Free Paris Walks

Walk 2: Contemporary Architecture
How Paris is Reinventing Itself for the 21
Century -
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Walk 2 Theme: Contemporary Architecture
Paris is internationally admired for its uniform, strictly controlled architecture, but this 19

century neo-classical model is also one that has prevented a certain audacity since. Look
carefully though and you’ll find a sprinkling of areas, mainly at the edges of the city, where
an interesting and varied selection of buildings has been allowed to develop.
This walk concentrates on two of these areas, taking you away from the comforting,
unchallenging forms of Haussmannian Paris. These riverside districts have been in
permanent mutation for the past 30 years, and represent zones where new and daring
structures are springing from the ground. Previously given over to industry, they are today
seeing regeneration towards new uses and are providing a whole new focal point for Paris.
Featuring not only architecture in a traditional sense but also parks, bridges, galleries, shops
and libraries, this is a walk which offers you many opportunities to pop in and pop out at
your own leisure. You can also choose just one location and simply relax and admire the

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Map of the Walk
The map provided in this guide is courtesy of Google and as such is rather limited. I have
added the route and the location of the principal points mentioned but I do recommend that
you use a more detailed map of your own to ensure that you do not get lost. Beware though
– some streets in the Paris Rive Gauche section are still in construction and may not as yet
appear on your map!

O Pavillon de l’Arsenal
O Institut du Monde Arabe
O The Jussieu Campus
O Sculpture Park
O The Cité de la Mode et du
O Paris Rive Gauche
O La Bibliothèque Nationale
O La Passerelle Simone de
O Le Parc de Bercy
G La Cinématheque Française

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Le Pavillon de l’Arsenal
C Start at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, 21 Boulevard Morland 75004 (Metro Sully Morland).
Dating from 1889 and originally built for a wood merchant and amateur artist named
Laurent-Louis Borniche, this building is not a modern construction. It is however the ideal
location to begin (or perhaps to end!) this walk. Borniche was a collector of art and had the
centre built with the intention of turning it into a museum to display his collection. However,
he died before this became a reality and his daughter, who obviously did not have the same
objectives as her father, quickly sold his paintings and rented out the building. Variously a
warehouse, shop and restaurant, Borniche’s wish eventually became reality when the city of
Paris bought the site in 1988 and turned it into a centre related to urban planning and the
architecture of Paris.
Today the space provides a leisurely and relaxing venue, and one with relatively few visitors.
Permenant installations give you an overview the history of urban planning in the city, but
the centre will also generally be hosting one or two temporary exhibitions on a particular
project or theme at any given time. You can also consult maps, and watch video
presentations of new developments whilst lounging on large comfortable cushions! It also
has an excellent bookshop, with several publications on architecture and design coming from
their own publishing house.
Open daily (apart from Mondays) from 10:30 to 18:30.

L’Institut du Monde Arabe

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C Leave the Pavillon de l’Arsenal and turn left. Cross the Pont de Sully towards the
Institut in front of you, then follow the passage which takes you to the courtyard and the
entrance of the building.
The Institut du Monde Arabe is the building that brought French architect Jean Nouvel (with
the Architecture Studio) to the forefront of modern architecture. It is a spectacular
construction of glass and steel, with a south-facing façade of 240 moucharabiehs. As you
stand on the courtyard, you may notice the diaphragms opening and closing according to the
light, but in reality they have never been truly functional. They do though still offer a
shadowy beauty when viewed from the inside.
If you have a fear of heights you may wish to end your visit at ground floor level, but it
would be a shame to miss the 9th floor terrace. The building can be entered freely, with
glass lifts whizzing you up through the belly of the building and spitting you out alongside an
upmarket Lebanese restaurant. Walk past this to the open terrace and enjoy the exceptional
position of this structure.
The building echoes the curve of the Seine at this point, giving panoramic views over the Ile
St Louis and Notre Dame towards the North and East of the city. It is open daily from 10
until 6 (except Mondays).

The Jussieu Campus
C Leave the Institut building and observe the structures facing you. These make up part
of the biggest University structure in the city, and one that has today spread out to
another part of the city that we will soon visit.
Originally designed to be a series of pleasant open squares around centres of learning and
research, this structure has in fact seen a series of problems and controversies. Drawn
largely by the architect Edouard Albert using what was at the time (1950s) a new modular
technique of construction with steel tubing, the squares were found to be cold, windswept
inhospitable places and the buildings riddled with asbestos. Nevertheless, if you are a fan of
modernism or rationalism, you can break off from this walk by taking the Rue Des Fossés
Saint Bernard then the Rue Jussieu, and take a wander around the heart of this site.
Many of the initial problems are now being fixed and the previously rather dull central Tour
Zamansky has been reclad in an attractive tinted glass with intersections featuring a suitably
pretentious quotation from André Malraux (L’avenir est un présent que nous fait le passé). A
system of multicoloured lighting should make the structure an interesting feature of the Paris
night-skyline too.

Le Musee du Sculpture en Plein Air
C Walk back towards the Pont de Sully, but take a right-turn to the Port Saint Bernard
before you reach the bridge, then drop down into the Jardin Tinto Rossi alongside the
This open-air museum was created in 1980 in the Jardin Tinto Rossi and is home to around
fifty sculptures from the second half of the 20th century. You can see creations from
Brancusi, Gilioli and Cesar, amongst others, but to be truthful the works are not particularly
interesting and the site a little run down. Nevertheless it provides an attractive riverside walk
and also seems to mark something of the outer limit of the centre of the city. You will notice
the large tourist laden river boats making their turns at this point as they head back towards
the Ile St Louis.
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La Louise-Catherine

As you walk along the riverside you will surely find it more than a little scruffy at the
moment, and nowhere more so than around the rusting Salvation Army hulk (the Louise-
Catherine) moored under the Pont d’Austerlitz (photo here courtesy of http://www.louise- Look more carefully though and you may see that this is a true historical
monument (90 years old this year), and one with a rich architectural heritage. In 1929, Le
Corbusier was given the job by the Salvation Army of transforming the boat into a space that
could provide shelter and nourishment for the poor and the homeless. Later on in this walk
we will see another Le Corbusier/Salvation Army collaboration.
The boat is due to be renovated in the next two years, and during this period it will be
covered by what will amount to a metallic sculpture by the Japanese architect Shuhei Endo.

The Cité de la Mode et du Design

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C Continue walking alongside the river until you get to the recent Pont Charles de Gaulle
which links the Gare d’Austerlitz to the Gare de Lyon.
The Cité de la Mode et du Design building is just beyond the Pont Charles de Gaulle, but to
have a better view of the structure, walk about half-way across the bridge.
This new structure by Dominique Jakob and Brendan MacFarlane is in reality little more than
the recladding and renovation of a warehouse building (previously known as the Magasins
Généraux), but the result, particularly the plug-over, is rather striking. Delayed for over a
year, the building should soon be open to visitors, but what purpose it will serve is still not
entirely clear. It is already partially open, with offices and showrooms for the French fashion
industry (Institut de la Mode), but the public side of the building has never truly been
It will surely include cafés and shops, but the elements that should appeal most to visitors
are the green external staircase, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Centre Pompidou,
and the rooftop garden which will surely attract large crowds on sunny days.
Note that the two neighbouring reinforced concrete structures will also be renovated in the
years to come, but neither will be open to the public.

Rive Gauche ZAC

C Come away from the river and take the new Avenue Pierre-Mendès France (which
confusingly later becomes just the Avenue de France) that runs alongside the Gare
d’Austerlitz. This will give you a slightly elevated position from which to view the Paris
Rive Gauche area.
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Previously railway sidings and a series of industrial sites, the Paris Rive Gauche ZAC has
become Europe’s largest development project. At the beginning of this section, the
structures are uniquely office buildings, a decision that was taken to avoid problems from the
noise and vibrations from the railway lines alongside and below. As this space widens out,
residential buildings and small parks and gardens begin to appear, along with a large cinema
complex and of course the Bibliothèque Nationale. It is an area that has become something
of a playground for architects around the world, and their names and photos are plastered
across the fences that currently prevent access to many of these works in progress.
The project began in 1988, and over twenty years later, it is still far from finished. Whilst
much of the necessary infrastructure is now in place, the remaining large-scale project is to
link up Paris with its neighbour, Ivry. At the eastern edge of the development you will find a
huge building site, and it is not clear what will finally appear here. For more details, see
I recommend that you take the time necessary to simply wander around this zone and
investigate the places that interest you, but I will point out some of the most noteworthy
You will also find many places here to eat and drink as well as a supermarket and some
small parks if you fancy a picnic!

Notre Dame de la Sagesse
As you walk along the Avenue de France and before you arrive at the Bibliothèque Nationale,
you may spot a small, redbrick church down to your left. This Pierre-Louis Faloci structure
was the last such building created in France in the 20
century, and although the exterior is
very discreet, the interiors are more interesting, and are largely inspired by Le Corbusier’s
Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp. Most of the week you should have the building
to yourself for a peaceful visit.
Les Frigos and Les Moulins
These two neighbouring structures are the sole survivors of the industrial period of this
sector. Originally earmarked for demolition, both have survived and are being renovated.
The Moulins building (flour mill) was the largest such structure in the world when opened in
1921 and today houses a section of the Denis Diderot University. The Frigos building has
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been far more confrontational and was an artists’ squat for over 20 years. Today it has been
incorporated into the Rive Gauche project, perhaps because the planners thought that it
would give an artistic soul to the development, but the now legally resident artists are not
entirely comfortable with this situation. They originally took over this old railway building not
only because it had been abandoned but also because of the river views and abundance of
natural light. With the sheer density of development around the building, both water and
light have since been taken away from them.
A carefully landscaped garden is currently being installed at the feet of both structures.
Indeed, despite this area seeing such a high density of new builds, Paris Rive Gauche is also
likely to become one of the greenest areas of the city.
L’Armee du Salut
Look across the railway tracks beyond the Bibliothèque François Mitterand station and you
will see a stacked multi-coloured concrete building. This is one of Le Corbusier’s earliest
constructions in the city and although not necessarily contemporary (1929-33), it is distinctly
modern. As with the Louise-Catherine that we saw earlier, this is a Salvation Army building,
and one which still offers shelter for around 300 homeless men each year. It also aims to
train and re-educate them, and it is for this reason that the structure contains not only
bedrooms but also workshops and communal rooms.
The entire facade was rebuilt in the 1950s after it was hit by a German bomb in 1944.

La Bibliothèque Nationale

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C The best way to approach this structure is from the Avenue de France as you will not
have to mount the steep staircases that surround the buildings!
Featuring four tall corner towers representing open books, with a sunken garden in the
centre, this development has been controversial since its design was first announced, but is
now settling into respectability. It is the work of Dominique Perrault, a relative unknown at
the time, and was built between 1989 and 1996.
The President François Mitterand was behind the project, and was determined to ensure
rapid construction, but as has been the case with his other projects (Opéra de Bastille), this
haste has increased costs over a longer period of time. The main, and almost
incomprehensible error was to house the books in the glass towers. Indeed, it wasn’t until
construction was nearly completed that someone pointed out that books were made of
paper, and that paper doesn’t react well with sunlight. Behind each window there is now a
system of wooden shutters to prevent too much light seeping in, but this completely defeats
the original reason for building the large towers. The plan had been to open the library up to
the outside world and to use the towers as giant bookcases, with the books being visible to
passers by.

The second error was the sunken garden, which although a very attractive feature does not
serve its original purpose. It was intended to be open to visitors and library users, but again
it was pointed out that trees attract certain insects, and those insects like eating paper. The
garden is now firmly sealed away behind doors and windows that cannot be opened.
The final points of controversy were the excessive use of steps, making the library very
difficult to access for whole swathes of the population, and expensive, exotic woods on the
main platform which become very slippery when it rains!
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Nevertheless, the building has been a success. It is certainly striking and attractive and very
popular today, serving as a very effective catalyst to development in the area and providing
a new focal point for the city. It can be argued too that it is a creation in the model of
previous installations along the Seine such as the Place de la Concorde, Les Invalides and
the Champs de Mars, with their wide-open empty spaces looking out across the river.
Le Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir

C Head towards the river then take the pedestrian only footbridge. You will notice that
the riverside zone here has been landscaped and turned into a pleasant leisure space.
There is a floating swimming pool and a series of converted boats which now host bars,
restaurants theatres and night-clubs, and the area becomes very lively at weekends and
on summer evenings.
The Paserelle Simone de Beauvoir was designed to unite two renovated but previously
distinct parts of the city. As you cross you will break through the invisible barriers from left-
bank to right-bank (or vice-versa!), but this graceful and very delicate structure shows how
much the two sides had in common here. Both owe their existence to the river and are
reflections of times when industry and commerce was dependant on the waterways.
The bridge was designed by Austrian architect Dietmar Feichtinger, pre-constructed in Alsace
then put in place on the morning of the 29
January 2006. It is a free-span structure and as
fluid as the river it crosses. Feichtinger believes in showing the ‘skeleton’ of structures, and
here we see only the steel tubes and wooden planks. The bridge seems almost to be in
movement as the pathways sweep up and down across the river, and it seems to spring
slightly as you walk across.
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It’s a wonderful bridge to walk across, but it has also become a place of leisure, with people
stopping to picnic, to sit down or to even follow dance classes! However, to appreciate the
elegance of this knife-thin structure, try to observe it from side on, and notice how it almost
becomes invisible against the skyline.

Le Parc de Bercy

C After crossing the Pont Simone de Beauvoir you will find yourself in the heart of this
park, although you will still have to descend a fairly steep staircase!
Bercy was famous for centuries as the place where wine was stocked and redistributed after
arriving in the city. Standing on the edge of the old city, handily just outside the place were
taxes were collected, this large zone operated as a storage and bottling facility, and several
traces of this past still exist today. To store the barrels, large structures known as ‘chais’
were built. Several are still standing and have been converted into shops and restaurants at
the rather amusement park styled ‘Bercy Village’ situated on the eastern edge of the park.
Throughout the park you can also see some of the old cobblestone paths and the rails that
helped in the transportation of the large containers.
As such industries were moved outside the city centre and away from rivers, the importance
of this site declined until it ceased to be in use altogether, and become something of an
industrial wasteland. In the 1970s it was condemned once more when it was cut away from
the water by the construction of the new riverside road. A decision was then made to
transform the site into a park, and it eventually became something of a team effort with the
architects Bernard Huet, Madeleine Ferrand, Jean-Pierre Feugas and Bernard Leroy, and the
landscapers Ian Le Caisne and Philippe Raguin all being involved in the construction between
1993 and 1997.
Today it is one of the largest parks in Paris and very attractive in parts, but with a slightly
cold and unwelcoming feel to the ensemble. In a similar manner to its contemporary in the
arrondissement, the Parc André Citroen, the decision to create a series of themed micro-
parks and use an array of landscaping tricks reduces the charm of the overall park. As my
Mum has remarked too, it suffers from another French ‘maladie’ in that it is fantastically
impractical in parts! Riverside levels are only accessible via giant staircases, and the two
main sections of the park are linked by a stepped bridge which is not particular easy to cross
even if you are not encumbered by anything like a push-chair.
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La Cinemathèque Française (ex American Center)

C The structure is situated at the northern edge of the Park on the Rue de Bercy, but the
main entrance is from within the park itself.
This Frank O. Gehry structure (1988-94) is at once typical and atypical of the architect’s
work. Highly sculptured and featuring a wide range of shapes, heights and angles, the
building is immediately recognisable as one drawn by Gehry, and yet it is far more restrained
than many of his other buildings. Of course, the strict planning rules of the city of Paris came
into play here, as did the rather narrow strip of land that Gehry had to work with.
On this site Gehry chose to respect the typical Paris streetscape on the northern edge,
creating simple eight story blocks which were to house offices and rooms where visiting
artists could stay. He created freer forms on the southern park-facing side, but nevetheless
Gehry’s choice of a typical, and rather discreet, limestone façade ensures that the building
retains a very Parisian feel.
The original purpose of the structure, a centre of American art and culture, proved to be too
costly to upkeep and not popular enough to ensure sustainability. It lasted for only 19
months before closing down, and the building lay empty for several years before being
successfully reinvented as the Cinemathèque Française.
Today it acts a celebration of cinema, and houses several movie theatres showing a range of
arthouse films as well as temporary exhibitions on actors or directors. It now seems as if the
building was designed for its current purpose, and the foyer and cafés are constantly buzzing
with life and activity.

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The POPB and the Ministère de l’Economie

C These two structures are situated on the western edge of the park, close to the Bercy
Metro station.
The Parc de Bercy is unusual in the city in that a large part of it is not enclosed. For this
reason it is very much a continuation of the city, but this has also imposed design restrictions
on some of the more recent constructions that surround it. Although the POPB (Palais
Omnisports de Paris Bercy) sport and leisure centre predates the opening of the park, it was
already clear that it would be positioned in a sensitive area, and the design brief called for a
building that would not be too ostentatious. What is immediately striking about the end
result is of course the steep grass slopes on the side of the structure which make it quite
literally a continuation of the park. However, the bright blue metallic framework is of greater
importance, as not only does it support the building but it has also enabled it to become
quickly and successfully adaptable to almost any sport or activity. Inside there is room for
upwards of 18,000 spectators, be it for tennis matches or rock concerts, and it is a place that
France has taken to its heart despite its rather brutal interior. It was designed by Pierre
Parat, Michel Andrault, and Aydin Guvan between 1979-83, with the engineer Jean Prouvé
adding the metallic roof.
Behind this structure sits another controversial building, but this time one that is still unloved
by Parisians. Paul Chemetov and Borja Huidobro (1982-89) had the difficult task of rehousing
the finance ministry from their historic home in the Louvre to this very long and narrow T-
shaped spot in the east of the city, and their final design has been compared to a totalitarian
bunker. It is a monstrous construction, but somehow rather suited to the ministry it serves.
The basic premise of the structure is that it mimics the ancient barriers into the city (one
building from this period still sits underneath the point where the ministry sails across the
road), a point where taxes were previously collected. It certainly looks like a wall to visitors
arriving into the city from the east, but it is more interesting when viewed from the river. It
is a building with a huge sense of its own importance with its feet in the water and a
helicopter landing pad on its roof. The minister has fantastic offices in the section above the
river, and even has permanent access to a speedboat moored under the building.
C The walk ends at this point. The Bercy Metro station is just at your feet, but If you need
refreshment, walk back across the river and try one of the many bars in the boats moored
along the riverside quays.