A plan to turn the old Samaritaine department store into a five-star hotel is at the center of a debate about what Paris is becoming.
Par Adam Gopnik
The Pont des Arts, in Paris, is a steel-and-wood footbridge that connects Left Bank to Right—or, more important to its history and its name, connects the École des Beaux-Arts, where generations of French artists were told how to draw, to the Louvre, where generations went to find out how to look. It was, until relatively recently, a soulful and solitary passerelle, where one could stand for hours in winter, mostly alone, staring out at the view west toward the older, stone parapet of the Pont Royal and the Eiffel Tower, or east toward Notre-Dame and the sharp-jawed Île de la Cité. The view north, toward the Right Bank, remained, until the end of the twentieth century, interestingly mixed, with the newly cleaned Cour Carrée of the Louvre straight ahead and, just to the right, the shiplike prow of the Samaritaine department store, proudly flying a couple of pennants from its top.
In the past nine years, all that has changed. La Samaritaine, which for almost a century and a half represented the “Bonheur des Dames,” the “happiness of ladies” (a title that Zola used ironically, referring to the bourgeois pursuit of material goods in department stores), has closed. The store is emptied, mute and dark and flagless, its fourteen hundred employees gone, as the French luxury conglomerate L.V.M.H. struggles to turn it into a postmodern, glass-encased beacon meant for another kind of woman and another kind of happiness, and so finds itself pitted against preservationists who want neither postmodern glimmer nor luxury glitter—who want, in fact, the same damn happiness for the same damn women.
Meanwhile, the Pont des Arts groans beneath the weight of the “love locks” that have become a rashlike infestation on small Paris bridges in the past few years. Lovers buy cheap padlocks from lock sellers, scribble their initials on the lock, shackle the lock to the bridge’s railings, and then throw the key into the river. At first, there were a few, then there were a lot, and now they are everywhere, about three-quarters of a million in all, locks shackled to locks shackled to locks shackled to locks, every square inch of the bridge crowded with black initials, brass bodies. Earlier this year, some of the grillwork of the Pont des Arts collapsed under the weight of all that love. The city government has been slow to act, partly for the usual exasperating French bureaucratic reasons—before something can actually be done, it must be decided if it is the administrative responsibility of the Prefecture of Police, of the Hôtel de Ville, or, perhaps, of the Ministry of Culture—and partly out of a genuine bewilderment over how to constrain the passionate gestures of tourists on whose illusions of Paris as the best place to declare one’s love the city’s economy ever more depends.
Two American women, not long ago tourists themselves, have emerged to energize and unleash the popular passion of Paris against the love locks. When Americans visit the bridge now, what there is to see is not the modern and the antique but another opposition: in the distance, the collapse of the grand bourgeois mercantile civilization of Paris and, straight ahead, the excrescences of mass tourism that have replaced it as a central Parisian industry. The view from the footbridge now, in the city that the American women came to savor and stayed to help save, offers a tight knot of paradoxes about the history of Paris, the tempering of glass, and the shackles of love.
In the late nineteenth century, Parisian department stores, which began as catchall indoor marketplaces, with individual venders selling drygoods, interbred with the glass exhibition palaces of the period to produce a new building type and a new idea of luxury: all the world’s goods suspended on multiple floors under the natural light of a great, and usually decorated, glass ceiling. La Samaritaine—the name derives from a seventeenth-century fountain with a bas-relief of the Samaritan woman that used to stand nearby—began as one of these closed retail drygoods markets, colonizing, piece by piece, a miscellany of buildings between the Seine and the Rue de Rivoli; Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette emerged as rivals farther back on the grands boulevards. The stores gave an identity to the neighborhood and an idea of popular luxury to the world. La Samaritaine was, by general agreement, the most “popular” of the great stores, a sort of Macy’s-plus, if one can imagine Macy’s on the banks of the Seine with a view of a Gothic cathedral.
Then, at the beginning of this new century, the crisis in retailing that has struck the rest of the world struck Paris—the grands magasins had to do battle with what are called here grandes surfaces, the super-big-box retailers that, though kept by law largely to the periphery, are nonetheless good at drawing shoppers in for inexpensive furniture and appliances. Just as the Zola-era department store drove out of business all the small shops of the quartier—the Parisian shopping streets beloved of Americans are a much reduced version of the older kind, with only perishables surviving—so the grandes surfaces have been driving out the great department stores.
When L.V.M.H. (the name of the conglomerate, overseen by the tycoon Bernard Arnault, combines the initials of Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy, the suitcase maker and the champagne house) bought an interest in La Samaritaine, in 2001, it had already turned the Bon Marché, on the Left Bank, from a bourgeois store to a luxe one—from an Alexander’s to a Bergdorf’s. It faced a bigger project with La Samaritaine: to turn the familiar Seine-side building into a five-star hotel, with controlled access to the once famous roof terrace and restaurant. L.V.M.H. approached the Japanese architectural firm of Sanaa. The plan that Sanaa came up with, which also included retail space and low-income housing, was officially inspired by the building complex’s original architect, Frantz Jourdain. Conceiving the project in Art Nouveau style, he left intact the various façades of the buildings on the Rue de Rivoli that it was recycled from. The renovation, the company announced, was “an opportunity to complete Frantz Jourdain’s unfinished project to give La Samaritaine a single, immediately recognizable façade in the Rue de Rivoli.”
The most striking exterior feature of the new architectural model is a billowing, wavelike wall of translucent glass meant to unify the Rue de Rivoli side both by referring to the original verrière roof and by creating a single visual unit that pulls the façades together. This kind of oceanic glass front has become a signature, even a tic, of contemporary French architecture—including the many glass façades by Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc’s twisted crystal tower at L.V.M.H.’s U.S. headquarters, on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan. The glass façade suggests, in turn, the long French infatuation with glass walls—prismatic, waving, billowing, or bending—as the symbol and material of modernity or, in this case, postmodernity.
Beautiful though the Samaritaine façade promises to be, its critics think that it distracts from the reality that the L.V.M.H. plan, centered on a new hotel, would make the old department store one more luxury destination for Paris transients, rather than a regular retailer for Paris residents. This transformation increased Parisians’ natural suspicion of Arnault’s enterprise—L.V.M.H. having become, to its doubters, a kind of sinister luxury-goods octopus, a monopoly vender of French brands to ascending Asia. When preparatory work began on the Sanaa design, two years ago, preservationists sued. The first level of French magistrates temporarily revoked L.V.M.H.’s building permit, then L.V.M.H. appealed, and the case now rests with the Cour d’Appel, which is expected to rule in early December.
“Sanaa won the Pritzker prize, of course,” Marie-Line Antonios, of La Samaritaine, says, a little defensively. Spokesmen for La Samaritaine always emphasize the Pritzker, rather in the way that beauty-pageant hosts in America emphasize all the college scholarships the contestants are winning, trying to make it plain that what may look like dazzle is really virtue.
Antonios is the directrice générale of the Samaritaine project, which means that, right now, she is the executive who is charged with not running a big department store. Originally from Lebanon, she can be found these days at offices on the Left Bank, on the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts: a sort of Samaritaine in exile, as she and her team wait for the government to allow them to complete the renovation. She has the weary, guarded look of someone who has been cornered and harried at every turn by self-righteous preservationists and self-important city bureaucrats.
“L.V.M.H. is the sort of name that is an easy target,” she says with a sigh. “Everyone feels that L.V.M.H. can do what it wants, when in truth it’s just the opposite. It would be much easier to do this if itweren’t L.V.M.H.” She explains that the complexity of the project was necessitated by the history of La Samaritaine, assembled, as it was, from bits and pieces of older buildings. “On the Rue de Rivoli side, there were seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings, but they were all destroyed and adapted to commerce long ago. It is a mélange, with false façades. But the opponents couldn’t accept having even those demolished. The patrimony fights against all projects in Paris.”
She frowns. “We obtained the building permit for the program in December, 2012, and we worked for seventeen months—but it’s worse than in New York, the rules, and we had to stop in May, 2014, and then last week we won the right to begin again. But that’s a provisional decision. The final one we’ll have in December. So it’s taken seven years to get the consent, and then have it revoked. But, if all goes well, in 2018 we’ll be finished. Let’s remember: everything facing the Seine will be unchanged—everything!”
It’s true that only the mostly nondescript Rue de Rivoli side will be glassed over. But while the nineteenth-century glass was largely functional, letting in light, the new façade is mostly symbolic, trapping light. Not surprisingly, Christian de Portzamparc has published a letter in Le Monde in praise of that aspect of it: “A disparate façade on the Rue de Rivoli is transformed and unified into an undulant, diaphanous one, bringing light and loveliness to this part of the street.” The only reason to oppose it, he maintained, “would be to declare the absolute authority of the past”—to declare that “everything old is sacred and untouchable and no place at all exists for our time.”
“The world has changed,” Antonios goes on, explaining why a “popular” department store is no longer plausible in central Paris. “The problem with grands magasins is the cost of property and personnel, the cost of human resources. The only way to afford those is to make a luxury store. The classic discount stores, the ‘good buy’ stores—they don’t exist anymore. They can’t.”
One of the oddities of the moment is that most Parisians, particularly ones who are hyper-aware of urbanist issues, tend to be merely dismissive of the love locks, even as the locks threaten to pull bridges down into the water and onto the heads of the tourists passing by in boats below. When Le Monde noticed the hard-to-miss pairing at the bridge, it characterized the opposition to the glass façade as a potential tragedy, Paris once again losing out on an architectural advance, with the locks on the bridge more farcical, confronted, quixotically, by “two New York women now settled in Paris.” “We can’t be repressive in the City of Love,” Bruno Julliard, the first deputy mayor of Paris, blithely announced not long ago, speaking of the love locks. “It’s an image problem concerning the tourists. It may be best just to wait until the fashion passes.”
This kind of indifference makes it hard for the two American campaigners, Lisa Anselmo and Lisa Taylor-Huff, to keep their equanimity when you meet them on the Pont des Arts. When they see lock sellers brazenly offering locks to dim-witted tourists, they almost go crazy. The bridge has become even uglier, as the city government, to protect against more love locks, has hurriedly placed plywood panels in front of the railings, while the plywood panels, in turn, are spray-painted with graffiti, recalling to a New Yorker the interiors of subway cars in the early eighties.
The two Lisas, the “two New York women” Le Monde refers to, spent their childhoods in New Jersey, and, far from being just currently settled in Paris, see themselves as settled Parisians. They have been leading the fight against the love locks for almost a year. They run a Web site called Nolovelocks.com (it’s called that in French, too) and started a petition that has collected ten thousand signatures. By the strangest of chances, they knew each other as teen-agers thirty years ago, in New Jersey.
“We met doing a play,” Lisa Anselmo explains. “We’re both sort of theatre . . .”
“Theatre junkies,” Lisa Taylor-Huff adds.
“Theatre gals. We met doing a play in New Jersey. I think I was still in high school.”
“Yeah, I was twenty and you were about sixteen.” They both laugh.
They then lost touch, until they rediscovered each other, ten years ago, first as lovers of Paris, then as newly minted residents. Lisa Anselmo is more stylish, and has the glossy mane of every other woman one sees eating lunch on the ninth floor at Barney’s. Lisa Taylor-Huff is more mature-seeming—not long after her arrival in Paris, she married a Frenchman, met through a Parisian dating network, and is now a stepmother to his three children. The two women’s motives for moving to Paris were, and remain, as mixed and mysterious as such motives always are. They came for the “life style” and the literary possibilities, though both are more narrowly banded than in centuries past—not absinthe and the avant-garde but friends and croissants and blogs and cafés.
It is not entirely a self-sustaining emotion. Like many Americans with dreams of Paris who confront Paris, they have found that they are living in a grouchy, heavily overadministered country, where everyone is socialized to be negative in the first instance, and where the small details of life are made as wrenchingly difficult as possible—though no more for newcomers than they are for the natives, which, of course, helps account for their grouchiness. They wish the French had the same investment in Frenchness that they do. Theirs is actually larger, being chosen, while that of the French is merely passive. “We both are powerhouse gals who have marketing backgrounds,” Lisa Anselmo says. “I’m a creative director as well, but what would be more complicated for some people was common nature for us.
“In the beginning, we took a lot of heat,” she adds. “It was brutal, the hate mail and the bad language. We would take turns weeping. And they would come at us on our individual blogs and attack us.”
“ ‘Oh, Americans always sticking their noses into other people’s business,’ ” the other Lisa says.
“And from Americans, too. ‘Americans are always inserting themselves into places they don’t belong’—and I’m thinking, Well, isn’t that what putting a lock there is doing?”
“It took adjusting what we said in interviews to start making it clear that yes, we’re Americans, but we live here, we pay taxes, my husband is French.”
Practitioners routinely speak of the love locks as a Parisian tradition that goes back five hundred years. In fact, the locks were probably the spawn of a 2006 Italian romance, “I Want You,” which presents a scene of locking and shackling and throwing. Despite all the campaigning that the Lisas have done, and the ten thousand signatures on the online petition—despite appearances on LCI, the French CNN, and interviews with Le Figaro and Libération—the thing goes on: “The Kardashians did it on their show! Basketball wives did it on their show!”
“It’s a disease that’s infecting the great cities of the world,” Lisa Taylor–Huff reflects later, over a glass of Lillet at a café in the courtyard of the Louvre. “Paris is also a museum, but it’s still a living museum. People live here, we have our lives here, we’re educating our kids here, they want to be able to go out in the public spaces. We’re raising a bunch, and when I think of my husband’s three kids—two of them are in university now and one is still just in middle school—what kind of future are they going to have if all their public spaces and their heritage are destroyed and degraded because of tourism? Why are we selling out to tourism?”
The two Lisas’ vociferousness is produced partly by the perpetual immigrant’s need to prove that she is not merely a newcomer but has transferred allegiances even more passionately, along with residence—the same syndrome that, in its darker corners, made the Italian-Corsican Napoleon the most passionate Frenchman alive. If you were born within sight of the Pont des Arts and see it ruined, you merely change your route; there are lots of other bridges to cross.
And then every city with mass tourism makes an implicit compact with tourists, which involves certain territorial concessions. No New Yorker would be really indignant to hear of an insult to the urban fabric at the South Street Seaport. Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a moving and entertaining ritual, and the Tower of London a fascinating historical citadel. No real Londoner would be caught dead near either. Mass tourism doesn’t just overcharge its locales; it devours its objects. Our conversion experience to cities inevitably alienates us from the thing that first converted us.
The two Lisas have a partial sense of this irony. If Parisians, or Venetians, tried to distinguish between mere tourists and true travellers and adopted visitors, they would never stop. Better to make two lumps—Them and Us, and stick to the Us places while surrendering the Them spots. Where the people who put up love locks insist that people have always been putting up love locks, Parisians pretend that the Pont des Arts is the kind of place you would always have wanted to avoid because it attracted the kind of people who put up love locks.
What drives those who oppose the new Samaritaine, even as they mostly ignore the love locks? The absolute authority of the past? Or a distaste for putting a luxury hotel for rich transients in place of an old department store for middle-class Parisians? Alexandre Gady is the president of the chief institutional opponent of the project, the century-old and grandly named Société pour la Protection des Paysages et de l’Esthétique de la France. From the society’s magazine—it is filled with decorous views of the French countryside primly bordered by dated typography—one would expect an old French reactionary of a specific predictable sort: gray-suited, silver-haired, with matching metal-rimmed glasses, a decoration in his buttonhole, and a fierce, intelligent suspicion in his eyes of America, the modern and meretricious.
In fact, Gady, only forty-six, is perhaps the preëminent historian of Paris of his generation—with books and articles on the evolution of the Marais and the social life of Place des Victoires, and the top position in architectural history at Paris IV, the old Sorbonne. He is open-collared and good-humored. Like the two Lisas and, indeed, Mme. Antonios, he came to his love for Paris from elsewhere—though his elsewhere was a nearby industrial village.
“Can you believe it?” he says. “I grew up a few kilometres away, and throughout my childhood I never came to Paris. Not once. Oh, exactly once—with my school, on a big bus to see the Louvre museum! My mother hated Paris. She had a phobia about the crowds and the cars. It is bizarre. I resemble a provincial of the nineteenth century who discovered Paris—except that I came not from Toulouse but from a few kilometres away.”
Over lunch in a café in the Seventh Arrondissement, he is relaxed and smiling and immediately assents to the notion that Paris risks becoming “Venetian” if it resists new building; he agrees that some of the most successful examples of urbanism in modern Parisian history—the Eiffel Tower and the Beaubourg are two—were seen as discordantly avant-garde when they began. What is it, exactly, that he, and the organization he leads, objects to? First, there is, as he cheerfully admits, something logical and vocational about the protest: basically, a society like his is supposed to oppose projects like this one. If it was his métier to support such projects, he would.
But his real objections involve a complicated argument about the history of Paris. It’s an argument that would touch the edge of perversity if it were not so beautifully articulated, at length, as paradox. It is that any energy spent on renovating, improving, or changing inner Paris is merely a diversion from the real needs of the city. It is not just that the wrong side may win the argument. It is the wrong argument to be having.
“That’s the heart of the problem,” Gady says. “As a historian, I need to have a long-term vision, and the problem with France is that it’s a country that loves history but has a very weak historical memory—and its élites, in particular, are mediocre, in the sense that they have no capacity for projection, for seeing what’s happened or what’s coming. The major problem for Paris is the exhaustion of land. Paris is one of the most ancient capitals in the world, after Rome. We have a dense history that’s very, very old—and, what’s more, intimately linked to the construction of the nation-state of France. The Capetians chose Paris as a capital, even though the secret truth is that Paris was never a very good choice for a capital. It’s much too far north—the Germans got here twice in fifteen days! But in the twelfth century, in the Middle Ages, when Rome was a mediocre village, Paris was already a university town and an industrial center. At its height, it had three hundred thousand inhabitants—that’s bigger than any city in France today, save five! It was a populated, extremely densely occupied city. Travellers wrote then that it was dangerous to cross the streets because of the traffic!
“And here’s the central thing—the city has never really grown. Paris is a very tiny surface, and that’s the core secret of it. Los Angeles—well, try to walk that city on foot. Berlin, too, a city of gigantic blocks. In the nineteenth century, at the moment when Berlin and London and New York acted by annexing the suburbs and smaller cities around them, we turned inward—we concentrated on the Paris of the center. And so Paris—it’s beautiful. But it’s a doll’s house! And that’s one reason the Parisian élite is so conservative. They live in the doll’s house. They go to the same schools—in the center of Paris. They live in the same apartments—in the center of Paris. The Élysée Palace, the Hôtel Matignon are in the center. So all they see is that. The blindness of the élites is to reproduce a model of returning to the center, always back to the center, and that’s a model that can’t be maintained.”
This, in his view, is the true evil of the Samaritaine project. “Once again, we see the same fundamental error—we’ll treat central Paris as a bijou, and let it be surrounded by these dubious zones we call thebanlieues with people we don’t much like. I know what the banlieues are—I live in one of them.” Gady has built up to his real provocation. It is not that we should be doing this or that—we should not be doinganything in central Paris. Not that it is a bad plan in itself, but any plan devoted to central Paris is a bad plan, a diversion from the need of the city to grow outward. “La Samaritaine is a choice for the hyper-luxe in a hyper-central neighborhood, decorated with a gesture of architecture.” And then, he says, there are the rules: “It’s a quartier entirely protected by law—I didn’t make it so; the state did—entirely protected, architecturally finished, with no space and strict rules. And if you or I asked to do what L.V.M.H. wants to, we’d be told, ‘Sorry, sir, it’s forbidden.’ ” One almost has the sense that Gady would be content to see La Samaritaine remain shuttered—sooner, at least, than see it become one more glittering gewgaw in the doll’s house.
“Paris, central Paris, is a finished city,” he says, meaning one not in need of improvement—but also, perhaps, one without a plausible future. A finished city, polished to a gloss, is also a finished city, incapable of new experience. He strongly suspects, in any case, that though he and the preservationists have won the first skirmish they will lose the war. “We’ll see what happens, but L.V.M.H. . . .” He trails off.
Asked about the love locks, Gady shakes his head. “They’re hideous,” he says. “But there the solution is so easy! Just get rid of the metal grilles and replace them with plaques”—smooth panels to which no lock can be attached. He shrugs, unaware that the two Lisas have been fighting for this simple solution for a year, to no avail. The love locks, for Gady, seem part of the same density of inner Paris that magnetically draws in tourists as it does politicians; the overloading of the bridge is just a kind of poor man’s version of the overloading of the entire area. Inner Paris has been polished to a point of hyper-attractiveness, whether in a luxe form meant to draw oligarchs to the five-star hotels there (after yesterday’s five-star hotel in Dubai and before tomorrow’s five-star hotel in London) or in the kitsch form exemplified by the groaning weight of tourist relics. Central Paris has become not a window onto the world but a vitrine with exhibits inside, some fine, some squalid, all finished.
As if by some principle of civic equilibrium, while Mme. Antonios waits patiently on the Left Bank for the government to decide whether L.V.M.H. can or cannot have its vast, seven-story glass curtain, the city government stripped away the locks from one section of the bridge and ceded to the two Lisas and their French followers three small test panels of glass, three feet by five feet each, for the Pont des Arts. The three experimental panels make it almost impossible to attach a lock, and each has different qualities of scratch resistance and durability. The new glass panneaux, or windows, are there only as a tentative experiment.
“Just seeing those new panels, just to have that view restored, it’s hard not to break into tears,” Lisa Anselmo says.
“And you can sit on the bench and look at those panels and feel like you can look at the Eiffel Tower and it looks the way it’s supposed to!” Lisa Taylor-Huff agrees.
All over Paris right now, there are posters for the French singer Véronique Sanson, advertising concerts of songs from what are called, portentously, “Les Années Americaines”—her American years. It is fair to say that no American has any idea that Véronique had American years—although she did, and was married to Stephen Stills for a little while. It doesn’t matter. The idea of her Americanness appeals to Parisians, as the abstract idea of becoming Parisian appeals to Americans. To become some other thing, you have to not be that thing in the first place, and, if you are that thing, then it is hard for you to really believe that anyone else can become it, since the essence of the thing is having been it all along. La Samaritaine, now no longer quite part of Paris, cannot be returned to Paris as a luxury hotel. Two powerhouse New Jersey gals from marketing backgrounds can save the bridge from the love locks—but the French are skeptical that they can restore it to Paris, and the bridge has to be restored to Paris, made part of the Parisian sense of Us, before it can be returned to Paris.
Historians in France like to say that when lieux de mémoires, places of memory, are in conflict they become inflamed; the truth is that when sites are in conflict they mostly disappear from view. They get covered over by hoardings, and shame and scaffolding, locked to alien loves. The view through the three tentatively installed glass panneaux not only briefly removes the visual noise of the love locks but, in its serenity, restores the innocence of the view, so that everything once again seems simply Parisian, and the people in the boats going by below less like endangered tourists corralled into movable pens and more like pilgrims to the medieval city, seeking its grace. Glass is clear.
A retrouver sur le site du New Yorker