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French Facades, Floods + Forensics

I recently finished a an article on maps-as-media (inspired in part by the preparation for my new fall class) that should be be published soon in Places. Speaking of maps: I was quite impressed by the new interactive maps, built on OpenStreetMap, that AirFrance makes available in its seat-back entertainment systems.

And speaking of Air France: I just returned from Paris — where it seems that everyone’s “gone fishin'”¬†for the month of August, and where I joined a friend who had finished a grueling cross-half-the-country bike race. Despite the general state of urban¬†hibernation, I did¬†manage to visit — at long last! — Labrouste’s¬†Biblioth√®que Sainte-Genevi√®ve (1850; I wrote a bit about Labrouste’s libraries a few years ago). Architectural historian Neil Levine (in Robin Middleton, The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French Architecture) describes¬†the literary ornamentation of Sainte-Genevi√®ve ‚ÄĒ how decorative elements ‚Äúappliqued or printed on the surface‚Ķ [make] the building look as if it had just rolled off the presses.” The building itself is thus a book: the facade, with all its literary ornamentation, functions as a sort of library catalogue; and the interior, as one big, inhabitable bookcase (156).

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Rather perilous stairs to the lower-level stacks; more user-friendly stairs to the the mezzanine stacks
Rather perilous stairs to the lower-level stacks; more user-friendly stairs to the the mezzanine stacks

Now contrast Labrouste’s biblio-centric facade with Jean Nouvel’s camera-like¬†facade for the¬†Institut du Monde Arabe (1987), not far from the library. Here,¬†mechanical oculi, triggered by photoelectric cells, open and close in response to local light levels. The visual effect, Nouvel says, resembles the mashrabiyas,¬†latticework-veiled windows traditional to Arabic architecture, and their geometric pattern is quite similar to that of the Alhambra, an Islamic fortress-and-palace complex in Granada, Spain.

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Light was again¬†a central feature in¬†C√©leste Boursier-Mougenot’s¬†Acquaalta, a boat-centric installation reminiscent of the annual Venetian flood, at the Palais de Tokyo.

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Palais de Tokyo
Palais de Tokyo

We saw another¬†fantastic exhibition, “Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence,” at Le Bal, which seems to be a French cousin to the photo-focused Aperture Foundation. The show centered on the forensic image — in crime scene photography (e.g., Bertillon‘s highly regimented¬†approach to criminal documentation), chemical analyses, post-conflict satellite imagery, archaeology (including as it’s applied in contemporary land claim disputes), Eyal Weizman-esque Forensic Architecture, legal testimony, etc. A brilliant show.

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Bertillon
Bertillon

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