozenchipmunk

Paris, otherwise known as the city of Light could have another title too, it has one of the most extensive underground networks of tunnels of any city. You can visit some of the catacombs and this article in WSJ gives a great general overview of them and also the subculture that has grown up of cataphiles who go down (illegally) into the underground Paris. I knew a little of the story of the underground Paris of course having been there before and as a child having been down to see the skeletal catacombs myself.

But it was on my last most recent trip to Paris I picked up a book about Paris called Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb, which has a chapter in it about the building of the catacombs, its an amazing story worth quickly retelling and all quotes are from Graham Robb’s Chapter concerning it.

While many people are familiar with Baron Haussmanns urban modernisation of Paris which established the wide boulevards and centerpiece Grand Avenues and monuments of the picture postcard Paris of today, most people are unfamiliar with the name of Charles-Axel Guillaumot the Architect who ‘built’ the catacombs.

In 1774 along the Rue d’Enfer a quarter mile long sinkhole opened up engulfing the houses on either side of it. Enfer being the french word for hell, the sinkhole quickly became known as the mouth of hell. In 1777 Charles-Axel Guillaumot was appointed the first inspecteur généraux des carrières, and it was clear that the reason for the sinkhole was there was a long abandoned and forgotten mine under the street, the stone of which had been used earlier for the building of Paris and then covered over. As the city expanded this long forgotten quarry now endagered the buildings above it.

The work over the next years was massive, there were three teams the Excavation team to clear the underground galleries of rubble, the Masonry Team to reinforce the roof and the Cartography team to map it all out.

the ‘Cartography’ team would create a map of the underground labyrinth on a scale of 1:216 – which meant that the map of abandoned quarries would be more detailed than any map that had ever been produced of the streets of Paris.

As the teams made their way through the abandoned quarries and mapped them out the picture gradually must have become clear and Guillaumot realised that there was not a single quarry but a whole range of them. That they didn’t occur just below the streets but often stacked one on top of each other.

The miners had dug away as much stone as they dared, leaving just enough to support the roof. Years later, other miners had found the worked-out quarries, and dug down to lower layers. The floor of each quarry then became the roof of yet another mine, so that now, instead of finding solid rock beneath the tunnel floor, Guillaumot encountered vast cavities buttressed only by a few teetering piles of stone.

Guillaumot in short discovered that not just the Rue D’Enfer but half of 18thC Paris was in danger of falling into the mouth of hell. So while the people of France were vexed about the cost of Versailles and the Royal Court, Guillaumot relatively quietly went about building on an even more massive scale.

If those galleries had been placed end to end, they would have reached the edge of the Massif Central, two hundred miles away.

part of a mapshowing paris block above with underground routes
part of a mapshowing paris block above with underground routes

The underground city surpassed that of the city above not just in the quality of its map. While many of the buildings in Paris were not even numbered the galleries below had their own numbering system, a lesser Architect might have just filled up the voids with rock and sand but Guillaumot

turned each cloche into a beautiful, swirling cone of stonework that might have been copied from a strange, inverted cathedral….Tunnels that had been clumsily hacked out by ignorant hands were dressed with freestone and dignified with coursed limestone walls.

Gradually these 200 miles of catacombs had been discovered mapped and reinforced and in the 1780’s when the vast rotting pits of the Parisian dead threatend the cities water supply Guillaumot had a neat proposal. In 1786 the first of many millions of corpses were moved to what is now known as the Catacombs on the left bank.

It was said that the number of skeletons that made the journey to La Tombe-Issoire was ten times greater than the living population of Paris.

Not only had Guillaumot saved Paris but he had built a shadow Paris and he had populated it. Guillaumont remained as inspector of quarries until his death in 1807, his gravestone disappeared sometime in the 1880s and, his bones were gathered up to be placed in the catacombs to join the city he’d built.

The catacombs by Doc Searls
The catacombs by Doc Searls

Nowadays it is illegal to venture under the city except on official business or to visit the Catacombs the macabre section of the subterranean Paris given over as an ossiary.

Further Reading:

1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris, France

Ground Control

GroundControlGround Control by Anna Minton (Amazon us /uk)

Anna Minton has carefully researched and traced the outline of the policies in the UK behind not only the privatisation of public buildings and space, but have also shaped how we use and think about the city. Grand regeneration projects have turned public space with potential value to everyone into private, corporately managed and policed space, from which the original inhabitants have been all but excluded. Housing Projects have divided communities, created fear and loathing. CCTV and policing policy have exacerbated social divisions.

This thoroughly researched book takes us historically through the key projects and key policies that have brought us to this situation. From the Docklands in the late Eighties under Thaterism through to the present day taking in other major developments across the country. In Liverpool with Liverpool One and Manchester in Exchange Square to name a few of the other major developments that follow this model.

It’s a more encompassing book than just looking at the Urban developments though. It clearly links crime and fear of crime in the UK to the changes in the law and running of developments and housing in the UK. Government policies have reinforced or created these negative effects, the Pathfinder scheme, ASBO’s and Secured by Design. These policies along with the rise of gated communities all over the UK and of CCTV cameras (more in the UK that in the rest of Europe combined) which actually increases the fear and insecurity in society as well as social exclusion. As an example of good writing which clearly links social policy to concrete outcomes in the urban fabric of cities and with actual social outcomes this book sets the bar.

Published in 2009 around the last crash in 2012 an extra chapter was added to cover the Olympic Games of 2012 itself probably worthy of a book. In the conclusion Anna Minton tries to find some silver lining to the dark clouds. Urban Space Management stands out as the lone example she can muster, their Development in Trinity Buoy Wharf an example of how things could have been all over the country. It’s compelling but sobering stuff a must read for anyone in this field and hopefully it has helped to shine a light on an area of public policy which is so opaque but which we should be much more engaged with.

I can’t help but to link this book to The New Aesthetic, the blog by James Bridle that recognises the crossover of the net into the physical world. The use of drones and (mentioned in this book) the mosquito, CCTV and gated communities, all examples of places that exist because of new technology and the ability to produce action at a distance to monitor,control and segregate from anywhere anonymously. Is Britain becoming a visible artifact of the network of control and commerce which has grown up in the last twenty five years in the UK? I sure hope it’s not that bad.

Week Review 2

spomenik#1

Photo above is from Spomenik #1 by Jan Kempenaers who took three years travelling to the remotest parts of former Yugoslavia to capture these strange monuments read about them here.

Did Atopia and not Thomas Heatherwick come up with the design of the 2012 Olympic flame cauldron? Heatherwick denies it but look at this from the Guardian article which broke the story

Locog has been disbanded, but its former design principle, Kevin Owens, described the situation as “unfortunate”. “Atopia really are forward thinkers,” he said. “Strands of their work became part of what was taken forward, and I wish there was a way we could acknowledge that.” Via

Atopia’s work looks the same and aside from a few details is also conceptually and functionally the same.

A lovely well put together website on Scottish Brutalism called Scottish Brutalism but they haven’t documented anything outside of Strathclyde yet, come on guys what’s keeping you?

Christoph Ingenhoven, Meinhard von Gerkan and Pierre de Meuron are all lightly grilled by Spiegel as to why their big German Architecture projects are so massively over cost. This is a must read, it’s so rare to see behind the curtain so to speak of projects which while being great Architecture have failed in some way to deliver otherwise, along the way there is some deep insight into team working in projects.

Berg | C.F. Møller’s proposed design is a 34-storey skyscraper made of wood. On deeper investigation though it has a concrete core!

Kone have invented a new carbon fibre lift cable which will make possible 1km high lifts double todays limit, effectively doubling the limit of skyscrapers in the process.

The New Aesthetic, if you name it you should own it.

Week Review 1

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ALA win the Heksinki Central Library Competition. The best of the six shortlisted entries wins, and a kind of homecoming from the preeminent office in Helsinki finally with a major public building in their hometown.

Pritzker Architecture Prize committee will not honor Denise Scott Brown‘s request for Pritzker recognition. It makes them look bad twice over refusing to acknowledge the fact of their collaboration, and for looking totally sexist too! See Kazys piece.

Jarret Walker of Human Transit nails it with cynisism is consent. Nothing should be welcomed more than constructive complaints.

The BBC charts out the future of thinking and breathing buildings and of cities as ecosystems.

2013 RIBA Awards winners announced. I’ve only had a cursory look at this but the list looks long and deep on quality.

Mayor Bloomberg unveils $20B plan to build new NYC defenses against climate change.

Following the first proper post on declad about The Lego House, some more lego news.

To inspire more co-creations, LEGO has launched its Cuusoo platform in beta. Anyone can submit a project idea and those that reach 10,000 votes will be reviewed by LEGO and potentially turned into real products. If the project reaches production, the person who submitted the idea will receive 1% of the total net sales of the product. Via

Hapy Birthday Kevin Roche.

The Lego House

LEGO House concept

Last week the Architects corner of the internet was lit up1 by BIG’s latest design The Lego House, a lego experience center near LEGO HQ in Billund Denmark. But the building is just the latest link in a chain which joins Lego and Architecture together.

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Automatic Binding Bricks 1949

In 1949 Ole Kirk Christiansen with his company LEGO started manufacturing Automatic Binding Bricks what we would all recognise today as the Lego brick the only difference being a slot in the sides for windows and doors and the absence of the hollow tubes in the undersides that would be added in 1958. The first sets were focused on building Architectural structures.

Over the years as Lego expanded as a business and a brand it has inspired many Architects as children, it’s also been used directly as a design tool, Jørn Utzon used lego bricks to help him lay out the design of his last building the Utzon Centre as sketching had become harder for him in his old age.2

sydneyoperahouse
Jørn Utzon Sydney Opera House

Again at the start of this century lego rediscovered it’s Architectural roots, Adam Reed Tucker pitched an idea to Lego to release sets of world landmarks. Lego supported him in setting up his company brickstructures and themselves started a range of Architectural classics at architecture.lego. This all came together with the increasing diversification and mediatisation3 of Lego their ‘system of play’ giving way to the ‘narrativization’ of their ranges. From plain bricks where you must construct the models and the stories yourself, increasingly lego systems come with a ‘world’ built in, whether its Lego Star Wars or Hero Factory. They have also embraced newer ways to play and experiment with the lego system. You can download software and design in 3d anything you want, then order the pieces to be delivered or reprogram their hackable robotic bricks Mindstorms.

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Bjarke Ingels lego self

BIG is a good fit for Lego having used it in their models for exhibitions before, Bjarke Ingels even has his own lego persona. Also BIG understand the requirements of a project like this to extend beyond the plain numbers of the program to embody lego both into the Architecture and for the visitors to the building. The projects composition allows you to be below, above and within the Lego block inspired design. It is an easily quoteable building and it will itself become a link in a lego chain brand that projects lego into galaxies further and further away.

 

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  1.  Archdaily dezeen wired coDesign  []
  2. I can’t find corroboration for this except for my memory of a lecture about Utzon I attended. But it rings true to his way of working ‘Utzon rarely used a sketchbook, but would draw on anything that was available. He drew the initial plan for an art museum at Silkeborg, in Denmark, with poured salt on a restaurant table in Sydney, which he then photographed with a borrowed camera. The design was based on Buddhist caves he had visited near the Gobi Desert, but the museum was never built. Another friend recalled Utzon using a charred stick on a pavement to sketch the cross-section of a cave-room he had seen in China, which was to form the basis for his design for a new house; sadly the sketch was washed away by a thunderstorm that same night.’ The Telegraph. []
  3. See Beyond Beyond the Brick: Narrativizing LEGO in the Digital Age by Aaron Smith []

Billund, , 7190, DK

Declad one

‘Declad’ doesn’t have an official meaning exactly, but tentatively it could mean to remove cladding, to literally de-clad, which I want to make a good metaphor for this website. There are many Architecture news blogs but fewer which look behind the glossy renderings and photographs and look for a context in this most context dependant area. So declad is trying to remove the outer layer, to look beyond the quotable image, to find the best and worst (they are the most interesting categories after all) and look more closely at them.

Also we are in a really interesting time for Architecture in culture. This is already evident in writing about technology and Architecture. In Technology blogs, editorials in the Verge more and more intrude on Architectural subjects, Gizmodo has recently hired Geoff Manaugh as chief editor, on the other side of the divide Domus devotes increasing space to technology. We live in a truly exciting time where the division in these subjects has blurred, technology will transform the subject and the practice of Architecture, even its meaning. Having been blogging haphazardly now for quite a few years I thought I could take these basic insights focus it and give it its own legs…….let’s see what happens.