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oscar niemeyer, architect: french communist party HQ, paris 1965-1971

link to full size photo.

 

french communist party headquarters, place colonel fabien, paris, france 1965-1971.

auditorium completed 1980.

architects: oscar niemeyer (b. 1907) with jean de roche, paul chemetov and jean prouvé.

 

jean prouvé's curvaceous curtain wall may be more striking, but the entrance is the key detail of niemeyer's communist HQ in paris. yes, you enter through a hole in the ground - under a suspended white canopy shaped like a bird, alluring and menacing at the same time. words that also describe the building as a whole.

 

enric miralles once quoted this entrance almost verbatim. except he used it for a cemetery. we have only reached the front door and already the ambiguity is overwhelming.

 

the visitor reaches the entry by walking across a strange, abstract landscape in concrete towards an office building in black, tinted glass. the office building is hovering slightly above the ground. the concrete landscape is the roof of the windowless, public part of the headquarters which is placed in the basement. you also enter the office building through this basement. the stairs and lift are hidden from view, adding mystery to the hovering offices which appear entirely detached, like a UFO for bureaucrats.

 

apparently, safety played a key part in deciding the formal layout by which entrance and public functions were placed below ground. without knowing the details, this seems likely; after all, the communist party played an ambivalent role in western europe during the cold war. but there are also known models, not least le corbusier's unbuilt olivetti laboratories from 1963. you can find it in the last book of his ouevre complète. it is a much larger, but also much kinder project.

 

if you know the architect for his bright, populist monuments in brasilia, buildings famous for their pop-art shapes and a certain lightness of touch, you will hardly recognize him here. niemeyer, an admirer of stalin, had been forced into exile by the military regime in brazil. this coincided with the commission of the party headquarters. you have to imagine the crisis he was experiencing and the symbolic importance of the job. he needed this to be a masterpiece. he even worked for free to have more money for actual construction.

 

and his artistic choices made sense. no marble cladding, no white render; a house for workers displayed its béton brut proudly. it added a visual and counterintuitive weight to a building which repeatedly denied gravity. the strange concrete landscape was intended for demonstrations, games, life. empty, it signals everything but... and the security issues, well, considering what the architect was going through, they must have felt very real, but you can feel the fear, the paranoia.

 

the detailing is the finest of any niemeyer building I know. niemeyer did not usually care for detailing, he wanted shapes and routinely left out little things like railings. not here. his french collaborators delivered state of the art.

 

yet the combined effect is not that of a maison du peuple. rather, it seems related to surrealism. the intensity is bewildering, the geometry almost feverish, no straight lines or right angles outside the windows. the atmosphere is not welcoming in any traditional sense. the tinted glass is hostile despite the elegant cool of its late-modern presentation.

 

it has been argued that niemeyer's architecture made the communist party look like the bad guys in a james bond movie, as if the building turned on its architect and told us what he could not see himself. cold war architecture could do little else, I would add. niemeyer's communist headquarters is an unsettling masterpiece.

 

more niemeyer here.

more words, yada, yada, yada.

 

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Taken on November 19, 2010