Parsing Paris

Parsing Paris

By Michelle Hoffman
Critics call Paris a "living museum." If so, designer Erwan Bouroullec curates a must-see list from a compelling collection.

Damned if it does and slammed when it won’t, Paris has a hard time with the notion of change. One of the world’s most visited cities—the Valhalla of the tourist circuit—has had a lot of good reasons to stay the way it is. Its classic layout, forged in the brutal urban reconstruction led by Baron Haussmann, has been successful enough to last virtually unmodified for a century and a half—and to inform the aesthetics of at least a dozen other cities around the world. There’s a pleasing physical and spatial uniformity to much of the city, a feat that would be impossible to recreate anywhere in the world today, save an iron-fisted dictatorship or theme park. And, of course, any changes would infuriate Paris-lovers, both highbrow culture mavens and buyers of the Eiffel Tower snow dome. People seem to need the city to remain as it is because it serves as some immutable reference—they’ll always have Paris.

But it has even more reasons to change. Ranking among the world’s densest cities, Paris nevertheless lacks housing—it would take more than 100,000 units to satisfy current demand. Two million inhabitants are crunched intra muros, hemmed in by 9 million others in the larger metropolitan area. Traffic snarls. Pollution mushrooms. Worst of all, the city is falling behind in the image game. Modernists mock it as a Sleeping Beauty and say it lacks the chutzpah for contemporary design. Business backers say it’s losing out to London in attracting multinational companies, and that its tax base is deflating. Even the mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, who has so far failed to muster enough support to scrap the rule limiting building height to 120 feet, has scolded Parisians for fuddy-duddiness.

Despite the confliction, change is afoot in the supposed ville-musée. Some is big—backed by money, master planners, and politicians. It comes in the form of the Plan Local d’Urbanisme, or PLU, which will shape the city’s development for the next two decades; several ambitious architectural projects have been announced in recent  months, including a 980-foot eco-skyscraper called Phare ("the Lighthouse") designed by Californian Thom Mayne, which is supposed to anchor a renaissance in the La Défense business district. A major transport rethink is under way, and has led to the return of the tramway last year after 70 years off the tracks. Bike lanes, bus routes, and reduced space for cars are also part of a plan to trans-form gridlocked thoroughfares into "civilized spaces."

Change, too, starts small. Some describe it as gentrification, others as the inevitable rhythm and flow of local economies. Belleville, in Northeast Paris, is fertile ground for these transformations—it has a hefty stock of turn-of-century industrial buildings, as well as gross monstrosities of public housing blocks erected in the 1970s. This neglected outcrop of the capital has long been home to itinerant workers, first from across France in the late 19th century, and now from all over the world—North Africans (both Muslim and Jewish), sub-Saharan Africans, Chinese, and South Asians.

The burgeoning neighborhood’s latest stream of migrants come from the land of bourgeois bohemia. Today Belleville is full of bobo artists, admen aspiring to artiness, young craftsmen inhabiting the former workshops of old craftsmen, and people who simply appreciate the neighborhood’s cultural kaleidoscope. Beyond the Chinese dim sum palaces and down a twisted street, past housing projects and through the courtyard doors of a cracked and ragged building housing machinists, you’ll find the studio of designers, and brothers, Erwan (31) and Ronan Bouroullec (36). Their tender ages belie their vast experience—they have designed furnishings for Vitra, Cappellini, Ligne Roset, Magis, Kartell, and Galerie Kreo, and environments such as the A-Poc store for Issey Miyake. They are also represented in several major museum collections. I asked Erwan how a country boy from Brittany, makes a home both in a rarefied stratum of the design world and back on the ground in the grittier Belleville millieu.

In our city guide to Paris, Erwan Bouroullec curates a must-see list in the French capital. Photo by: Jessica Antola

You camped out in the Saint-Denis outside Paris for seven years and have been in the city for four. But you say you’re still not Parisian. What does the city look like from an outsider’s perspective?

The rue du Faubourg du Temple cuts through lower Belleville and its cultural cross sections: Chinese dim-sum palaces to halal butchers, French pastry shops to bric-a-brac stores serving a variety of ethnic communities.

When I moved to Paris, I discovered the people there. It’s what I like most about the city. I find them marvelous. I find them wonderfully beautiful. Elegant. I have to say, I’m quite attracted to elegance. Of course, the downside to elegance is snobbery—people can be impossibly snotty and all that. But in Paris people pay attention to what they wear; how they walk, speak, carry themselves. There’s this almost classic elegance to them. So many codes.

People-watching at the casual hang-out L’Autre Café.

So you prefer sleek, upscale areas?

The venerable Crillon, a “palace hotel” of gilt trimmings and privilege overlooking the Place de la Concorde.

No, no. What I mean is that elegance is everywhere. I used to live down on the rue de la Fontaine au Roi [a working-class street in the 11th arrondissement, now trendy and home to boutiques and restaurants]. I consider it to be very stylish. It’s like Tokyo. I believe great cities give birth to masters—people far advanced in their understanding of a particular thing. Paris, as a fashion capital, has tons of people with that very heightened sense and attention to style. And that influences everyone. It takes them to a higher level. Anytime I go elsewhere in France, I’m always so disappointed. Really.  In Saint-Denis it was the same thing. There were a lot of Africans. The black men had this tradition of style, of being really well dressed, like Englishmen, with the just-so suit. And then there were all those ghetto kids from the public housing projects, the rough neighborhoods. It’s obvious they wear their clothing like armor, like something to found their identity on, to help them deal with who they are, to push back against the world.

Erwan advises that Paris’s finest architecture can be found in its train stations—such as the Gare de Lyon pictured here. “I love all those 19th-century buildings created by engineers who worked in metal,” he adds.

You sound like an urban voyeur.

The most famous flea market, beyond Porte de Clignancourt on the north edge of the city, is a treasure trove for antique hunters, with specialist stands chock-full of items from every decade—from Art Deco on up.

There’s no perversity in this voyeurism, since people in Paris also put themselves on display. Working in design has educated me to be attentive, to look at and appreciate that which can be seen and touched, rather than appreciating something that needs to be dissected, understood, intellectualized.

“I think people see Paris as a ville-musée because it has such an extreme sense of

time about it,” Erwan tells us. “It keeps the trace of things that existed a thousand years earlier. It’s a city with depth—the more you hunt and dig, the more clues you discover.”

You work in the heart of Belleville. Don’t you fear you’re part of a gentrifying trend slowly wiping out its working-class identity?

The ToolsGalerie in the Marais district spotlights the work of young French designers.

Gentrifying isn’t happening here. Calling people "bobos" is just another way of talking about those well-dressed people I’ve been describing, people who may go to the theater but still love this neighborhood. There’s this incredible mix in our neighborhood, from top to bottom. I mean, you still have the rue du Faubourg du Temple. The street is like an entire bazaar. It’s incredibly matter-of-fact, but violently so—a perfect example of that Parisian mix, where space is free of any kind of structured order. As a designer, it’s interesting to be confronted by this profusion of objects that cost nothing, that are absolutely not design, that are either pure utilitarianism or pure kitsch. There’s nothing else: no halfway, no subtlety.  If you start from there, then you should wander through the next couple of streets—push open the front doors of buildings, and you’ll find these series of amazing courtyards. There are so many old workshops back here, like ours, which are often in the process of being transformed. The neighborhood is constantly improving, it’s got a great blend—a little gallery, then a clothing store, then, next to that, an auto mechanic. It’s full of people who work in the cinema, graphic design, fashion. I’m not talking about stars, but people who actually exercise the craft. It’s very working-class, but in a new manner. People come to these neighborhoods because they’re less expensive; it’s a way to maintain creative independence.

The Eiffel Tower, which raised more than one eyebrow in 1889.

Where should we go in Belleville?

Not far from the rue du Faubourg du Temple, there’s this great bar, Le 9 Billards. Either it’s sordid, or super. It’s excellent for people-watching. They give tango classes.

Do you dance?

No. I shoot pool. But Le 9 Billards, it’s not really a place for serious pool players. Other local cafés? Le Cannibale, which has a good feel to it, and L’Autre Café, which on weekday afternoons feels like a typical little French brasserie.

Where can you take the pulse of design?

The Galerie Kreo is obviously a great place to visit for art and design. And then there’s the ToolsGalerie, which is more oriented toward contemporary design pieces, objects, little things that tend to be more accessible. They show various younger French designers, like Olivier Sidet and Florence Doléac of Radi Designers. And, of course, people who come to Paris should really get up to the flea markets, whether at the Puces de Saint-Ouen or the Porte de Vanves.

What do you avoid in the city?

What I truly don’t understand is this love people have for Saint Germain des Prés. I find it incredibly horrible.

Critics complain Paris is a <i>ville-musée</i>, a museum city, beautiful but asleep.

I don’t give a damn if it’s asleep. I don’t need more than what I have in Paris. I’m here because I need a certain level of serenity.   I think people see Paris as a <i>ville-musée</i> because it has such an extreme sense of time about it. It keeps the trace of things that existed 1,000 years earlier. It’s a city with such depth—the more you hunt and dig, the more clues you discover.

Any monuments worth a visit?

The Eiffel Tower. It’s stupid, I know. But it is truly beautiful architecture. The best places in the city, architecturally, are the train stations—Gare de Lyon, Gare de l’Est, Gare du Nord. I love all those 19th-century buildings created by engineers who worked in metal. They crafted these incredible arborescences—which were at once both structural and decorative.

So where do you recommend someone go if they don’t want to wait in line to climb the Eiffel Tower but refuse to trespass into run-down courtyards?

There’s a great place to have a drink at Place de la Bastille. Down in the Port de l’Arsenal there’s a restaurant called Le Grand Bleu. You should absolutely not eat there; it’s horrible. But in summer you have to go have a drink. It’s below street level; you disappear completely from the city. You can see more, and farther. It’s one of those places that offers an amazing perspective. You can forget the city and let your gaze drift.


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