Notre-Dame-du-Travail, rue Vercingetorix
Here, in the grey backside of Montparnasse, is the gayest of all the iron churches of Paris. You would never think so from outside, but the inside is a construction of exquisite fragility, not making the slightest concession to Gothic detail, as even Boileau did with his shaft-rings. The piers are I-beams, expressed down to the bolts: the struts in between are as thin as technology could make them. It feels like a train shed, but here the space is given a direction – and then let down by the
Paris Guided Tours Metal construction: Notre-Dame-du-Travail
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Cite Universitaire and Parc de Montsouris
This is a campus of student hostels, sandwiched between the Parc Montsouris and a buzzing chasm called the boulevardperephirique. It was begun in 1925, and since then a whole series of national pavilions has been put up: they are still building and there is plenty of space yet. Paris is one of the best cities in the world for racial tolerance, and so the polyglot population mixes together without strain amongst the hulks of brick and stone. 1925 was a bad year to begin constructing what are in effect sizeable embassies – no expense spared – especially when each was supposed to contain some reminiscence of national architecture. But at the east end of the site are two chefs d’&uvre of Le Corbusier. The Swiss and Brazilian pavilions (the latter in collaboration with Lucio Costa, the architect of the master plan for Brasilia) are separated by a decent piece of Norwegian brickwork on the ground and by twenty-eight years in time. The foundation stones were laid in 1931 and 1959 and for most of those years Le Corbusier was in the wilderness, midway between a succes de scandale and real recognition: if in between these two buildings he seems to have thrown away the substance for the shadow, he at least had provocation. The Pavilion Suisse of 1931 is all that you would never expect from reading Le Corbusier’s arrogant blogs: mellow, subtle and reasonable with a dateless sophistication that is in the very best line of French architecture. The curved wall of the staircase tower at the back is delicate, not swaggering; the glass wall in front completely reasonable and easy,13 the gaps in the balustrade for the penthouse flat completely without pretension or look-at-me-make-a-pattern. And at a distance the Brazilian building is polite too: or at least politely aggressive, like a well-trained copper. But underneath there is no strength, only brutality – coarse use of colour, concrete beams and folded roofs clanking away inharmoniously, rubble stonework of a disheartening crudity. The two foundation stones spell it out: the earlier a decent lettered tablet to what must have been remarkably far-sighted patrons, the later a disastrous piece of Corb’s false-naive art.
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Opposite the Cite is the Parc de Montsouris, one of Haussmann’s curvy expiations for all those boulevards. It was laid out in the 1870s and has a delirious comic-opera flavour, everything preposterous in the happiest way: lake, hilly slopes, curly lampstandards and that astonishing French imitation of rustic fencing in concrete. Slap through the middle, in a cutting, runs the Ligne de Sceaux. And underneath that, this time in a cutting of real grandeur, is the railway line that follows the route of the outer boulevards.
9. The apse was begun in 1492 and is genuinely Gothic.
10. This is, very crudely, the recipe for the west front of Notre-Dame. Where the English actually practised a Gothic Revival, the French more often reinterpreted the tradition, sometimes deliberately, in classical buildings.
11. Academie Française and four others.
12. Reinforced by two enormous clocks the size of Big Ben. Another one, gilded and neglected, is inside the porte-cochere.
13. Though, even so, too hot by half in summer.