Letter from Paris

If summer travels take your Paris, at the top of your list should be the new 2,400-seat Philharmonie de Paris building in the Parc de la Villette (19th arrondissement), opened earlier this year (architect’s rendering, below). The park was designed by Bernard Tschumi and built in the 1980s, and if you’ve not been, it’s certainly worth seeing, if for no other reason that the numerous lipstick-red “follies” scattered throughout. As with his architectural contemporaries, Tschumi was heavily influenced by deconstructionist philosopher Jacque Derrida, and this park, when opened, was internationally influential. Among it’s features are various museums, concert halls, and theaters, all designed by important contemporary designers; the new home for the Philharmonie de Paris is the latest addition.


Architect’s rendering; not red folly to the left of the pedestrian approach.

It is no surprise that this latest addition has been controversial. Designed by French starchitect Jean Nouvel (who won an international competition for the commission from 2007), the project opened earlier this year at an estimated final cost of over €387 million (several times the original budget), due to cost overruns and work stoppages. Nouvel boycotted the opening in February, saying the building wasn’t finished and petitioned the courts (unsuccessfully per an April ruling) to have his name removed from the building, claiming his design had been “martyred” and “sabotaged,” resulting in “contempt for architecture, for the profession and for the architect of the most important French cultural program of the new century.” Mon dieu!

Nevertheless, the building is quite beautiful. When you go, if you arrive by Métro (Porte de Pantin), resist the temptation to take the closer diagonal pedestrian access near the station exit (as we did); instead walk about two block along Avenue Jean Jaurès toward the Périphérique, then turn left and take the gentle ramp up to the building. It hovers like a bizarre, metallic, boxy meringue with a strangely mottled surface.

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Approach from the ramp.

Getting closer, you’ll notice the skin of the undulating part of the building appears to be woven strips of patterned metal. The entire surface is patterned with figures, recalling, in my view, M. C. Escher’s work, and this pattern even extends off the building and into the pavement around the entrance plaza.

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The interior is just as interesting as the exterior, with seats arranged in an unconventional way. The results, spatially and acoustically, are thrilling. The stage is surrounded on all sides by seats; ours (acquired just a few days prior to the performance we attended) were house right, in what was called the second balcony. We were directly above the double basses, and we could almost read their music. The performance (Mendelssohn Symphony #13; Mozart Piano Concerto #9; Schumann Symphony #2) was from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, conducted by Murray Perahia; he also played the piano in the Mozart concerto. It was crisp, precise, and beautifully performed, perfectly suited to the space and its acoustics.

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View from mid-way in the balcony.

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View from the top of the hall, looking down to the stage.

Certainly a visit to the Picasso Museum is in order if you’ve not already been. On view now (and until August 18th) is an exhibition of his sculptures, as well as paintings some of which you may now have seen, throughout the different galleries in this newly renovated grand mansion.

Equally interesting is the show “Camambolages” at the Grand Palais until July 4. In this show – arguably like none other you’ve never seen before – the visitor is given just one instruction: “Listen to your eyes.” What follows, in an regimented sequence, is a series of often provocative juxtapositions, nearly 200 objects, paintings, models, small sculptures, and so on from different periods, artists, countries, cultures, and media. There are no captions or explanations, an annoying omission according to all in our group (which included a former museum curator); it is up to the observer to make connections and draw relevant meanings from one to the next. Some are easy, others not; all are fascinating, if not also often confounding. If you can only go to only one exhibit in Paris this summer, this could be it.


If you’ve not seen the permanent collection of the Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris, found in the fantastic Art Deco Palais de Tokyo, you certainly should do so. Nevermind what’s on view on a temporary basis, you’ll want to spend your time with this fantastic collection of what was happening in Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is one of the best collections anywhere. Fees are charged for temporary exhibits, but the permanent collection is free.

At the Centre Georges Pompidou is a fantastic exhibit of the work of Paul Klee, “Irony at Work,” until August 1. Certainly worth seeing, together with the permanent collection, which often gets overlooked. By the way, you can purchase tickets and book your entrance time on-line for most exhibits, including this one. You’ll be glad you did.

At the Musée d’Orsay, we could not ignore the Douanier Rousseau exhibit, “Archaic Candor” now on view until July 17th, nor should anyone in Paris in the near future. What a show! Of course there is the permanent collection worth seeing here, although Manet’s “Olympia” is visiting Russia, much to the dismay of our group. Curiously, this iconic painting was an obvious inspiration for the décor and casting of the “La Traviata” we later saw at Opera Bastille: the painting hung over Violetta’s very large bed and her servant Annina, in both costume and make-up, mimicked Olympia’s servant, a bit of inspired staging, to be sure. Unlike Olympia, however, Violetta was not nude. Lunch in the large room on the top floor, as always, did not disappoint.

At the Lourve, a fantastic exhibit, now closed, featured the work of eighteenth-century ‘visionary painter’ Hubert Robert (1733-1808), known for his precise depictions of landscapes and classical Roman architecture and their subsequent profound influence on picturesque gardens and the spread of classical motifs into European (notably French and English) decorative arts and culture. One cannot fully appreciate the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries without knowing Robert, and this exhibit certainly focused our attention on his influence.

In terms of things-you-might-not-think-of-seeing in Paris, here are two suggestions in western Paris and almost within walking distance of each other:

The Albert Kahn Garden – a hidden jewel with a beautiful Japanese garden, among other features (10-14, rue du Port, Boulogne-Billancourt; Metro: Boulogne-Pont de Saint-Cloud). Albert Kahn (1860-1940) was a wealthy banker who got interested in photography, gardens, and mysticism, notably the Bengali poet Tagore (who, by the way, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913). Over the course of several years in the early 20th century, Kahn, who never married, developed a garden on his estate in western Paris and commissioned explorers to travel the world and photograph everything they saw: Curious Albert, one might say. He built a garden composed of various thematic rooms (“English,” “French,” “Japanese,” etc.) and he created a repository for his collection of colored glass slides (thousands?). On our recent visit, some parts of the garden were closed for renovation and a new building is under construction, but the Japanese Garden section was open, and it was spectacular. When we first visited (years ago), his photographic images were neither well known nor accessible; now they are more visible through an exhibit that gives insight into this interesting man, his life, and the times in which he lived.


The Japanese Garden, in the Albert Kahn Garden, Paris

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A glass slide of Tagore in the Albert Kahn Garden, Paris

Not too far from Albert Kahn, but not easy to find is the Foundation Le Corbusier, housed in the Maisons La Roche-Jeanerret (8-10, square du Docteur Blanche); from the early 1920s. This is a quiet neighborhood near the Bois de Boulogne, and if you turn the wrong way on rue du Docteur Blanche as we did (there are no signs), you’ll wander around and stumble across some interesting buildings by Robert Mallet-Stevens, a contemporary of Corbusier’s, on Rue Mallet-Stevens. Getting back on track, we walked the other direction and found Maisons La Roche-Jeaneret. Renovated a few years ago, this structure (actually it is two houses, semi-detached, at right angles to each other on an awkward site) is an icon of Modern Architecture, and it is spectacular. All the classic Corbu stuff is here: the horizontal windows, the pilotis that elevate the house, the roof terrace, the smooth white surfaces, the almost cubist composition (he was a pretty good cubist painter, by the way), and the beautiful colors burnt sienna, pale blue/gray, pale yellow. We were surprised at how small the spaces are; nevertheless, it is an incredible piece of architecture. The Foundation has an extensive collection of the architect’s archive and paintings, but at present, there is little in the way of furnishings, artwork, or drawings on exhibit here to detract from the spatial experience.

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Maisons La roche – Jeaneret



Seeing this house whetted our appetite for a visit to his better known Villa Savoye (in Poissy, outside Paris), but, alas, we didn’t get there. This will certainly be on the agenda for next time!


Lake Douglas

One Response to “Letter from Paris”

  1. I love Paris; oh do I love Paris! Thank you for this inspiring look inside. We MUST go…I think the Parisians might even enjoy seeing us. Your observations and keen descriptions make us salivate for more…Thank you!

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