Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Usines Renault

For many decades, two of France’s major car manufacturers operated factories in the west of Paris. Citroën built a factory at Javel on the left bank of the Seine near Pont Mirabeau. Founder, André Citroën was an early visitor to Ford in Detroit and enthusiastically adopted Ford production methods. New cars rolled off the assembly lines from 1915 to 1975. No trace of the factory remains and the site is now occupied by the Parc André Citroën. Just over 3 miles further west was the Renault Billancourt factory, situated on the Île Seguin, an island in the river Seine. Louis Renault bought the island in 1919 and after raising the ground level by 6 metres a massive 5-storey assembly plant was constructed between 1929 and 1934, by which time the factory was the island rather than on the island. The facility shown in these postcards is what it replaced. Photographs show the new building appearing to float in the Seine like a clumsily formed passenger liner. At its peak almost 10,000 workers were employed and production ended in 1992 by which time the green field Renault factory at Flins (25 miles north west of Paris), established in 1952, was large enough to absorb the additional volume of production.

Louis Renault was a partial convert to Fordism. Like Ford he diversified production to include commercial vehicles, luxury cars, aero engines and railway equipment. Like Ford he built his own coal-fired power station in the interests of self-sufficiency and was obsessed with controlling every aspect of production. Unlike Ford, he constructed a wide range of vehicles in the same factory and dedicated assembly lines were only introduced in 1950 when the factory at Flins was opened. During the Occupation, production was commandeered by the German war machine and the factory’s conspicuous position in the river Seine made it an easy target for the RAF in 1942. Louis Renault was an abrasive, domineering character and an implacable enemy of trade unions. He had an audience with Hitler in 1938 and was heard to denounce his rival, André Citroën in grossly Anti-Semitic language. Renault cooperated fully with the Vichy regime and his factories supplied the Wehrmacht with copious volumes of vehicles and weaponry - after the Liberation he was arrested and charged with collaboration. Still awaiting trial, he died ignominiously in Fresnes prison in autumn 1944.

Aspiring professional photographer, Robert Doisneau was employed at Billancourt at the age of 22, from 1934 to 1939 as an in-house advertising and publicity photographer - a gallery of his images can be seen here. Some of his photos were choreographed for advertising purposes but most are highly accomplished exercises in the documentary tradition. They cover the whole range of activities from the forge to the foundry, from the factory floor via the staff canteen to the sanatorium. By Doisneau’s own account (Renault in the Thirties, Dirk Nishen, 1990) this was not the sinecure I fondly imagined. One of three “strolling photographers” on the payroll, he had to lug around 20 kilos of kit, including an 18 by 24 plate camera. Snapshots were not an option and most assignments involved considerable planning. A major lesson learned was never to photograph the workforce when they were on a snack break. Another lesson was to stay on good terms with the fork truck drivers whose assistance was invaluable in pursuit of elevated vantage points. Doisneau was not the only unexpected employee at Billancourt. From late 1934 to summer 1935 the young French philosopher, Simone Weil worked there incognito to experience proletarian labour at first hand. She worked in the drilling department and quickly discovered the tyranny of piece work. It was a punishing way for someone so notoriously frail as Weil to identify with working class life. By way of relaxation her next adventure was to sign up for the Spanish Civil War and enlist with the anarchist Durutti Column.

Since the factory closure in 1992 the island has seen various development schemes come and go. Demolition of the factory was rapid and left behind an island scraped raw on which nothing stood or grew. Thus far the only completed building is a concert venue, Cité Musicale which opened in 2017. Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas have presented masterplans but little else seems to have happened. For almost a century the Île Seguin was an industrial citadel and the departure of the factory represented an immense opportunity to develop it as a social community asset. Unfortunately the investment priorities of late capitalism don’t favour the kind of imaginative approach that might have led to a permanent enhancement in the lives of all local residents. Inflated land values are the ultimate determinant and the future looks to be one of piecemeal commercial development as and when the figures can be shown to produce an acceptable return.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Postcard of the Day No. 98 - Officer Down

One of the few points of amusement in the present crisis has been to observe the behaviour of our police forces as they explore their newly enhanced powers to intrude into the lives of members of the public. The opportunity to interrogate any random passer-by has been too good to miss. The streets and parks have become the property of the police - anyone using them must justify their presence to the satisfaction of the guardians of the peace. Many of us have a relatively mild authoritarian tendency but those in whom this tendency is most extreme gravitate towards the military or law enforcement. Much effort is made to convince the public that these impulses are under control and the police only exist to deliver safe and neighbourly communities. All now squandered by Chief Constables instructing officers to search the nation’s shopping trolleys for non-essential purchases. Anyway, the officer on this postcard has seriously compromised the dignity of his profession and allowed himself to be taken advantage of by a duo of female cyclists who have manoeuvred him into a perilous situation. I’m not an admirer of comic postcards but I make an exception for this because it so neatly subverts the stereotypes of the genre where women are routinely subjected to all manner of indignities while men act out their God-given role as masters of inane banter.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Bécassine - Breton Adventuress

An accident prone moon-faced Breton serving girl whose adventurous life was extensively recorded in a series of illustrated books in colour, widely regarded as among the earliest examples of what would later be known as bandes-dessinées (BD). Diligent but clumsy, Bécassine is naive and good natured, forever stumbling into danger and encounters with master-criminals. Habitually, her face is drawn without a mouth. On occasions when her mouth is shown it has no more weight than an apostrophe. Out of the house, she is rarely separated from her red umbrella which comes in handy whenever there’s a potential assassin to dispatch. The narrative proceeds via a grid of small coloured line drawings with explanatory text printed below. Much like the alternation of silent movie sequences and captions. Some pictures are emphasised by a circular enclosure - speech bubbles were still in the future. Bécassine began life in 1905 as a strip cartoon in a weekly comic. In 1905 the first book version was published - by 1962 there were 27 in the series. All but a few were illustrated with the lightest of touches by the magnificently named Émile-Joseph Porphyre Pinchon (J P Pinchon).

In this book (Les Mésaventures de Bécassine), our heroine has to deal with an idle and inept team of painters and decorators before heading for a remarkably diverse version of Paris where she stumbles from one adventure to another like the silly goose that she is. A bus ride to Trocadéro ends with her being co-opted as a Breton representative in an exhibition of French regional costumes. Events move fast and Bécassine is on a train to the seaside where she carries out her duties with exemplary devotion. Her Breton origins are the point of the books - there’s a long tradition of looking down on the Bretons on the part of metropolitan France. Especially for Parisians for whom they serve as dull and backward stereotypes, thus validating the high esteem in which they hold themselves. Residents of Brittany take exception to this and point to the region’s rating as 5th. in France in terms of GDP per capita. The city and region of Rennes has for decades been one of the fastest growing in France. But the need to have someone to look down on is very strong and it may be the fate of the Bretons to continue to play this role despite all evidence to the contrary. Finally Bécassine was filmed as a live-action movie released in 2018 which I suppose is a tribute to its enduring appeal. It might be of some interest if only to see if the leading player has had her lips digitally erased.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Essen Zollverein

One of the star attractions of the Route der Industriekultur (Industrial Heritage Trail) in the Ruhr is the Zeche Zollverein in Essen - a carefully preserved colliery and coking works designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Coal mining on this site goes back to 1851 but the principal shaft and associated buildings date from 1932 and were designed by industrial architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer in a style that’s often described as Bauhaus, although the term Industrial Rationalism may be more accurate. In its rectilinear brick built forms and its symmetry it seems to have more in common with the functionality of Albert Kahn’s work in Detroit than with the formal purity of Mies van der Rohe although there is some affinity with the Fagus factory design of Walter Gropius. The massive forms of the pit head buildings with its trestle shaped winding gear and coal washery are handled with great confidence and contrasted with the angular presence of enclosed conveyor belts that criss cross the site. Highlights of the coking works include the skeletal remains of cooling towers and spectacular reflections of the coke ovens in the vast cooling reservoir.

In 1937 just under 7,000 workers were employed in the mine and coking works. Almost undamaged by the war, the Zollverein was Germany’s most productive coal mine in the 1950s, yet by the end of 1986 it was closed. Six years later the coking plant closed down after many decades converting waste gases into such delights as ammonia, tar and benzine. Local pride in the region’s industrial past inspired the city of Essen to acquire the site and transform it into a visitor attraction without compromising the ravages of industry - making it accessible while preserving its industrial character. Architects OMA with Rem Koolhaas delivered the masterplan which took a decade to implement, finally concluded in 2010. Included in the plan were museums of local industry and industrial design. It’s an extensive site and a thorough exploration could easily take all day for those with an appetite for the strange and wonderful forms of industrial processes. Those with deep pockets can assemble a scale model of the complex on a table top at home by shopping online at Minitrix and purchasing all 3 components.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Au Bûcheron

Au Bûcheron was a luxury Parisian furniture store with a wealthy clientele and a flair for publicity that led them to engage the services of the best of contemporary graphic artists including A M Cassandre, Rene Vincent and Paul Colin. The business name was lettered in a variety of Deco-style stencil fonts. Cassandre created a dynamic trademark in the form of a woodcutter wielding an axe on a falling tree, enclosed in an inverted triangle that was launched at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs at which Au Bûcheron was an exhibitor. The activity of the lumberman was the start of a long process of refinement involving sawing, planing, assembly, veneering followed by buffing and polishing - all for the admiration of the incurably fashionable. Premises were on the prestigious rue de Rivoli but the company left their mark all over Paris in the form of oversized poster installations, large enough on occasion to all but obliterate the host building. Very much in a Parisian tradition of aggressive on-street advertising. The story is told in this magazine article from Commercial Art, No. 26, June 1929.