Friday, June 24, 2016

An American in Paris: Revisited

An update to a post from years ago, with added image content from my 22 year old slides.

While in college, I was lucky enough to study in Italy for a semester in 1995.  It was one of the defining experiences of my life.  At the end of our studies in Italy, I was able to backpack to several other counties by train.  I loved Italy, but while many aspects of Italian city-life are modern, their architecture is relentlessly classical.  On the train ride it was obvious that the further north we got, the more modern the buildings became.  Our small band of backpackers ended up staying a few days in Paris about midway through our trip.

Paris had a scale and a blend of styles that I had not seen since landing in Rome.  As a young student, I made it my mission to see as many “famous” buildings as possible with the time I had.  One stop I had to make was the American Center in Paris, designed by Frank Gehry.  At the time, Mr. Gehry had little of his public acclaim earned by his later works like the Guggenheim commission in Bilbao, Spain.  He was; however, quite well know in architectural circles by this time.  The American Center was his largest and most famous commission to date, and I had to see what all the fuss was about.
The view as seen in many publications about the American Center in Paris. 
The building was not located anywhere near the center of the city, but on the outskirts along the river with many other modern buildings I could only assume were corporate office buildings.  The façade was not as pristine as it had appeared in the magazines, either.  It was dirty and several of the thin, stone veneer panels were kicked in, exposing the insulation behind.  I thought maybe that the French were none too pleased with the American presence in Paris as the building had only opened one year prior to my visit.  The building itself I felt was anti-contextual, taking no cues from the surrounding environs.  The sweeping and curved forms related to absolutely nothing I could see from my vantage point.  I couldn’t imagine how that exterior translated into any kind of reasonable interior.  By the way, no one ever hired me as an architectural critic, so I will be keeping my day job.

Look closely at the bottom right and you see some suspicious damage to several panels.

When I entered the main lobby, I found that most of the curved exteriors were part of a vast and complex atrium.  Then I noticed that there was hardly any one in there with me.  Come to think of it, I still don’t know what the main function of that building was.  I snooped around as much as I thought I could without getting cursed at in French.  The most telling investigation came when I found a bathroom.  I couldn’t open the door fully.  I found the obstruction to be a fixture itself.  Even as a student, I know that didn’t fly in a public toilet room (it was not a private toilet room).

Yeah, I took a picture in the toilet room.  The door stop was the urinal.

I left feeling a bit jaded.  This exorbitantly expensive and controversial building had failed to deliver.  I’m not saying I kicked in any stone panels on the façade, but I now understand why there were so many.  Looking back and looking at my pictures, I think I was the lone person in the building aside from the “friendly” receptionist (I was and American after all – what was her problem?).  A year later I learned that the Center went bankrupt and closed it doors; at least they closed them as tightly as they could in spite of any obstructions.

The great, empty interior, shared by my friend, the receptionist.

I have far more positive memories of the other modern buildings I saw in Paris, including Centre Pompidou, Villa Savoye and Parc de la Villette.

That's me (and some random little kid) on the giant bicycle wheel at Parc de la Villette.  Totally contextual...

The building stood vacant for 9 years.  Since then, however, the building was rehabilitated into a center of history of cinema, with very little change to the outside as I understand it.

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