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Surprising Paris

February 12, 2011

Having a meeting in Paris I hoped to have the opportunity to have a walk along the Seine, eventually climb up the Tour Eiffel and enjoy the new exhibition in Palais de Tokyo. But if your flight is delayed, the meeting is not in the city, but in Saint Denis, half way between Charles De Gaulle Airport and the city centre, and you don’t want to be late then you may have to settle for a random walk on the neighbourhood.

Saint Denis is a former industrial suburb of Paris crossed by the Seine and the Periferique, with rather quiet residential areas, office blocks and businesses of various kind. The ordered small-scale condominiums contrast on one side with the large-scale advertising posters on the main Boulevard and on the other with monumental Saint Denis Stade de France.

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Eventually my random walk took me to an amazing place: the Académie Fratellini- Centre International des artes du spectacle, the french national professional school for circus artists.

Such a building is per se something that anyone would love to have in his neighbourhood, in whatever form, but in this case it features a unique consonance of form, function and poetic. And on top of that it is also the most sustainable low-tech contemporary building I have ever visited.

At first sight the building appears like a singular modern public building – it could be a church or a theatre –  a sculptural shape that at the same time emerges and fits into scale the surroundings.

First thing to know is that the plot is public and the construction, completed in 2002, had to be conceived as a temporary building, a building made of cheap industrial elements in order to be quickly disassembled in any moment the municipality would have asked for.

The well-known unconventional architect Patrick Bouchain has gone far beyond the request of the municipality: the building is cladded  with trucks tarpaulins, fiberglass panels rejected by Disneyworld because they were the wrong colour and using tree trunks fallen during a storm in the neighborhood’s woods to support the cantilever stands of the amphitheatre.

The Académie is a composition of four buildings eventually connected by corridors: an entrance building, a large show space and a smaller one plus the workshop. Resident students live in caravans.

At the entrance you have an overview of the lobby and the administrative offices distributed by an open gallery assembled in wood, steel and glass. The atmosphere is nice and welcoming, same as the people I meet.  Somebody goes and look for somebody to take me around.

A technician takes me to the different places were artists are doing exercises in concentration and explains me how the building works.

Everywhere are places to run, climb, jump, fall, roll… this is a fantastic place.

Through a red velvet curtain we enter the main show space, le gran chapiteau, which is temporary set up for a private cocktail. The school has budget constraints and has to rent the space to make ends meet.

Outside on the red-painted fence the name of the school is painted in white, bearing honor of great french clown Annie Fratellini (1932-1997), first woman to be inducted in the Clown Hall of Fame and acting in Fellini’s Clown.

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