If there’s one industry that isn’t dying in France, it has to be the facade business, because every other building in Paris right now seems to be getting its façade done. It’s almost as if the artist Christo had been commissioned to gradually cover all of Paris by 2020, and he’s off to a frenzied start.
And it’s not just the posh buildings with tony addresses near the Jardin de Luxembourg or the Grand Palais or the Elysee. Even Gard du Nord, the sooty grand dame of the 10th arrondissement, is getting a nip/tuck, and frankly now looks unrecognizable. Not because she’s covered in tarps or scaffolding, but because she’s finished, clean and marbled and shiny. No longer that toothless widow you walked through on your way to Arras, she’s now a bleached divorcee wearing high heels. All that’s left to do is replace that French flag on her roof with a Versace scarf, and you’ll think you’re in Miami.
Renovating façades isn’t a new thing for Paris. In fact I’ve learned, it’s part of daily life here. The pollution, the acid rain, and the pigeons have made it necessary for all of its more than a century old buildings to get a “coup de jeune” from time to time. And within each Parisian’s apartment owner’s heart there’s always that lingering fear of the dreaded “appel des fonds,” coming from the condo and the management company, calling on you to spend money you don’t have on something you don’t really need, in return for no natural light in your apartment for six months.
What’s curious to me is why every building’s doing it now, though. And where is all the money coming from? Were the decisions to renovate made before the “crise”, and the work now is finally going through, or worse, are people spending their money on facades when they should be spending it on more important things, like Grand Theft Auto.
I must admit, though, these new facades have had an effect on me. As I stroll down all the recently widened sidewalks with their spanking new Velib stations, the painted and beautified Haussmannian buildings gleaming in the sun, I can’t help but think “Gee maybe things aren’t that bad here.” In fact, it’s the Paris I’ve always read about, or at least skimmed through in Robert Doisneau coffee table books. The buildings, the cafes, the tree-lined avenues, all coming together like some modern Renoir painting. “Maybe, just maybe,” I think, “Paris is doing ok.”
And hell, it beats whatever I saw on streets in parts of America last month; foreclosure signs, “for sale-price reduced!” signs, “for rent” signs, not to mention all the building sites half-finished or worse, completely stopped. And this is in the nice parts.
But despite the new car smell, I’m whiffing in Paris, I still have that sinking feeling, things aren’t as great as the facades say they are, that is if you’re not working in the façade business. And maybe all the construction and civic planning and “the amelioration de l’assisaisnment des reseux dans votre quartier” activity is just that, putting up a façade to hide something worse.
In urging American taxpayers to fund the bank bailouts last year, President Obama made the case that the banks were “too big to fail.” Likewise, with all its civic face-lifts, Paris seems to be building the case that it’s too “beautiful to fail.” “How could there be a recession? We are a city of “bon standing!” (weird English word the French love to use.)
By the way, anytime I see ads promoting “un immeuble de bon standing” I can’t help but think of families of “bon noms,” or “bon standing.,” the kinds of families with long traditions of proud ownership, who’ll take whatever money they have and put it into, let’s say, the roof of their family chateau somewhere, rather than, I don’t know, eat. It’s as if these old renovated buildings in Paris, have become people too proud to admit they’re broke. Ruined aristocrats or post-Depression WASPS, always proud to claim they still have their name (along with their poor credit rating) or in a building’s case, their nice façade, living on a chic street in the 7th.
Maybe I’m being too critical here, and it is possible, all these façade lifts have a logical reason. I’m told much of façade work takes place during the winter, so people won’t notice their windows being blocked because it’s dark for 20 hours a day anyway. And it is possible this façade work, in a way, is a convenient marketing ploy for people trying to sell their apartments. In the states right now, especially in a tough market, people are upgrading their homes (“Staging” it’s called), just to sell them. But if that’s the case, and considering all the scaffoldings I’m seeing, we just might be in for a big real estate crash in Paris, when all of these new “staged” buildings come on the market in six months. And never underestimate the motive (perhaps one fueled by a false sense of security) of wanting to put your money into something “solid,” instead of something like the stock market that proved to be not so solid. And it’s true, recent studies show people are investing back in their homes and their buildings, not because they have faith in a rebounding economy, but because they’re hunkering down for a long financial winter.
Deep down, though, I fear there are creepier things going on “behind the façades.”
I think the touch ups of all these buildings has something to do with a collective urge to go back in time, to periods like “les trente glorieuses” (which I just learned was a period of thirty years, not a group of thirty guys like “the dirty dozen.”) or Napoleon III or Baron Haussmann himself, times when Paris, with all its Haussmannian construction of buildings in a short period of time, was like a 19th century Dubai, but one with a thriving bourgeoisie and a growing middle class, one with glorious sidewalks and amazing new facades!
Personally, I’ve lived here long enough to learn to hate those Doisneau books, and maybe as a way to protest that very esthetic, I choose to like the ugly things in my Paris, (probably also because I imagine them putting their resources into the things on the inside rather than on the outside.) My kids’ school is a gray monstrosity, but I love it. My bar, still ugly, just got a new billiard table, and I love it. The veterinarian where I take my dog – hideous façade, tattered blue and white logo, but there’s a new assistant who’s just been hired, and my dog loves her.
I guess with all the façade work going on, I’m supposed to believe my neighborhood will be “beautiful” one day, like the Renoir painting I described, which I guess is supposed to burnish my faith in the direction the country’s heading. And the fact I never walk on a normal sidewalk, always walking in between those grey and green aluminum dividers like a cow at an abattoir, aggressed by the jackhammers and the cranes, and always it seems, ducking underneath a wet tarp or a rainy scaffolding like I’m in Blade Runner is the price I’m supposed to pay for this “restored” civic beauty all the world will envy – a return to the “amazing adventures of the trente glorieuses.”
Unfortunately, I was happy with my neighborhood before the crisis made all this “façade” work necessary. (Just like the Greeks were more or less happy I think being middle-class Greek before they were advised to remake Athens on an “Olympic scale”). Yet now I’m told what I liked was a run down version, not the one France should be proud of, and surely not the one with the beautiful façade, the one “too beautiful to fail.”