Archive | January, 2012

Is Le Corbusier’s “box in the air” all hot air?

20 Jan

Villa Savoye Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“All of the bathrooms would have to be replaced.”

“Yeah,” my husband agreed. “We’d also have to do something with the kitchen.”

We sat on two chairs left behind in the large living room of the house we went to see a few Sundays ago.  My husband and I have renovated 5 flats in the last 10 years and we are always looking for new projects and ideas. 

“I am not sure about this colour,” my husband gestured to the salmon-pink wall. He then turned and nodded a greeting to another couple who entered the living room, also looking at the house. The place was crawling with couples under 40. These types of homes always were.

I took another look around.  The giant glass wall that invisibly separated inside and out could be slid back to unite the huge living/dining area with a beautiful landscaped roof garden. It was a dream space; a template for modern living.

“There are the issues with the leaks,” I said, trying to be practical.

“It’s too much work,” my husband said. 

The divine Mr W at the Savoye's Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“Yeah, you’re right,” I looked admired him reclining comfortably on a Le Corbusier chaise lounge and then looked at our brochure to see where the tour took us next.

“To the solarium?” I asked.

“To the solarium.”

The house, built between 1928 and 1931 in the village of Poissy just outside of Paris, was commissioned by the Savoye family to be their weekend home.  Their architect, Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret and also known as Le Corbusier, designed it to be the model of his philosophy of Modernist architecture.

The conflicting aims of the parties meant that the house was dogged with problems from the start.

A letter from Madam Savoye to Le Corbusier in Sept 1937:

“It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining in the ramp, the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods every time it rains.”

Le Corbusier largely ignored this and other pleas to fix the many mechanical and structural problems with the house while aggressively promoting the house internationally as a manifesto of his ideas.

The family never really moved in and eventually had to leave it altogether. Legal proceedings between the Savoye family and Le Corbusier were stopped by the onset of WWII. Abandoned, the house went into steep decline and was forced to suffer indignities such as abuse by the German’s after their occupation, being shot at by Allied troops, and finally, its use as a barn.

The village of Poissy bought the house from the Savoye family in 1958 with theDown the drive at Villa Savoye Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger intention of demolishing. It  gifted the property to the French state after an international campaign to save the house. It was declared a National Monument and underwent extensive restoration between 1963 and 1997.

Despite its problems and the fact that the French Government would not let me, it is a house I would love live in.

The Savoye family named the house les Heures Claires or “the box in the air”. It does float in the centre of the large wooded plot on Le Corbusier trademark stilts.  The views from the windows that cover every wall of the living areas on the 1st European/ 2nd American floor make you feel like you are hovering over the beautiful Seine valley countryside.  The seamless boundaries between the open plan living areas and the huge roof garden inspire daydreams of lazy sunny Sunday afternoon entertaining. 

We won’t live in this house but my husband and I sent a postcard from Villa Savoye to our architect telling him that we were getting ideas for our next project.

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What not to wear to the Conciergerie

13 Jan

Fifi and los vaqueros Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerI had mixed feelings about visiting the Conciergerie and what to wear had nothing to do with it. The imposing, turreted building on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame was originally built as a royal palace.  At the end of the 14th century, the king moved out and it became the Palace of Justice and a prison.  In the 1790s, so-called “enemies of the revolution” were incarcerated here before they went in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal for judgement and—for nearly 2600 of them in just 13 months— to the guillotine.

I knew it would be an excellent place to start to understand some of the terrors of the French Revolution and the legend that surrounds the Conciergerie’s most famous prisoner, cake-loving Marie Antoinette. However, based on my experiences of other sites of crimes against humanity, I was prepared for a distressing visit.

I was not prepared for modern art. The ancient and cavernous Hall of Men at Arms at the start of the visit was filled with paintings, sculptures and installations that appeared to have nothing to do with the palace or the revolution. I had been warned about the use of creepy mannequins in the cell reconstructions, but I was faced with a white plaster man on all fours who carried an 8-foot whale on his back, a bronze of a female dog with 6 silicon-enhanced human-like breasts, and a floor-to-ceiling fabric vessel full of live flies.

I needed some answers. The turgid brochure gave me this:

Bêtes off – Who are these other beings that inhabit the world along with us? What does their silence mean? What do they perceive when they look at us or beyond us? The animal question is gaining ground in contemporary thinking, and is also a theme which stimulates artists.”

It took me a few minutes to shift gears. I looked at some of the other pieces in the exhibition. There was a taxidermy deer with its neck buckled under the weight of its more than 30 points and 6 feet of antlers.  There was the skin of a unicorn on the wall. Through the slats of La sale des Trophies one saw wooden but clearly distressed horned animals and mounted heads.

Skin by Dimitri Tsykalov Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerOne piece did make me smile.  As I looked at it, I netted the most recent in my large collection of chatty Parisian museum guards.

After the ubiquitous pleasantries, he gestured towards the piece, “It is very interesting, no?”

“Yes. This one is one of the few that makes me smile.”

We both considered the clever, wooden representation of a bear skin rug on the wall. I’ve always had this thing for brown bears. The piece reminded me of the soft toy versions of bear skin rugs I’d seen for children’s rooms and my faithful ted, Bill Thomas, who I rescued last year from a box in my parent’s attic.

“I mean some of these pieces are pretty heavy,” I continued. “At least this one is a bit light-hearted .”

The previously talkative guard did not say anything and continued to look at the piece. I filled the slightly uncomfortable silence.

“I mean this one feels better.”

The guard turned and looked at my face. Then he looked at what I was wearing. I was hit by painful spasm of self-awareness. I was standing in an exhibition about animal rights and celebrating a dead bear while wearing a sable coat.  Oh god. I clutched my arms self-consciously around me and my fur.

“It’s vintage,” I wanted tell him. “These animals died a long time ago.”

He just looked at me.

“It’s not my fault!” I wanted to yell.

My face burned. I put my eyes back on the bear. I noticed something else. Some of the wooden crates that made the piece had writing on them.  “WINCHESTER” one said in red capital letters.  “AK-47” was stamped across the bear’s right shoulder. OH GOD, this “light-hearted” bear was constructed with gun boxes.

I had to get out of there. I started to try to make my way to the door and to the rest of the museum, but thanks to the layout of this “wild space [where] the visiting public will experience some strange encounters”, I ran into a dead tree whose branches were full of snakes hanging limp from their necks.  I looked down at my snake-skin cowboy boots.

“They said they were ethically sourced,” said a pleading voice inside my head.

Alright, maybe one might argue that the Reign of Terror has a connection with the way we treat animals. Was that what the curators were trying to say with this exhibition here at the Conciergerie or was it just a display space?  Either way, I had to get out of there. Bring on the prison and Marie Antoinette.  

As I anticipated, the tour of the prison cells and video presentation were difficult and thought-provoking. An examination of how the ideals of a revolution can be so perverted in practice has a lot of current relevance.

The last stop on the tour was a reconstruction of Marie Antoinette’s cell.  I looked at the slightly distracting mannequin that was supposed to represent the much maligned queen. I wondered what she might have thought about in those days before she was killed.

She was, of course, most famous for responding to the news that the poor did not have enough bread to eat with, “Let them eat cake.” I wondered what she regretted. I wondered if she ever wished she’d been a bit more observant or thoughtful before she opened her mouth. I know I sure wish I had been.

Christmas dinner in Paris – The buck stops for the duck

6 Jan

Confit de Canard, the buck stops for the duck at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerVoulez-vous ceci . . . ,” the woman to the side of the counter put her hand in her armpit and waved her elbow around like she was trying to fly.

 “. . .ou cela?” She balanced on one leg and shook the other.

People in the long queue behind me were enjoying the show.

“We don’t need to speak French to provide good service,” she said—or probably something like it—and took a little bow.

I shook my leg and held up 5 fingers, “Pour cinq personnes, s’il vous plait.”

More giggles from the crowd.

My parents and I were at G. Detou (58, rue Tiquetonne), stop number two on a culinary walking tour of Paris drawn up by a good foodie friend. The store’s name is a pun, according to Paris food author and writer Clotilde Dusoulier. “G. Detou” sounds like “J’ai de tout“, meaning “I have everything” and I believe it.

Friendly service at G.Detou Paris Photo by Jennifer FlueckigerThe store is divided into two parts. One was packed to the rafters with weird and wonderful foodstuff and ingredients from all over France. Some of it I recognised: chocolate, mustards, teas, large bags of fresh nuts, fruit in jars, and sardines. Much I did not know existed or how  it might be used: flavoured essences, metallic edible balls, flower petals, a multitude of different sugars and honeys. Fresh food like meat and fish were in the second section located in the store front next door.  

After 15 minutes in the queue, I was finally in front of the counter and, with the help of a few charades, had just ordered the main event of our Christmas dinner: Confit de Canard.

My first exposure to Duck Confit was at my landlady’s house in May. She graciously offered to loan me a scarf for a wedding and make me dinner.

“I think the first one is the best: the white one with the small flowers,” she said.  I looked at the 6 scarves laid across the bed.

“Which one?” I asked.

Sardines at G.Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger“The one with the tiny flowers . . . ,” she said and picked up one of the scarves. “This one.” She handed it to me. It was white, but the blue flowers on the scarf were the size of volleyballs. My landlady functioned so well I often forgot she was almost totally blind.

Misidentifying the scarf was no big deal but I was very concerned about dinner.  Before we went to her room to choose a scarf, she arranged white, frozen duck legs in a pan and said they would only take 10-15 minutes to heat through in the oven. Frozen to cooked in 10-15 minutes? Had she taken the wrong pan out of the fridge and not noticed? Clutching the large patterned scarf to my chest, I was anxious about how to politely handle a situation where we all cut into raw, cold duck legs.

However, they weren’t raw and were steaming hot.  The duck legs hadn’t been frozen at all. The white film I saw as she arranged the legs in the pan was duck fat, not ice crystals. To make Duck Confit, duck legs are salt cured and then slow cooked. To preserve the legs, they are submerged in duck fat and stored in a can/tin. The fat, solid at room temperature, clings to the skin, and melts while the legs heat.

Ahh, my first duck confit—the tender, tender meat and the rich, salty, plumy taste—where had it been all of my life?

Despite my description of heaven, I had a bit of convincing to do when I suggested duck confit to my husband a few months ago. 

“Meat from a tin?” he asked.

It did feel so wrong to venture into a foodWindow at G. Detou Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger area also populated by Spam, corned beef and Vienna sausages, but I had tasted the truth. I knew I needed to be brave and bought a tin of Confit de Canard from Monoprix, an upmarket supermarket. I reasoned that if I paid mre for it, it would have to be good.

I put the tin in a bath of warm water to melt the fat.  I removed the legs and put them skin side down in frying pan. I threw in some sliced potatoes to let them cook in the duck fat.  When the skin was crispy, I served the legs with the fried potatoes and green beans. After one bite, my husband declared with a big smile, “This is Christmas dinner.”

And so it was, and mighty tasty, too! 

I would like to say a special thank you to my parents and  friend who helped make Christmas dinner such a treat.

Mom, Dad and the shop that has everything Photo by Jennifer Flueckiger