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Modernist architects and modern artists in the Villa Seurat

Built between 1924 and 1926, the Villa Seurat is a group of remarkable artist’s homes and studios, eight of them built by the Modernist architect André Lurçat. 1920’s Paris – and more particularly Montparnasse – was home to an extraordinary community of artists and writers of all nationalities. They frequent the salons of Gertrude Stein, gather at Shakespeare and Company – located in Odeon at the time and run by Sylvia Beach – and drink and dance at the infamous cafés of Montparnasse – La Coupole, le Dome, la Closerie des Lilas, and the cantine and academy of Marie Vassilieff, the Villa Vassilieff. Today, a walk down this small cul-de-sac is a treat for any fans of modernist architecture, and delving into its enthralling history, and that of its residents (Soutine, Henry Miller – who wrote Tropic of Cancer here, Anais Nin, Dali, Chana Orloff, Jean Lurçat to name but a few) is to take a step into the heart of  Paris during ‘Les Années Folles’.

I visited today and was lucky to be able to have a guided visit inside No 7 bis, the atelier of sculptor Chana Orloff, today lived in and lovingly restored by her grandchildren. This house and studio was designed by her friend Auguste Perret in 1926. The double height workshop and showroom allowed for her monumental sculptures. It was destroyed under the Nazi occupation during WWII (she was Jewish) but she bought it back in 1945. I found the story of her life and work extremely compelling, along with those of her friends and contemporaries – Modigliani, Soutine, Zadkine and Chagall, amongst many others. The studio is open by appointment, or on special open weekends such as this one. (it was part of the programme during Paris Face Cachée 2017).

Even if you are not able to go inside any of the studios, a short stroll down the Villa Seurat is a must for lovers of modernist art and architecture alike.

For a full list of architects and residents of the Villa Seurat check the wikipedia page.

  • Villa Seurat, 75014 Paris.  metro: Alesia

The Villa Vassilieff – Montparnasse

The Villa Vassilieff is a tiny piece of old Montparnasse, the Montparnasse of artist’s studios, low houses and small cobbled alleyways, before it was all torn down in the 1970’s to build the ultra-ugly Montparnasse Tower and the surrounding and equally ugly shopping centre and offices.

From 1910 onwards, penniless artists and writers came to live in Montparnasse from all over the world, deserting Montmartre and enjoying the creative and bohemian atmosphere, the cheap rents in artist’s communes  such as La Ruche, and the bars and cafés that served as both intellectual meeting places and became essential lifelines to the artists living in poverty with no heating and no kitchens.

The Villa Vassilieff was one of these communes, once the studio and academy of artist Marie Vassilieff, who then transformed it during WW1 into a canteen, ‘La Cantine des Artistes’. She fed artists and writers, who at the time could scarcely afford to feed themsleves, a hearty meal and a glass of wine for a couple of centimes – Picasso, Modigliani, Soutine, Matisse, Zadkine, Chagall, Braque, Max Jacob, Léger and Apollinaire, among others. During the war cafés were obliged by law to close early, but as Marie’s canteen was registered as a private club, it did not have to apply this rule, and became the meeting place for the local artistic community, filled each night with music and dancing.

In 1929 Marie moved her studio, and the Villa was occupied by architects, other artists and then a museum. It was almost demolished in 1992, saved by photographer Robert Doisneau and actress Juliette Binoche. In February 2016 it reopened after renovations as a residence and exhobition space for artists. Sponsors provide grants allowing 4 international artists to live and work there each year, and workshops and seminars are held regularly along with changning exhibitions, aimed at connecting past and present Montparnasse.

Take a step back in time into the Montparnasse of ‘Les Années folles’. In the Villa Vassilieff the office blocks and traffic outside are forgotten and you get a rare glimpse into a Paris of the past where it’s quite possible the spirits of some of the greatest artistic and literary figures still live on, as new life and creativity is breathed into the studios once again.

  • Villa Vassilieff, 21 avenue du Maine, 75014 Paris. metro: Montparnasse Bienvenue

Villa Vassilieff website (in English)

Les Grands Voisins

In the 14th arrondissement, the Hopital Saint Vincent de Paul has been closed since 2011. In a few years this old maternity hospital – parts of which date back to the 17th century – will become a vast eco-quarter. In the meantime, three associations have transformed it into a shared space where people live, create, work and form a community that supports itself and each other.

Les Grands Voisins provides a home for those in need, a space for artists and artisans to create and work, a meeting space for associations and clubs to provide classes, cultural activities and much more.  It relies on its residents to take care of it and of each other – old hospital furniture is reused and recycled, plants and bees thrive in the gardens and the space is open to the public to come and participate, meet the residents, and join the community effort. It’s a different way of living in the heart of the city.

During a visit you can find all kinds of treasures – amongst them a second hand shop selling everything from books to vintage crockery, a potter making beautiful, delicate bowls, teapots and lights, and a wonderful plant nursery and concept store that also runs workshops – Mama Petula

The lingerie – the old laundry – is now a café and meeting place, also hosting debates and concerts. A board on the wall lists the activities for the week: yoga, qi gong, community barbecues, workshops and more. The atmosphere is friendly, joyful and convivial, it’s a breath of fresh air in a city where such community spirit and generosity can sometimes seem hard to find.

600 people live at Les Grands Voisins, 300 work there in over 70 associations, workshops and companies. Eighty students still study at the midwifery school. This weekend they participated in the 48 Hours of Urban Agriculture that was taking place across the city. There is always something going on and visitors are welcome. Take some time to stop in and support this impressive community before the hospital is torn down and disappears.

  • Les Grands Voisins, Hôpital Saint Vincent de Paul, 82 avenue Denfert Rochereau, 75014. metro: Denfert Rochereau

Open Wed-Sat 10:00 – 23:00. Sun 10:00 – 21:00

Les Grands Voisins Facebook page

 

A day with Le Corbusier in Paris

With a little planning and a metro pass, fans of Le Corbusier can spend a full day in Paris visiting some of his most iconic works. Some are open for visits, others not, but all the ones listed below are easily visible and can be seen in one day – two if you want to head out to the suburbs and add the iconic Villa Savoye to your list. (Make sure you do the visits on a Saturday if you want to go inside his studio-apartment).

Start your day on the western side of Paris, in the 16th arrondissement at the Maison la Roche. Designed and built between 1923 and 1925 to show a collector’s extensive collection of modern art, it was one of his first experimental houses and demonstrates what Le Corbusier later identified as his ‘Five Points of a New Architecture’ – a building elevated on stilts, with a roof garden, horizontal strip windows, an open plan layout and free design of the facade – all made possible by his use of new materials such as concrete. The Maison la Roche is a wonderful example of one of Le Corbusier’s first purist villas.

After the Maison la Roche, it’s a short metro ride or walk to the Immeuble Molitor, including his own studio-apartment. Completed in 1934, it was where Le Corbusier lived and worked until his death in 1965. Here we can see how he expanded on his Five Points, and continued to work on the use of space and light. The Immeuble Molitor was the first residential building to be built with a facade made entirely of glass, and uses three different types of glass to obtain different effects with light. Like in the Maison la Roche, the furniture is sparse and leaves the architecture itself to take centre stage. (Note, as of March 2016 you need to make a reservation to visit, contact reservation@fondationlecorbusier.fr)

If you have time, whilst you are in this area I recommend strolling over to the Villa Cook, another of Le Corbusier’s purist villas, built in 1926 for an American journalist. It also develops all of the principals that later became his Five Points (the open section of the ground floor has since been filled in). Even though it’s not open for visits it’s well worth the trip, as it’s sandwiched between two other spectacular modernist villas, the Villa Collinet (1926) by Robert Mallet Stevens and the Villa Dublin (1929) by Raymond Fischer.

Have a break for lunch, and then take the metro across town to the eastern side of Paris.

Start with the Maison-Atelier Ozenfant, situated on the end of a beautiful cobbled street that borders the Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement. Built in 1923 as a house and studio for his friend the purist painter Amédée Ozenfant it was one of Le Corbusier’s first purist villas, and began to set out his ideas for his Five Points.

Le Corbusier-Maison Atelier d'Ozenfant-Paris

Head up through the beautiful Parc Montsouris, and into the Cité Universitaire – the international halls of residence for the Paris universities. First stop is the Pavillion Suisse, designed and built between 1930 and 1933. A metallic structure built on stilts, it develops Le Corbusier’s theory of a ‘machine for living’. The rooms are set on the top 3 corridors and the ground floor communal areas are decorated with murals and furniture by Le Corbusier – you can visit the ground floor for 2€.

A few hundred metres away is the Maison du Bresil, built in 1953. The project was begun by Brazilian architect Lucio Costa who called on his friend Le Corbusier, already experienced with the Pavillon Suisse, to help him. Le Corbusier changed the concept to such an extent that Costa abandoned the project to him. One again the building is elevated on columns, leaving an open space underneath for people to circulate and to provide the communal areas (these can also be visited for 1€).

Then it’s time to walk down the Boulevard to the Maison Planeix. Also built for an artist, it has the same basic structure as the Maison Ozenfant, the apartment section is beneath the artist’s studio. The Maison Planeix differs from the Villa La Roche, as it is an urban house built between 2 others, rather than occupying its own space. The facade is aligned with the other facades on the street. Built for painter and sculptor, Antonin Planeix, it adheres to four of the five points. The pilotis on the ground floor are sacrificed to make space for 2 workshops and a garage, which Planeix wanted to be included so he could rent them out. The pure geometric forms of the Maison Planeix also demonstrate Le Corbusier’s interest in cubist houses.

Le Corbusier-Maison Planeix-ParisAnother 15 minutes walk and you arrive at the Cité de Refuge (1933) built as a collective housing project for the Salvation Army. It also has a facade made completely of glass, and was one of the first buildings to be air conditioned, although it did not work perfectly at the time. It has recently undergone extensive renovations and some interior modifications, and can be visited by appointment.

If you have one more half day to spare, take the train to Poissy and don’t miss a visit to the Villa Savoye. This spectacular and iconic building,  built in 1928, is the culmination of Le Corbusier’s Five Points begun at the Villa Ozenfant in 1922, and showcases the completed idea of the ‘architectural promenade’, introduced in the Maison La Roche in 1925.

Villa Savoye-Le Corbusier-ParisAM: Take the metro to Jasmin. The Villa la Roche is at 10 Square du Docteur Blanche in the 16th arrondissement. Then take line 9 to Michel Ange Molitor (2 stops, can also be walked!) The Immeuble Molitor is at 24 rue Nungesser et Colis. Then walk to the Maison Cook, 6 rue Denfert Rochereau.

PM: Take the metro to Glacière (you can get over from the 16th easily with only 1 line change), the Maison Ozenfant is at 63 avenue Reille. Then walk up through the Parc Montsouris to the Cité Universitaire to see the Pavillon Suisse and Maison de Bresil (they are very close to each other, there’s a plan at the entry gates). After that it’s 10 minutes walk down to the Maison Planeix at 26 Boulevard Massena, then another 15-20 minutes to the Cité du Refuge, 12 rue Cantagrel.

 

The Paris Catacombs

Did you know that almost 200 miles of tunnels run the length and breadth of the city of Paris? Quarried since the Roman times to excavate the limestone used to build the city, the  digging only stopped in the late 18th century when the buildings above began to collapse into sink holes.

Paris Catacombs

Shored up and made safe by the city of Paris Mines Inspectors and engineers, from 1786 the Catacombs then became the final resting place of over 6 million Parisians. At that time the city’s cemeteries were located in the very centre of Paris, the shallow mass graves were overflowing and spreading decay and disease. It was decided to dig up the bodies, burn off the flesh and remove the bones to the catacombs – processions led by priests made their way through the city and the bones were blessed on arrival. The quarrymen of the catacombs now had a new task, stacking the millions of bones underground.

Today you can visit a small section of the catacombs, but beware! Not of the ghosts – although apparently there are several – but of the long lines. Here again I’d suggest taking a tour, not only do you get to skip the line and learn a lot more about this fascinating piece of Parisian history than you would if you went alone, but since January 2016 you also get to visit parts of the Catacombs that individual visitors don’t, the amazing sculptures by a quarryman called Decure (he sculpted the prison in Port Mahon where he had previously been held prisoner for years by the English), the quarrymen’s foot bath and the altar where the bones were blessed.

Decure worked on the sculptures in secret for 5 years before being crushed when a tunnel collapsed on top of him.

The Catacombs – indeed the whole network of tunnels running under the city – were also used during World War II by the French Resistance fighters, although the Nazis also used sections of them too. Nowadays they are also home to parties, film showings, you can go for a swim there, or walk for miles under the city. However it’s not only illegal but extremely dangerous, lose yourself in the tunnels (only the section open to visitors is lit) and who knows when you may be found? On my visit yesterday I learned that the last person to get lost in there was found 11 years later….

  • Paris Catacombs, Place Denfert Rochereau, 75014 Paris. metro: Denfert Rochereau

Open daily (except Mondays) 10:00 – 20:00

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Montparnasse cemetery

Although visiting a cemetery may seem a slightly morbid thing to do, in Paris – like so many things – they become an art form. There are several dotted around the city, and they are also places to pay homage to the country’s famous writers, artists, actors and singers amongst many others, and sometimes even a home to contemporary art.

My favourite is Pere Lachaise, but the Cimitière Montparnasse is also well worth a detour. It is the final resting place of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Baudelaire and Serge Gainsbourg – whose tomb is strewn with metro tickets in reference to the song that made him famous. You will also find sculptures by Niki de Sainte Phalle (main picture is her sculpture ‘Oiseau pour Jean Jacques’) on the graves of two of her friends, and a beautiful sculpture by Brancusi hidden away in a far corner.

You can pick up a map at the entrance to the cemetery, and enjoy a quiet wander around amongst the flowers and the sculptures.

  • Cimitière de Montparnasse, 3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 75014 Paris.  metro Edgar Quinet or Raspail

Open daily 9:00 – 17:30

Sunday mornings at the Porte de Vanves flea market

On Sunday mornings, from 7am until lunchtime, the Porte de Vanves, on the outer edge of the 14th arrondissement, hosts an amazing array of stalls selling antiques, vintage clothes, vinyl records and all kinds of treasures.

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Smaller and friendlier than the big flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt, and with a much better chance of finding a bargain, this is a great place to spend a sunny morning. The things I particularly loved were the embroidered dowry sheets, lace nightshirts and lots of vintage designer clothes, especially from the 60’s to 80’s (I would have loved to snap up a Lanvin cape and a faux fur Dior bomber jacket but both were unfortunately a bit over my budget!), kitchenware of all sorts (lots of funky 70’s stuff), bundles of silver cutlery tied up with ribbons, buttons, silk threads, vintage beads and sequins, a fantastic stall with paper bags and tiny boxes from an old pharmacy – all with beautiful graphics on – posters and original fashion illustrations, and best of all, dolls eyes with long eyelashes that blinked!

The market is under a row of shady trees, there’s a traditional coffee and ‘frites’ stand and even a piano player to serenade you. The stallholders generally speak good English and there’s lots of friendly banter.

Situated along the Avenue Georges Lafenestre, take the metro or the tram to Porte de Vanves and it’s a short walk.

  • Avenue Georges Lafenestre, 75014 Paris.  Metro: Porte de Vanves.