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The Architect of a Modern Paris

Story edited by Sophie Delon

Most visitors walking along the Champs-Élysées stop to admire the C42 Citroën building, although they don’t always know that it’s the work of Manuelle Gautrand. This talented French architect, who has just breathed new life into the Gaîté lyrique, gives us her views on the capital and her vision of the future face of Paris. Born in Montpellier in the south of France, the architect has lived in Paris for fifteen years and considers the French capital dear to her heart.

What path has your professional career taken?

M.G.: My career has taken quite a conventional route. I studied architecture and, after graduating, I worked at different agencies before creating my own at the age of 30. I immediately began to take an interest in public competitions and cultural projects and my first work was the construction of the Béthune theatre in the Nord – Pas-de-Calais region. My project in Paris, in 2000, was the François Pinault contemporary art foundation on the Île Seguin, followed in 2002 by the Citroën C42, which was inaugurated in 2007 on the Champs-Élysées. I had the privilege of being recognized by the ministry of public works, which has strengthened my desire not to be a specialist architect but to be able to take on projects in different fields such as housing, office buildings or shopping centers.

The opening of the new Gaîté lyrique marks an important turning point in your career.

That’s right; the Gaîté lyrique was a major project. It involved both a demolition operation and the reconstruction of a mythical place. The work went on for a long time because the “simple” demolition of Planète Magique which occupied the premises necessitated almost two years of work. There were also particular constraints linked to the new building as the theater is surrounded by Haussmann buildings; it was necessary to reduce any disturbance to a minimum. The agency oversaw the work, the architecture and also the devising of a program. For me, it is now a cultural tool which Paris really needed to enable it to compete with other world capitals. Of course it was an exciting project for me because it represents a kind of cultural tool box. A tool box because of the complex nature of its construction but also with regard to the artists programmed. I love the digital arts and I’d like artists to be immediately at ease in this new environment. I also wanted to make it a fun place in contrast to other places of the same kind in the world that are often too austere: in my opinion, culture need not necessarily be serious but on the contrary open to all the public and have a human and playful dimension.

How did your agency approach the construction of the venue?

In 2003, the competition launched by the City of Paris was based on the desire to create a place devoted to the music of today and to digital culture. Before any architectural project, the aim was to imagine a detailed program of events in accordance with the City’s first objectives but also in accordance with the spatial possibilities of the building. For me, the transformation of the building into a place devoted to digital culture was quite evident. It was a dream place for such a project. When we won the competition, we did so with a double project, one for the programming and one for the architecture. We wanted to create a venue open to all current artistic practices relating to digital technology, sound, images and live performance without any partitioning. We also wanted the place to be open as much to the public as to artists; a place where the creation and dissemination of works would be closely mixed, in a dimension with a festive aspect. To meet all these challenges, our objective was to create a venue that would allow for the coming together of random and unexpected elements, a place that would leave space for things to take form without defining them in advance and which would allow for digital culture and today’s music to come together in a fusional way. And finally, our objective was to create a place that would be based on new guiding principles for the public and artists to come together.

How do you see Paris in the next ten years?

This is something that I am particular sensitive to. Paris is an extraordinary city that has a magnificent historic heritage. But as with everything, a major advantage often comes with a downside: the somewhat static beauty of the capital leads to difficulties for contemporary architecture to appear. It is obvious that this wonderful heritage should be preserved but that must not mean that it should be to the detriment of the city’s future which must therefore learn to update. I believe it is necessary to remain innovative, dynamic and open to change so that Paris does not remain frozen in its desire to remain at all costs in the past. Naturally, indelible aspects of the past, like the famous Haussmann buildings should be retained, but the city should look to the future and adopt new contemporary codes, like the majority of the world’s capitals. This near future Paris must also think about its French and international visitors but also about its citizens. Today, Parisians are on average more than 50 years old because the city attracts less and less younger people. For the obvious reasons of the cost of rented accommodation or the price per square meter for home buyers, but also because few things are devised today for younger generations in terms of housing and leisure. At the age of 20 or 30, young people do not necessarily want to live in an old apartment building, like their parents. As an architect, I dream of seeing tower blocks built in Paris!

What is your favorite district of Paris?

I live in the Marais, which is also where my agency is located and I love this district because it is very lively and there are few Haussmann buildings there but rather very fine examples of much older architecture, such as houses dating back to the Middle Ages. It is also a spacious area and really village-like for those who live there. I also really adore what I call the greater Paris in general and the La Défense district in particular. For me, this district that the entire world envies is a true part of Parisian heritage in the harmony of its buildings. But I also like to wander through Paris discovering areas that I do not know at all. Recently, I took advantage of some rare free time to go to Montmartre which I had still not had the opportunity to visit. I really felt like a tourist in another world strolling through the deserted little streets and discovering the district’s architectural treasures!

What is your favorite museum?

The Centre Pompidou, without a doubt. I love the playful and timeless architecture of the place but also the impression that this museum devoted to modern and contemporary art does not take itself seriously! Art should be accessible to everyone and the exuberance of the Centre Pompidou and its quirky architecture at the heart of the capital incites a lot of people who wouldn’t normally go into a museum to go in and immediately feel at ease.

A unique place for you in Paris?

At the risk of repeating myself, my favourite place in the capital has always been the steps of an escalator … the one at the Centre Pompidou. When I get to the top floor of the Centre Pompidou and I discover the wonderful view of Paris, I always feel the same emotion and the same thrill.

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One Response to “The Architect of a Modern Paris”

  1. Sweet Freak says:

    What a great and atypical posting from Paris – merci!

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