Thursday, November 12, 2009

Window Shopping in Paris

This building - pale stone, with a corner cupola'd tower, is in Paris's Sixth Arrondissment, on the corner of Rue de Rennes and Rue Blaise Desgoff. Though it conforms with the Haussman-ian look of Paris streets, with its uniform height, color, and window boxes, its exuberant and sensual Art Nouveau curves and flowing vegetal motifs distinguish it from its staid neighbors. It's like an orchid among a group of daisies.

Built in 1904 for the department store chain Felix Potin, it was designed by architect Paul Auscher. Its windows' arches are hooded by eybrowed stone awnings, ornamented with flowing crescents and curves. Decorations drip from its cornices like piped sugar icing, not stone. The gentle curvilinear panels above the second floor picture windows are tinted in gold and lettered in flowing Art Nouveau script. The intricate traceries of the clock tower turret are lined in gold, too.

Photo of the turret from Wikipedia

Felix Potin was a retailer who pioneered the old model of department store. He began the practice of manufacturing and packaging an assortment of goods in-house and selling large volumes at deep discount. At one time there were stores all over France. The business went into decline in the '50s, and the store was sold - for a while it was a branch of Tati, a deep discount retailer.

The building is now home to the Spain-based women's clothing retailer, Zara.

It's delightful enough to contemplate this Art Nouveau fantasy by itself, but what makes this Paris site magical is how it interacts with its neighbor.

When we visited, FNAC's front was shrouded in scaffolding

The retailer FNAC, or Fédération nationale d’achats des cadres, is today's successful chain store, and a pioneer of a new retail model - the members-only buying club turned public. FNAC's building just across Rue Blaise Desgoff is a flat wall of mirrored glass.

This flat and featureless face reflects the ornate swoops of Auscher's building in a kind of magical mirror, giving it back onto itself as if gazed at in a pool of still water.

The amazing thing, I learned, is that the FNAC building has an Art Nouveau history of its own. It was built as Le Grand Bazar, an open gallery of shops, just a few years after the Felix Potin building, in 1906. It was designed by Henry Gutton, a member of a group of Art Nouveau architects and designers known as the Ecole de Nancy - working in the French city of Nancy. It was an innovative design, employing a vast framework of steel and wide glazed windows. It was considered a masterpiece of Art Nouveau architecture.

This early photo shows the fanciful design, with its intricate ornamentation.

By the 1960s, Le Grand Bazar became a branch of the store chain Magasin Reunis. Its street facade was clad in smooth glass and opaque panels, presenting a dull and boring face to the Rue de Rennes. Finally, the building became the FNAC store, and was transformed into the sheer and featureless mirror it is today.

Reflected in its blue glass, the curved balconies and window boxes of the Felix Potin building seem to ripple, as though gently undulating. One can imagine standing on such a balcony and gazing across the street, mesmerized by the image, brilliant in the opaque mirror.

Does any trace of Gutton's bazar remain behind the glass?

At once time, two masterpieces of Art Nouveau architecture faced one another across the Rue Blaise Desgoff. Today - one's there, the other is only in the looking glass.

Windows in Paris - pretty magical.

If you want to see the buildings by Googlemaps, go here:

View Larger Map
Click on the picture and move your mouse to see the street view.


Gary's third pottery blog said...

tis gorgeous alright!

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

I'm enjoying my arm chair travel to Paris. It seems to be such a romantic and interesting city. I certianly know I'd love the pastries!


Tristan Robin Blakeman said...

this post brings back wonderful memories!

are you BACK in Paris, or are these new photos from your holiday earlier this year?

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

At once time, two masterpieces of Art Nouveau architecture faced one another across the Rue Blaise Desgoff.

Two masterpieces masterpiece leaves.

JCK said...

Is there ANYTHING in Paris that is not magical???.............

Gilly said...

I'm seeing Paris through your eyes - which is so much better than my own memories of many years ago!!

Lovely photos!

Beverly said...

Glennis, this was so interesting. What an amazing contrast!