Pauloni in Paris

This essay first appeared on the electronic
mailing list Piporg-l

Part 5

From the breakfast parlour of the Hotel Récamier I could see the frozen fountain in the centre of the Place St. Sulpice. I sipped cautiously from the edge of a huge bowl swimming with hot coffee; I spread apricot jam thickly on the corner of a fresh croissant.

I had slept well and was refreshed. Alchohol is one of the few civilised pleasures that disagrees with me, and at dinner the night before I had joined Princess Adelie in drinking only mineral-water. Sister Muriel looked rather pale I thought, and I noticed that she now took only a little tea. Brad was slowly revived by a large coffee. Horatio took breakfast with us but clearly had no plans to take any notice of his surroundings until the meal was safely consumed. The Count emerged in due course, wearing dark glasses. He ordered a large flagon of orange juice, half of which he used to wash down a number of brightly coloured vitamin pills. No one spoke.

I had finished my coffee, and surveyed the scene. Pauloni removed his eye-wear and began to blink.

I was most anxious that the simple hotel was to the Count's taste, and enquired whether he had spent a comfortable night. You see, the Hotel Récamier is an unusually thin establishment. To the square, it presents only a pair of double doors on the ground floor and a single column of windows above. Taking advantage of its corner position, it is somewhat larger within than it appears without, but even so, it is of a decidedly vertical character. The considerable effort made by the management to provide the appropriate level of luxury is at every turn challenged by the nature of the site. For example, the passenger lift running up the centre of the stairwell, though richly ornamented with imitation Third-Empire ironwork, has a glazed cabin that holds only one person (or perhaps two if they have previously been introduced to one another). In my own bathroom on the second floor it took me only a a few minutes to realise that I could only get into the shower cubicle when the door to the bedroom was closed, and that, in order to close the bathroom door from the inside, it was necessary to stand in the bidet.

The Hotel Récamier

In reply to my question, the Count assured me that he had been quite comfortable, the only similar logistical puzzle in his suite being that, in order to perform his toilet at the wash-stand, it was necessary for him to open wide the double windows at his back. This immediately explained the loud cheering I had heard coming from the Place St-Sulpice some minutes earlier.

As I pondered this information a narrow vertical beam of sunlight fell on the mat in the hallway outside the parlour. It had squeezed at an obtuse angle across the face of the building, allowing only a wintry degree of penetration to the interior. However, it was enough to turn my thoughts to the outside world. As the sunlight spread cautiously across the square, defying the grey ice and rutted slush, it illuminated a dormant thought in my mind.

I leapt to my feet.

'The Sainte-Chapelle!', I cried.

The prospect of seeing one of the finest collections of stained glass in the world illuminated by a low winter sun was irrestible, and infected the party immediately. Within a few minutes the fur coat was marching bravely towards the Ile de la Cité, leading a contingent of the faithful to one of the greatest surviving examples of Gothic art: the chapel built by Louis IX in 1242-8 to house the crown of thorns. (The relic was sold to him by Emperor Badouin II of Constantinople: a snip at 135,000 livres. The chapel cost a mere 40,000.)

We were not disappointed. The south side of the interior, more than half of it coloured glass, was incandescent. The early sun lit up the entire range of windows and their encyclopaedia of allegorical detail. The central void was pierced with gently angled beams of blue, red and gold light. That light fell on the north side of the interior, illuminating the walls but leaving the windows on that side relatively dark. It revealed three colours used to enliven the stonework in roughly equal proportions: blue, red and gold. The full glory of mediaeval polychrome was revealed. The burnished gold leaf sang like plainsong against the faded primary colours. A forest of columns; a canopy of branching ribs; countless thousands of leaves of glass: - the entire writhing vegetable fantasy of the mediaeval mind was on display.

(During the visit Sister Muriel could be seen holding up a pair of opera-glasses and dictating notes into a small machine. It is quite likely that the entire decorative scheme will be recreated in Hammersmith at some date in the future, though presumably without the offensive green and white illuminated plastic 'exit' signs.)

Any cultural experience in France is best accompanied by food. We retired to a nearby cafe and consumed a nourishing lunch. The visit to the Sainte-Chapelle had whetted our appetite for the tourist trail, and several suggestions for an afternoon visit were made: the Eiffel Tower, the Jardin des Plantes, the Catacombs or the sewers. Pauloni brushed all these aside at once:

'Only one visit is possible! At the Sainte-Chapelle the past spoke to us. Now we go to meet The Future! On this point there shall be no further discussion! At La Défense stands the Great Arch. I, Pauloni, have a hand in the design.' He rose to his feet and pointed to the door of the restaurant: 'To La Défense!!' he roared.

In no city on earth are the great monuments so conveniently laid out for the sightseer. However large the suburban sprawl of the French Capital, the City proper, with all its attractions, is compact and tidy. At street level, a sense of direction is easily maintained in relation to the grands boulevards. For example, the Champs-Elysées - a staggering sixteen-lane thoroughfare built long before the first motor-car - bisects the city: an axis almost as important as the Seine itself and, moreover, running straight from east to west. Below ground the Metro offers the ideal local transport system. The lines are identified by the names of their termini, immediately introducing an image of another Paris: outlying townships with unlikely sounding names - Merdy-le-con, Ivresse, Plat-Dégeulasse and so on. The trains are frequent at all hours, and equally so on all lines. There are stations at every third street corner throughout the city. You can arrive at any destination on the map within twenty-five minutes of departing, with no more than two changes of train. The addition, in recent years, of a second deep-level network with extra fast trains between the major interchanges, has made some cross-city journeys unbelievably quick. The tickets are simple and cheap. Jules Verne would have been delighted.

The Metro, I hate to say it, is actually much better than the London Underground, a system that I studied in every arcane detail as a schoolboy. In London there is no system, rather A) The Underground proper (an ordinary railway, but just below the ground and operated by an Historic Preservation Society) and B) the Tube (a maze of dangerous wormholes, somewhere near the centre of the earth, with one-quarter size trains). Both are riddled with anomalies. Even life-long Londoners occasionally find themselves going round the Circle Line the wrong way, or boarding the wrong branch of the Northern Line at Camden Town. Occasionally developers dig up long-forgotten branches or even abandoned stations.

The experience of travelling on the Metro is as interesting as it is efficient. The majority of the stations are in their original state (though the surface entrances have been diminished by the loss of almost all of Hector Guimard's bright green Art Nouveau canopies). Below ground, an arch of dazzlingly white tiles focusses all light on the ribbons of polished steel that form the road. Charming blue enamel signs announce the evocative names - only in Paris does it take less than five minutes to get from Rome to Stalingrad. Those stations which have been modernised usually rejoice in some quite splendid and safely subterranean example of hideous modern French design - walls of polished copper, for example, or the handful painted, in the late 1950s, in brown, green and pale yellow. Some lines have elevated sections with splendid views of rubbish-strewn back streets.

Forgive this unwarranted diversion into technicalia, but I must also describe some of the trains. Half the lines are equipped with cars with rubber tyres, running on concrete track. This ingenious idea was first tried out around 1960 on Line One (Neuilly to Porte de Vincennes). By allowing better acceleration and braking, the new trains would considerably shorten journey times. The expense was hideous: for various reasons each track has six rails (two steel and four concrete), and each carriage has twenty-four wheels, eight each of three different types. The improvement to the acceleration and braking was so marked that all the standing passengers immediately fell over, and the trains could not in the event be run much faster than those of normal type. However, the original concept was so brilliant as to be worthy of retention, and the pneumatic ride was exceptionally smooth. Louis IX's expenditure on the Crown of Thorns was more than matched by the City of Paris in converting half the Metro to the new system, as a living monument to Progress.

The physical manifestation of the concept of Progress requires attention to every detail, and in the case of the Metro not one of the senses is neglected. After negociating the guillotine-like turnstiles and the ammonia-scented passageways at mezzanine level, the descent to the platform (with its different but equally unmistakable odour) introduces the passenger to a world of carefully orchestrated noises. The trains arrive with a swish: the sound of ten thousand Dior scarves being flung across feminine shoulders. The doors open with little champagne-cork pops. A contralto recitative on the loudspeakers (informing passengers of proceedure in the event of a terrorist attack) is preceeded by an eight-note signature tune. Once you are inside the carriage, the warning that the train is about to leave is in the form of two notes, a semitone apart, played on a Viole-de-gambe-en-chamade hidden behind a small grille at ear level. Then the doors shut with an anti-clamactic plonk, though with enough force to sever a limb, and you move off.

The Metro

On January 6th the experience of travelling by Metro was delightfully familiar, including the the presence of numerous soldiers with machine guns, no doubt on their way home after work. The succession of hauntingly unmusical sound effects put the Count completely off his stride, and despite the shrill Voix Célestes, he failed to grab one of the handrails at the moment that the full power of the motors was transmitted to the one-hundred-and-twenty rubber tyres of the five-car train. In effect, though the train was now on its way, Pauloni's torso remained more or less stationary. The increasingly frantic motion of his legs was in fact the only visible indication of any serious discrepancy. Within a few moments the rear of the carriage had caught up with his hurtling form, and had compelled him to join the rest of us in our forward progress. Naturally the force of the impact was of no great consequence to a man of Pauloni's character, and was in any case greatly lessened by the fur coat and by an unfortunate gypsy busker with a piano-accordion (his rambling performance of a tarantella was brought to an immediate and cacophonous close).

In less time than it takes to say Direction Issy-les-Moulineaux we were at our destination. We pressed a few coins on the gypsy and disembarked. (I worried later that we may not have given him quite enough to replace his exploded instrument, but as he was still winded it was quite impossible to communicate with him on the subject).

La Défense is an area immediately to the west of the city, about the size of an international airport, that has been completely levelled, to be replaced with a commercial theme-park: an entire district of Leviathan examples of avant-garde architecture. The railway station prepares the visitor for the realities of the modern world. From any of the eight parallel underground tracks banks of escalators lift you to a vast concrete lounge half a mile long, and to the start of a Journey into The Future.

banks of escalators lift you to a vast concrete lounge half a mile long

Our choice of moving stairway brought us out in the centre of the echoingly vast concrete booking hall; we stood in a circular pallisade of exit gates that refused to accept our tickets. For a few minutes we stood there. The great underground arena was quiet, apart from the rumbling of the stairs. The Count made a second attempt to pass through one of the gates, but to no avail. As his coat had wedged itself firmly in the mechanism, it was now impossible for him to move either forwards or backwards, despite the efforts made by the rest of us to push him clear. As this situation was clearly intolerable, I helped Sister Muriel vault over the barrier and she went to fetch help.

Within only a few minutes a team of helpful blue-coated technicians were dismantling the errant machine and we were freed. Our progress halted again while we considered which of the distant exits to aim for. There appeared to be direction signs on the walls, but these were far off: merely to have gone to read them would have committed us to an extra five minutes walk and to a particular direction. After a short conference we made our decision, greatly helped by Sister Muriel's pocket compass, and set out towards the western end of the station concourse.

There was no-one in sight and the only movement in the building was that of a machine. Idly performing grand figures-of-eight in the centre of the floor was a lonely automatic floor-cleaner. It whirred and hummed. Rubber skirts and rotating brushes indicated its prosaic function. The yellow insect body carried, in place of a thorax, a large, black, swollen dust-bag; twin antennae in front carried rotating yellow winkers; it bleeped from time to time. Immediately I saw it I knew there would be trouble, just as one knows by instinct when a dog decides it is going to bite you. As we walked by there was a distinct jerk in its movement; the wheels straightened and it started to follow us at a smart pace. It was not terribly difficult to outrun it, but in order to avoid being mown down we found we needed to change course more than once. We tried various tactics, until it eventually became clear that the machine would not on any account allow us to walk on the part of the floor it had already polished. Bleeping loudly, it saw us out at the east end of the station.

In The Future there will be large spaces left empty for the arrival of visitors from another planet, or for the playing of epic scenes of coup and riot. These events are fully prepared for at La Défense. A vast paved plateau running east-west is flanked by varied wonders of modern design: the corporate headquarters of France. Each building is arresting in its own right. One is assembled from giant pre-moulded blue polypropolene slabs. Another is in the form of a huge suspended tent. There are geometrical figures too: a series of conic sections house insurance companies and banks; a sports dome and its annexes represent the Euclidean solids. A backdrop of regular everyday skyscrapers blots out any more familar view to the north and south.

At the west end, a phalanx of steps, built to the joint orders of Eisenstein and de Mille, rises to an upper plateau, a podium. And there rests the arch: a huge rectangular picture-frame of a building, alternately white and transparent, pierced by a void. The void is square in outline, and unbelievably huge: too tall for bungee jumping, about right for a parachute. The building itself occupies both the flanking towers and also the vast flat bridge beyween them, a lintel so huge and improbable that it is guaranteed to breed mad Stonehenge-like theories in three thousand years time. From the top of the steps the view east is of the entire city of Paris, along the axis of the Champs-Elysées: a hazy glimpse of the seemingly tiny Arc de Triomphe framed by the disorded heaps of architecture on either side.

This view was denied us. During the course of the day a dense freezing fog had descended on the city: by the time we got to La Défense the visibility was down to a few hundred yards and, no doubt, the Boulevard P»ripherique was a mass of tangled wreckage. Standing on the top of the steps we could admire our immediate surroundings and could see the arch towering above us. We could also inspect the large coloured lights on poles on the east side of the podium, passed off to the public as a work of Modern Art, but in fact plainly designed to guide alien craft towards the landing strip below. We could stand at the point where a cat's cradle of polished steel links indicated the exposed passenger lifts that normally whisk visitors up into the distant soffit. We could also read the hand-written signs on the lift doors which said that the building would be shut for essential maintenance until Easter.

From the top of the steps we stared into the numbing fog; no-one spoke. I imagine that each of us was considering the paradoxical fact that, even if we had been able to get to the top of the arch, we would not have been able to see the ground below us. Even if the building had truly been closed to allow a landing from Mars, no-one would have been able to see it happen. Events had mysteriously conspired against every interesting possibility.

The depth of our inward musing was undoubtedly intensified by a fact which I shall now reveal. Our great friend, nobilissime the Count Paulo Pauloni, was, in a sense, himself responsible for the largest, the most outspoken, and the wittiest of all the great monuments of Paris. He has told me the story himself, and the facts, as you will see, are quite reasonable, though extraordinary in their outcome. On a visit some years ago to Prince Henry of Denmark (who, as you may know, is a devoted fan of the organ), Paulo met, at a Royal reception in Fredericksborg Castle, a visionary young architect named Johan Otto von Spreckelsen. In the course of conversation von Spreckelsen revealed that he was working on a competition design for La Défense in Paris, but that he had no idea how to find the right words to describe the essence of his scheme to the judges, who were entertaining only submissions written in English or French. A quick pencil sketch on a paper napkin gave Paulo his first sight of what is now La Grande Arche. Without a moment's hesitation he uttered magic words:

'A window; A Window on the World! In French! - Une Fenêtre!'

The slogan was obviously the right one: a statement so simple and so penetrating that it commanded attention far beyond the committee of experts, reaching the ear of President Mitterand himself. The decision was instant; von Spreckelsen's design now articulates the historic axis of the City of Paris; Count Pauloni has unwittingly participated in the creation of one of The Wonders of the Modern World.

I walked down the steps a little ahead of the others. We all turned back to look at the huge white frame and its yawning hole. From my position just below Pauloni I had both the fur coat and the arch in my line of sight: the study of relative scale and proportion was both instructive and amusing.

The light was beginning to fade. We returned to the Metro station, where the floor-cleaning machine chased us eagerly from one end of the concourse to the other, only returning to its neurotic and lonely loops and turns as we finally disappeared down the escalator to the platform.

the floor-cleaning machine

After the events of the outward journey, we took great care at the moment of departure. Each of us selected a different target. Between us we took out an Algerian guitarist, a blind beggar, and three war veterans.

Part VI