Vive l’évolution in Paris
A view of the Paris skyline and the Eiffel Tower. (Phil Coomes/BBC)
Paris has long been associated with the finer things in life – food, drink, art, music. Yet the French capital is not resting on its cultural laurels, as new trends emerge in the City of Light.
A greener city
For a city routinely described as one of the most beautiful in the world, Paris is oddly lacking in green spaces. Compared with the other great cities of Europe, its provision of public parks verges on the meagre, and none are used by local residents with the same regularity as, say, London’s Hyde Park. So, in the past decade, Parisians have started to take horticultural matters into their own hands via a new movement known as jardins partagés (shared gardens). Inspired by the 19th-century Parisian tradition of workers’ gardens, wherein plots of land near factories would be collectively tended by employees, enthusiasts of jardins partagés search for forgotten strips of real estate and transform them into small green oases.
The first area to get the partagés treatment – there are some 70 community gardens in Paris now – was at Clignancourt, an unloved no man’s land on the northern border of the city. This is Paris at its grittiest, where the boulevards begin to fray into the tower blocks of the suburban banlieue. There is minimal green space here, which made it an ideal target for a group of green-fingered local residents. A disused railway track runs underneath the main thoroughfare – a decade ago, it was a rubbish dump. Now, it is a foliage-hooded avenue lined with flower beds. Each bed has a chalk board showing who is responsible for its cultivation – schools, cafés, religious groups. The plants have even reclaimed the railway track itself – the old signal lights are wrapped in stems and leaves.
Denis Loubaton is the president of Les Amis des Jardins du Ruisseau, the group responsible for this metamorphosis. ‘The area was abandoned for years, and a place for garbage,’ he says. ‘But we saw the potential, and as we have started to develop it, it has become an important place for the local community. We have more than 300 members, who take collective responsibility – but you don’t need to be a member to use the garden. It’s for everyone.’ His point is proven by a stroll through the greenery. At one end, a group of middle-aged women sit eating cake. At the other, a gang of teenage lads are playing cards around a trestle table. In the middle, locally grown vegetables are for sale. An unloved crack in the urban sprawl has been turned into a fulcrum for a community.
Yet what happens in a place such as central Paris, where every spare yard of real estate has already been developed? The answer at Musée du Quai Branly, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, is to go up. The museum opened in 2006 to exhibit the art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas that struggles to get into more established museums, and the wall of the building that faces the Seine has been cultivated into a vertical garden. Pavement to roof, it is covered with plants, all growing at right angles. Press a hand against the building and instead of hard concrete you feel soft, damp soil. Designed by experimental botanist Patrick Blanc and watered by vertical irrigation, the garden is a surreal solution to Paris’s parkland deficit – a dreamlike flash of green stretching to the sky.
Art for a new century
Paris takes art very seriously – as well it might with the Louvre and Pompidou Centre among its cultural offerings. Budding artists pour into the city from around the globe, hoping for a bit of the old Matisse magic to rub off. Montmartre and the Latin Quarter, once home to big names, still pull in tourists. Yet high rents mean there’s no way that today’s artists can afford to join them. So, to get a sense of the current art scene, you need to head for the outer reaches.