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August 27th, 2006
Sun, Aug. 27th, 2006 10:42 am

Impromptu and somewhat a l'improviste I ended up spending three days in Paris this week. But by "Paris" I suppose I mean a succession of familiar, updated and new interiors. There were the apartments of my friends Gilles and Flo, of course, and there was Naniwaya, the delightfully domestic Japanese cafe and grocery on the Rue St Anne. There was Tang Freres in the 13th arrondissement Chinatown, and pho restaurant Hawaii (which I thought had closed down, but is open again). There was Colette, the Mitterand Library, a new floating swimming pool on the Seine, the red Comme des Garcons "relaxation space", Japanese bookstore Junkudu, and the Guimet Museum. But most of all there was the Palais de Tokyo.



The Palais de Tokyo is my exemplary interior space, and not just in Paris. I think it might be my favourite place in the entire world. I just feel so comfortable hanging out in its shabby -- yet beautifully coloured and lit -- monumental spaces. In a sense it's the world's most chic student union, and probably I'm an eternal student. It caters to all my needs; I can eat there, watch films, browse the art magazines and books in the bookstore, see art, pee or poo, hang out watching interesting-looking characters, glimpse people I know (an old Berlin crush strolled by at one point, in Paris for the Radiohead shows), eat again, attend a special event about an art commune in Chiang Mai, Thailand called The Land Foundation. I can do all this from midday to midnight. And I can sense the benign, playful, intelligent and liberal presence of the museum's creators and curators, above all Jerome Sans and Nicolas Bourriaud, inventors of the chilled "relational aesthetics" of which the Palais de Tokyo is still one of the best examples.



You could, of course, make a case against the building. You could say that it's "bobo fascist" (the building dates from 1937, and it's certainly doing "elegant slumming" today). You could reproach it for making a bad faith simulation of the post-industrial warehouse or schoolhouse style of institutions like PS1 in New York or Kunst-Werke in Berlin, and accuse it of being a faked, top-down version of those more grassroots cultural organisations. Personally, I'm not impressed by those arguments. The Palais de Tokyo just... works.

So I ended up spending two of my Paris days there, immersing myself in the jungle-like atmosphere of Tropico-Vegetal, the big eco-nature show that ended its run this weekend. I blogged about the show last month, but it really needed to be seen in the flesh and forest canopy. I spent the most time in Sergio Vega's installation; I've been a fan of his lush, playful work since seeing it at the Venice Biennale last year. His lily pads, crocodiles, easy chairs and fish tanks felt like a small, relaxing theme park, a 1970s Brazilian Embassy or hotel lobby. To see small children playing with his "crocodile trains" was delightful. Although it's far from hard-hitting, aggressive, contentious or controversial, Vega's work has a quirky, sensual humanity which I find very valuable.



But I wanted to pay tribute today to the architects who transformed the Palais de Tokyo into the place I feel so at home in. The building was re-opened in 2002 after a €4m make-over by Bordeaux-based architects Lacaton and Vassal. Appropriately enough for architects from a city associated with red wine, the couple focus on conviviality in their work. They also love cheapness, favouring materials like corrugated plastic and iron, and borrowing from forms like greenhouses, North African markets, and huts. Vassal is French, but was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and the pair have worked on projects in Niger, so there's a "learning from Africa" aspect to their textures -- and their prices. Their ability to work cheaply hasn't endeared them to other French architects, who feel they've lowered architecture's standards, and above all its premium prices. But I personally love cheapness as an aesthetic; to me, few finished structures are as beautiful as the building sites which precede them, with their half-plastered walls, exposed-cables, brightly-coloured plastic buckets, hazard tape and harsh lights on tripods. Imagine that aesthetic crossed with some temporary buildings where vineyard labourers rest and relax after a hard day picking grapes and you have the feel.



My interest in Anne Lacaton and Jean Philippe Vassal's work was triggered by a beautifully illustrated feature on them in the current edition of Kidswear magazine (a brilliant magazine, which incidentally published a short story of mine a couple of years ago). I've been googling them, and I can tell you a bunch of stuff about them.

* Vassal says that "air and flowers” are the two most important things in their work.
* For Lacaton, 90% of what you need to make a building is already present on the site. In Africa they learned from people’s resourcefulness and how existing materials are endlessly used, reused and hybridised with very little waste.
* “It is really incredible to see how African people can use a lot of different materials, the materials they have around themselves,” says Vassal. “They can find the simplest way to make the minimum essential things fit for a purpose.”
* “There is a clear line of criticism in France. French architects find Lacaton and Vassal’s position problematic as it gives politicians reasons to cut budgets. If, as they are doing in Nantes architecture school, you can give twice the space for the same budget, why not cut the budget in half? This is the big fear. But on a more subconscious level, their aesthetic of roughness is not like the typical French elegance of Perrault or Nouvel.” Critic Andreas Ruby
* "Their vision of social space is pervasive, inspired, partly, by the Djemaa El-Fnaa market square of Marrakesh -- a space of movement and change, constantly formed and reformed by the whim of its actors." Art in Process
* "The question of monumentality for me is no longer important, and you can replace this by other things which are generosity and poetry, and to make something where people can have some emotions." Vassal.
* In a competition for the Architecture Foundation's new building at Bankside, London (won by a horrible sharky thing by Zaha Hadid), Lacaton and Vassal proposed a building dominated by a giant statue of a woman in her underwear.
* In a 1999 manifesto the couple wrote: "Dwellings. Too much comfort. We do not have extraordinary architectures because of a bit too much--middle-class--comfort. New ways of living in, and living. The House: inventing something else, getting rid of foundations, mobility, nomadism. Cost: cost-cutting, the right means, as inexpensive as possible to build more... Architecture will be straightforward, useful, precise, cheap, free, jovial, poetic and cosmopolitan. It'll be nice tomorrow."

I don't know about tomorrow, but it certainly was beautiful on Wednesday and Thursday.

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