Photo of the Week


Humor on the hoardings spotted before the first round of the French elections: “John Goodman (Jean Gentilhomme) for President,” the candidate of the “Nice Peoples' Party. That would make a change. © Paris Update












Paris Update What’s On

Links to events happening this week in Paris.

Silent films from Switzerland?


> They’re rare, but they do exist and can be seen at the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, Paris, through May 2.

Retail heaven
> You can buy just about anything at the century-old Foire de Paris, a gigantic pop-up store. Porte de Versailles, Paris. April 27-May 8.

Voices from the North
> The Pølar Festival celebrates Northern European culture with films, concerts, talks and more. Various locations, Paris, through April 29.

Photo walk
> Eight Paris galleries hold special photography shows and events for Parcours Fotofever. Various locations, Paris, through May 1.

Photo shows galore
> Le Mois de la Photo has been moved from autumn to spring, with 96 exhibitions taking place all over the greater Paris area. See Web site for locations and dates.

Art videos
> The theme of this year’s Videobox Festival is “noise and movement.” Carreau du Temple, Paris, April 27-29.

French film with English subtitles
> Lost in Frenchlation shows Nicolas Boukhrief’s La Confession, preceded by a themed cocktail party (€4.50). Studio 28, Paris, April 28.

Virtual reality
> Drop in on Saturday or Sunday from 2pm to 8pm for a free virtual trip at the VR Express festival. Forum des Images, Paris, through June 30.

Dance in historic sites
> Monuments en Mouvement offers free dance performances in national monuments like the Pantheon in Paris, the Abbaye de Cluny and châteaux. Various locations, through Oct. 21.

African culture festival
> The 100% Afriques festival showcases dance, theater, music, fashion, design, art, food and more from all over the continent. La Villette, Paris, through May 28.


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Ecole Normale Supérieure

Paris Modern

The handsome main staircase.

A new building in the heart of Paris is a true rarity in these days of fervent architectural preservationism, but one has nevertheless gone up in the Latin Quarter, designed for some of France’s most elite scholars.

As if ashamed of itself (or hiding from preservationists), the new library extension of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, alma mater of such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, is hidden away in and accessible only from the school’s private courtyard. The building is visible to the public from the back, on the Rue Rataud.

It has been nearly 10 years since architect Philippe Gazeau won the competition for the building’s design, but it has taken that long to wade through the bureaucratic maze that must be navigated to put up a new building in the city. Part of the delay was caused by actions taken by two neighborhood associations, whose objections were dismissed in the end since the area around the building site has no particular architectural heritage to protect. A walk through the student quarter immediately surrounding the ENS reveals plenty of 20th century buildings with little to recommend them.

Budget constraints imposed by a publicly financed project also quashed many of the architect’s ideas, such as hanging bookshelves. On a recent visit to the empty building, Gazeau seemed especially proud of the system of glass shutters controlled by sophisticated individual motors of the type used in nuclear plants. Each shutter is a sandwich of two sheets of tempered glass and two of EVA film, with a thin sheet of perforated stainless steel between them. With a flip of a switch, the shutters – which when fully open stand perpendicular to the glass façade – can be partially or entirely closed to control the amount of light entering the library’s main reading room.

These shutters also form the main point of interest on an otherwise undistinguished façade. Inside, a handsome concrete stairway, woven metal half walls and another stairway wrapped Christo-style in a textile composite liven up the otherwise grim interior.

Let’s hope the installation of the books and a human presence will add some color to the interior’s unremittingly grayness. The only touch of color was provided by a strip of purple carpeting and some orange electrical outlets.

The building, which replaces a temporary structure put up in the courtyard after World War II, is topped by what looks like an afterthought, a block of 59 dormitory rooms. These personality-free institutional rooms make you feel sorry for the students who will have to live in them until you remember that as some of the country’s top brains the “normale supes” have maid service and free room and board.

It seems a shame that when Paris does get a rare new building, it has to be hidden away and submit to so many design compromises. But then perhaps it would have been a good idea to hide another library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which would still have been a disaster even if its architect, Dominique Perrault, hadn’t been forced to truncate the tops of its four “book-shaped” towers to placate critics.

Heidi Ellison

© 2006 Paris Update

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