The Unhistorical Parc André Citroën

photo: parc andre citroen glasshouses
The two big greenhouses and some neighboring architecture.

Buries History Under Grass

Paris:- Tuesday, 29. December 1998:- Just for pleasure, the sun is giving Paris a day of itself but down at the bottom of the 15th, by métro Balard, more than half the world is in the deepest shadow.

It is very dramatic while the Place Balard isn't anything of the kind. The Avenue de la Porte de Sèvres shoots into it from a glass brick named 'Aquaboulevard,' which has a roundabout in front of it taking escapees from the Perifreak; then this avenue slinks under the 'Peri' itself - roar, roar, overheard - goes through a canyon between some huge Navy construction office and an even huger air force box of little offices, to arrive at the Boulevard Victor.

The north side of this boulevard is a railway embankment, so the Place Balard starts by piercing through this too and then the Place Balard is a modest affair with the Rue Leblanc crossing it, and the Rue Félix Faure and the Rue Balard pointing into or out of it like 'V' for victory.

Paris' heliport is beside the 'Aquaboulevard' thing, so the noise of these things is added to that of the Perifreak overhead, thephoto: the jogger in the park tunnel-like road noises in the Avenue de la Porte de Sèvres, and the lesser noise of the Boulevard Victor. The Place Balard is almost an oasis from noise, and there are a few cafés around its edges for slaking thirst.

A lone jogger makes his solitary rounds through the concrete decor as the winter sun sets.

In a news shop on the place they tell me where to find the Parc André Citroën. Up the Rue Balard 100 metres and turn left. Shadow fills this street entirely, but the entry to the park looks like it might be to cemetery, with its cement walls and high iron grille.

At first I see a confusion of stone, cement blocks, concrete, some dark shrubbery, useless and industrial-looking cement arches, and then a big square pit. I do not see the glass houses mentioned in the news shop.

Any direction seems to be equally unpromising, so I take one that allows me to see the buildings along what's left of the Rue Saint-Charles. There is a fence to prevent escaping from the park here.

When I find a map of the park, which is a white panel with black hieroglyphics on a pole, I am at a loss. It looks like a map of Troy. What can faintly be made out, is this 14 hectare - 35 acre - park is a series of overlapping squares, with one big one near the Seine.

I look around and do not see this to be evident. All that is clear is the park is surrounded by really hideous buildings of unknown purposes. I skirt around the big pit. Some kids are running remote-control cars in it and as they are very tiny; I guess the pit is very large. In summer, maybe lions are kept in it.

Where I am is on some sort of raised terrace. Looking over the outside edges, reveals sunken paths in shadow amid decors of concrete and bushes; yet more uninviting areas, in other words.

A jogger trots out of one of these depths, and plods away down an alley of cement arches. I follow him for want of any other direction. I can't see far unless I look up and then I see these ugly new buildings. Straight up is very blue sky.

But by following the jogger, I get to where this first rectangle overlaps the second and here a medium-sized field opens out, revealing a pair ofphoto: football kids very high glass houses. Some boys are kicking a football around on grass with chain-link embedded in it for strength. Playing on the steel-reinforced grass is permitted, a sign announces.

Instead of 'Grass Permitted,' the sign should say, 'Don't Fall On It.'.

In the first glass house, looking up, I see the spikes of some sort of palm, and beyond it, hundreds of cubics of empty space. The second glass house has low, ordinary-looking trees and a lot of empty space too.

In front of the two tall glass houses, there is a big stone terrace, sloping down to a big field of mucky grass. A path crosses this diagonally, going somewhere toward what is left of the Quai André Citroën. On the south side of the big field there are a series of sentry towers and behind them, an unfinished-looking hospital.

There are long ponds forming the edges of a rectangle on the big field. Otherwise it is empty. It covers the new underground André Citroën speedway, which is the end of the series of roads heading generally west on the left bank.

I do not see any clear view that the park goes to the Seine's edge so I do not go down there to take a look at how it is finished off. On the north side of the big field - I wonder if it has a name? - there are upward sloping terraces and at the top there are a series of stand-alone glass houses. Each has an interior orange chimney pipe and some low, bundled-up something-or-others. Maybe they are plants; it's hard to tell.

Running down the terraces to the big field, there seem to be a series of water-courses, flanked by stone paths. With the sun at the right angle, at the right time of day and year, these might look, from the south side of the big field, like spillways full of silver if they have water in them.

On top of the terrace, with the sun in my face, I look around. It is mid-winter. There is dark green grass and a lot of it, there are some green fir trees, and there are some red or rust-colored ones too, and I wonder if they are okay or dead.

The plants that would, in other seasons, in less harsh light, be sprinkled around are not here now. I understand this. This big field, this monumental thing full of nothing, underphoto: reflecting pond a summer sky - would be, er, massively too big. The tall glass houses aren't worth looking at from over this huge distance of green.

The semi-underground parts, with the mazes of paths, bushes and concrete blocks, might seem cool and refreshing in summer heat - if there were such a thing regularly in Paris.

The long pond reflects - one of the glasshouses, but not the red trees.

I feel yang-yinned here. It's too open where it shouldn't be, and it's too hemmed in where it should be open. The surrounding newer buildings are an atrocity to the eyes; not just new slums but mirrored ones.

I had a friend who had a flat over a garage near here, in the narrow Rue des Bergers. This used to near the factory - I thought, but over the wall is a small cemetery. The flat is probably still there, unless some of these new buildings have buried it.

Where I leave the park at the Rue Balard again, there is a square on both sides and this is 'neighborhood'-scale. Further on down Balard, there is another mini-square; one leading to the Rue Modigliani which in turn runs into the Square Jean Cocteau. Ah, these 'names.'

Looking at these, built for the 'neighbors,' and perfectly okay for them too, as modest as they are, I wonder if local residents make much use of the nearby 'official' park.

The way it is, it feels like an exercise field with watchtowers, surrounded by 'cells' in nearly underground bunkers. A sort of prison, in other words.

Only a few weeks ago I had a quick look in the rain at some of the new Parc de Bercy, in the 12th arrondissement, by the Seine. It is only slightly smaller than the Parc André Citroën and it has a 'boring' all-in-one rectangular shape. But it seemed to be a park in its fullest sense. Despite the rain, I liked what I saw and will visit it again in a better season.

Since the Parc André Citroën is not getting a big rave here, I looked through my archives for some history of the Citroën factory.

My huge street-dictionary merely says the factory was located on the Quai André Citroën, and gives the old names of the communes in the area: Grenelle, and has a few words about the bleach works at nearby Javel. In effect, there were factories of various sorts here for hundreds of years.

The historian Fernand Braudel quotes Walter Hoffmann's theory that any industry 'follows a parabolic curve: a rapid rise, a time at its summit, followed by a decline; possiblyphoto: solo glasshouse with pipe vertical.' Braudel thinks this should be a 'law' rather than a theory, because there don't seem to be any exceptions.

So, is this all there is left of the factory where Citroën's famous and elegant 'Traction Avant' was built? And the whimsical 2CV - is it no more than 'vertical decline' with nothing in this park to evoke its millions of copies?

I call this a 'Solo Glass House with an Orange Pipe,' but I don't know what it really is.

Making these things here accounted for the livelihood of tens of thousands of workers over a long period of time, but I didn't see a scrap of anything to show for it. I suppose this will also happen to the still-standing Renault factory on the Ile Seguin, between Boulogne and Issy.

I suppose I sound as if I would rather have an old automobile factory instead of an urban park. No, the park is okay; a necessary lung for the city.

What I really worry about, is the total erasure of some history. Name me any Louis who had anything to do with the 'taxis of the Marne.'

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