To judge from the enormous queue in front of the Hôtel de Ville to get into this magnificent exhibition of Doisneau’s photographs, there remains a Les Halles shaped void in the Parisian heart. There is perhaps no real place in Paris which exerts such fascination as the memory of Les Halles, “le ventre de Paris.” Of all the wounds inflicted on the city during the same period, from the rive gauche expressway (1967) to the Tour Montparnasse (1973), perhaps none was so psychically damaging as the closing of Les Halles in 1969. There was something intimate about this particular blow; it was literally a punch to the stomach, a bureaucratic meddling with the primal, particularly in France, human need for nourishment.
Devant l’Hôtel de Ville l’énorme file d'attente pour cette exposition magnifique des photos de Doisneau atteste qu’il reste toujours un trou des Halles béant dans le coeur parisien. Probablement aucune autre lieu parisien soustrait autant de fascination que la mémoire des Halles, “le ventre de Paris.” Peut-être la différence entre la fermeture des Halles en 1969 et les autres blessures urbaines de cet époque, parmi eux la voie express rive gauche (1967) et la tour Montparnasse (1973), est sa qualité autant psychique que physique. Cette perte avait quelque chose d’intime, une véritable tape au ventre par les fonctionnaires anonymes contre le besoin humain de la nourriture.
The Belvoir St Theatre is undergoing renovations — there is a hole in the outside wall over the sidewalk (walking past which an hour so before a performance you can hear rehearsals floating out, or are they angry builders?) with a scaffold around it covered in green mesh and playbills. A sign claims that their fascia needs repair, but it works all a bit to well with this their current production. I suspect they punched a hole in the wall for added realism — perhaps a sort of Method for set design? Either way, the play's set inside is a very realistic construction site: a climbable scaffold covers the back walls of the theatre, opening seamlessly onto the real scaffold outside which is used for as a backstage. The "wing" leading to the back stage is merely the hole in the wall opening out over the street. Loudspeakers play traffic noises inside the theater as the audience comes in to find their seats, continuing over the beginning of the play proper. Dust and detritus spread across the stage with beer and liquor bottles and milk crates, and there is a little tin site office behind the audience with a light on and a security guard inside. Besides that we are outdoors but there are no trees or vegetation to speak of. The only bit of nature is the real sunset pouring in from outside (the "curtain" rises at 8pm but it is summer — Sydney Festival time), coinciding with nightfall in the play; was that currowong singing bedtime outside for real or did it come from the speakers? The only other half way natural thing on the stage is a water tap, which becomes useful later on, like the fountain in a rustic village, the characters go to it to dunk their heads to sober up, fill water pipes for hashish, or just to fill bottles or kettles.
Unlike movies or the performing arts, architecture is not seasonal. There is no year end rush in which all the Gehrys and Koolhaases are “released,” no popcorn summer in which the Barangaroos and Ground Zeros of this world try to blow out our eye sockets with their empty spectacle. Cities just go on and on; one must make an effort to pick a moment and look back if we are ever to figure out just what on earth is going on.
When I was in Venice last year for the Biennale of Architecture, I was very fortunate to have the following conversation with Danish “superstarchitect” Jefe Anglesdottir (JA) and public intellectual Colin Dribbles (CD), secretary emeritus of the British Society for the Promotion of Bad Writing about Venice (BSPBWV). A generous grant from that august society paid for three Camparis (one without soda, as explained below) and an afternoon’s shoe leather and conversation.
A famous flâneur and me, Sat down one day for tea, He observed with a grin, That the the line is drawn thin, Between cities which look and which see.