PARIS – Art and architecture collided this week as Paris unveiled a new installation on a modern building in a historic neighborhood. French artist Claire Maugeais was chosen to design a sort of architectural outfit for the building as part of the district’s effort that started five years ago to encourage artists to create more public works.
The neighborhood known as Le Sentier, in the center of Paris, was once known for its bustling textile industry. More recently it has been the location of choice for many internet start-ups in the 90s, as well as the home of La Cantine, Paris's first co-working center. Today, it's largely a financial and business center based around the main stock exchange.
Although stringent codes and regulations make urban installations difficult, this work brings a fresh breath of air to a city that has not always been kind to color or new takes on architecture. Notable examples include the hated Eiffel Tower, which was doomed to be torn down twenty years after its inauguration, the ultra-modern 1977 Renzo Piano-conceived Pompidou Center, or the I.M. Pei-designed pyramid housed in the courtyard of the Louvre. All were detested originally by Parisians despite their daring innovation.
So when the district council launched a contest for artists to propose an installation, Maugeais, 48, pitched an idea that revisited the neighborhood's textile past but on a more modern canvas, opting to use an existing structure instead of creating something new. "My intervention was very interesting because I chose a facade that was very typical of the 1950s, so I underlined the facades with color," she said. The office building was thus transformed, by simple paint, into something that stands out among the largely uniformed Parisian facades. The work will remain for at least five years and will hopefully be the beginning of similar artistic projects in Paris. Maugeais spoke with SmartPlanet about her work.
SP: How and why did you choose this basic concrete building as your canvas?
CM: When I discovered this building, I told myself that there wasn't any else to do but underline what’s already existing there: this sublime framework on the facade. The evoking of textiles and these colors that cross each other like architectural clothing echo with the commercial aspect of the Sentier and my work gives back to this building a chance to exist in this historic district.
SP: Color on a Parisian building – that's pretty surprising. Is Parisian architecture lacking in vivacity?
CM: Most of the time cities are pretty grey and the guidelines for building in France are quite strict, unfortunately. Paris is a museum city and a large part of its economy is in part due to its cultural patrimony. With this work, I feel like I’m rejuvenating a neighborhood while also highlighting more recent patrimony. There will never be too much color in our cities. Blue and orange are rarely used by architects, but I’m an artist.
SP: What do you hope for people passing by this building?
CM: I hope to create a new perspective. The view from the street, rue du Sentier, is a true city marker (as seen in the photo). I hope to create a new landscape and that people take a look up from time to time. I hope that this will gain exposure for my own work, as well.
SP: As an artist, for you, what's the relationship between art and architecture?
CM: We have isolated the academies, so we distinguish these two words and these two careers. Fundamentally that creates a separation and doesn't contribute to the blossoming of architectural works or artistic works. I teach in an art school and also at an architectural school. In the art world, I'm often considered an architect, and I'm considered an artist among architects. In the end, that's not really my problem; the important thing is to create works.
SP: In Paris, 19th century buildings are considered classic while buildings from the 1970s for example are considered ugly. Is Parisian architecture moving towards a better aesthetic?
CM: Each era can justify that its choices as aesthetic and the interesting thing in a city is to be of its own time. The architecture in the 1970s deserves a second look. Too much dependence on cultural patrimony and history will stifle art. The collage of styles is never a problem, but actually a benefit. Paris should take more risks. There are beautiful recent additions to the city but they are too rare and Paris has a problem accepting things like height in its buildings.
SP: How do you explain the value of this type of installation in a city like Paris where historically art has played such an important role?
CM: Since the last century, artists battled to have art break out of the academic circle. They worked on art, on life, on direct confrontations. That means more engagement, more politics, and I'm becoming part of this history.
Photo: Claire Maugeais