Hello Paris – Ultra-modern out-of-date stations – Blue sky thinking for council houses

Hooray – I have arrived. Last night, I hauled up the steps the final suitcase into the flat that will be Mary and mine for at least the next year. And unlike my last few visits to Paris, I won’t be getting on a Eurostar back to London at stupid o’clock tomorrow morning, nor the day after (not in fact until the end of October, and that will be an evening train). It feels great to be able to settle in.

First thing this morning I went out to the university campus because I have been given the opportunity, through a friend of Mary, to teach some conversational English classes. The ideal thing about this part-time work is that it would take place in the building next door to where I will be studying. To get out to the campus, it is a five minute ride on the metro down to Nation and then twenty minutes on the RER out to Noisy-Champs on the outskirts of Paris.

The RER is Paris’ answer to London’s CrossRail – or should that be the other way round since the Parisians designed and built theirs over twenty years ago. The RER station at Nation is an impressive feat of geotechnical engineering. Deep below ground-level, the RER’s platforms are in an enormous tunnel, 30m in diameter and several hundred meters long. The station has some amusing pseudo-technical features that someone who has just missed their train might happen to notice. For example, it looks like the train drivers look at computer monitors to see when people have finished boarding the train, but on closer inspection these devices are in fact a mirrors mounted in the shells of a computer screens. Hmmmm. That along with hi-tec looking train indicator board that actually has all the possible destinations permanently displayed, with a light bulb that lights up next to the destination for the next train, and the ultra-modern-ultra-dated vacuum formed plastic benches along the walls, lead me to conclude that the designers could see the future, they just didn’t yet have the technology to implement it. But enough about stations…

The univeristy campus is called the Cite Descartes. It houses numerous ‘Grandes Ecoles’ as well as the university of Marne La Vallee. The Cite is an architectural playground and I am looking forward to taking a closer look at some of the buildings. After some wondering, I found the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chausses. It is an attractive steel and glass building with an impressive and inviting attrium in the middle. It is in stark contrast to some of the buildings of the University of Marne la Vallee and a reminder of the extra funding that the Grandes Ecoles enjoy over France’s regular universities.

The interview went well, and depending on my timetable at ENPC I will be teaching a few hours of conversational English a week. Some of the teaching will be for science and maths students and there will be also be classes for students studying urbanism. I think it is all going to be quite interesting and I look forward to starting. It will be a good intro to the world of work in France.

This afternoon we went to an exhibiton called “Residencity”, a history of the housing that has been built around the edge of Paris. The exhibition itself was in Montreuil, a suburb in the east of the city, in a beautiful building about twenty minutes from the end of the metro. We were in the heart of the banlieu, a catch all term for anything outside the Periferique ringroad and synonymous with the riots of last year, or so the news would have you believe. This bit didn’t look all that different from the urban landscape you would find around Harrow. I get the impression that there are many who would think of this as a no go area. Seemed quite nice to me!

“Residencity” charts the housing projects that were built to provide accomodation for Paris’ worker population, which swelled at the end of the nineteenth century. Early schemes to clear slums envisaged replacing them with low level blocks of houses among trees remincisent of Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities. These early sketches look surprisingly modern but their age is betrayed by the clothes that the people in them are wearing. Designs for buildings in the 20s are not all the dissimilar to the building that we live in. By the 50s, the developments had taken on the enormous sprawling dimensions typical of some of Paris’ grimmest housing projects. It was all to clear from the posters and protest slogans displayed opposite these designs that slum-dwellers had little choice as to where in these monster developments they were to be housed.

One cartoon particularly made me laugh. It showed the aspirations for housing of three different classes. For the working class, heaven was a detached house with a garden, purgatory the new edge of town developments, and hell, the slums. For the middle class, heaven was a modern apartment block, purgatory a detached house with a garden, and hell, the new edge of town developments. And finally for the upper classes, heaven was a chateau, purgatory was a modern apartment block and hell was a detached house with a garden. Well, it made me smile (Note to self: they do say that a picture says a thousand words – a photo might have been good here)

Some archtiects of these developments were more creative than others. Blue sky thinking is evident in the conception of this quite unbelievable housing development – Les Tour Nuages: (click to see image in full)

Cloud tower

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Oliver – good to hear you have settled in OK. I am new to the world of blogging and I think they are fascinating & a fab way of keeping in touch. So – with that in mind – I can take this opportunity to say ‘hi’ to Nigel & Mary! Take care & have a great time in Paris! Love, Auntie xx.

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