Jessica Helfand | Essays

Paris Dispatch: A Long Way Down

Paris Cemetary

I grew up in Paris, and I have a particular tendency to revert to a kind of childlike wonder when I return there. Certain members of my family (who will remain nameless) have frequently noted that I become, in such moments, emotionally arrested at about the age of twelve: here, I undergo a kind of remarkable personality shift that seems to ignite magically upon my arrival at the Paris airport. It is true that my childhood memories remain highly sensory and rather intensely visual, and, for the most part, tend to revolve around candy stores and the best places to go roller skating. These are happy memories and, for the most part, uncomplicated ones.

But I spent the better part of last Monday afternoon standing in a cold, rainy Paris cemetery acquiring a new set of memories, as I attended a funeral that I will not soon forget.

Like so many things in central Paris, the Montparnasse cemetery is a mixture of logic and sensuality. Neat avenues of statuary frame a site that evokes a mesmerizing kind of timeless beauty. Inscriptions on graves offer striking typographic testimony to distinguished lives long gone, architectural biographies forever suspended in the frozen space between earth and sky. Flowers adorn nearly every grave — leggy calla lilies and leafy hydrangea and big bundles of plump tulips. Montparnasse is solemn yet quietly majestic, densely plotted but unusually open, with tall, carefully choreographed plantings punctuating the marble and limestone, the asphalt, the mausolea. If you have to spend eternity somewhere, this isn't a bad place to be: it's an urban refuge, preternaturally zoned for silence, and inviting a kind of deep, secular reflection.

And so it was here that we gathered with our umbrellas, listening to Beckett and to Baudelaire, to the haunting refrains of Debussy's Flute de Pan which was written, early in the last century, as a gesture to the transition between this life and the next. Moments later we walked, single-file, to where the casket had already been lowered into the ground. Large baskets of white roses flanked the queue where we stood, and one by one, we each tossed a single bloom into the grave. But as we approached, the hole was so deep that we could neither see nor hear a thing: we saw no casket, heard no noise of tumbling stems, witnessed nothing but a void — a dark, empty, immeasurable tunnel to the bottom of the earth.

A friend of ours, a writer, spoke simply as we struggled to regain our composure.

"Shit," she whispered, speaking for us all. "It's a long way down."


A long way down it may be; but in modern culture, our tendency is to look up — not down. Urban development mirrors, more often than not, the conspicuous consumption that seems to characterize contemporary urban life. Skyscrapers, once the hallmark of our devotion to the almighty dollar, appear in ascending quantity outside the US, perhaps because the dollar isn't so almighty after all. (Graveyards are, by their very nature, impervious to such economic distinctions.) And yet, compared to many cities around the world, so little really changes in a city like Paris. Sure, the FNAC logo of my childhood now includes the "dotcom" sufffix, and as I rapidly approach middle-age, I'm no longer addressed as "Mademoiselle" but rather bizarrely as "Madame" — and even though its grands projets suggest their future is an ambitious one, Paris is still Paris. People still shop daily for their groceries with baskets over one arm, and a quick stop at Bon Marché still reveals eighty-year old women browsing for lacy lingerie. Rich, dark squares of chocolate still accompany the espresso at bistros like La Coupole, a mere two blocks from the Montparnasse cemetery where a few of us went, following the funeral, in an effort to try and regain the circulation in our hands and feet, Outside, across the Boulevard Raspail, the façades of the buildings remain as they are in my pre-pubescent imagination: tall and elegant limestone structures with windows framed by black iron railings and doorways fronted by cobblestone walkways, private courtyards tucked behind oversized metal doors, giving way to the inner sanctum of real French life — graced, no doubt, by generous quantities of lacy lingerie and rich chocolate.

There are, of course, places that have aged poorly, like Les Halles, once the central market in Paris and now little more than a second-rate shopping mall. (There's new hope that its rightful place in the Parisian "landscape" will be restored when the French architect, David Mangin rebuilds the 15-acre site over the next year.) Nearby is the Centre Beaubourg — a visual oddity in the Marais, but worth a stop if only for its well-stocked bookstore and rooftop restaurant. Yet in spite of new construction which is unavoidable in any modern city, it was the depth of that single gravesite and its many symbolic associations that impressed themselves upon me with greater impact than any of a million architectural novelties. Can absence prove as resonant as presence in the context of visual, urban and architectural space? Was it the purity of that form, that intractable rectangle burrowing itself into the frozen ground, the presence of that simple geometric envelope that moved me so? Or am I just a nostalgic innocent whose emotional paralysis at the age of twelve reveals itself in poetic longing for a Proustian connection to a city I simply adore?

Upon my return home, I read Mark Kingwell's excellent essay on what he calls the "what-the-hell-design-sense" in a construction-mad Shanghai. (His story, The City of Tomorrow, appears in the February, 2005 issue of Harper's.) "At the asymptotic edge of design freedom," Kingwell explains, "lies a sparkling, overgrown, hyperscaled city of bright nightmares, sometimes beautiful, often strange, always oppressive." Paris is perhaps the opposite, betraying little of this tendency to overbuild — although traveling the periphérique outside the city center does, like so many cities, offer considerable evidence to the contrary. (The odd proximity of old and new is vaguely reminiscent of certain scenes in The Triplets of Belleville in which Bruno, the family dog, can almost touch the passing subway train with his tongue.) I couldn't help but compare Kingwell's astute observations about future-obsessed Shanghai with Paris, which remains to me both beautiful and strange, not the least bit oppressive, and only hyperscaled in its other-worldliness — an otherworldliness that until last week, I would have characterized as charming and classical and somewhat distant. Now, I am not so sure: and while I continue to be haunted by the indelible image of that profound abyss piercing the cold earth, I am filled at the same time with a newly-minted awareness that came from the surrounding, oddly captivating landscape — at once solid and barren, congested and isolated, evocative and so utterly inevitable.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible not to contemplate death on the occasion of a funeral, but to do so in an environment of such remarkable beauty — and such ineffable sadness — amplifies our sense of here and now, of where and why and, of course, of what. As designers we dwell in the land of "what" perhaps more than any of us care to acknowledge — until something or someone awakens in us some pathos, some awareness, some response to something beyond ourselves. Design, I was reminded this week, is a function of both our history and our humanity: whether it is a function of exorbitant height or the darkest recesses of depth, it dwells endlessly in the vicissitudes of memory. And so do we.

Comments [3]

Every time I travel, whether it be to a remote midwestern city like Omaha, or the bustling much-loved-as-well Paris, I always try to see the cemetaries. I've never been able to really verbalize why these places attract me (I certainly am not obsessed with death in ay way), and I thank you for describing so well those feelings that seemed too abstract for (my own) words. You are exactly right—it is the odd mixture of history and humanity that must affect us so, and, as makers, we want to infuse in our work.

My most moving architectural experience happened while studying abroad (in architecture) in Italy, primarily Rome. While the inside of the Pantheon provided the most immediate visceral reaction, it was the Brion Tomb near Treviso in Northeastern Italy that had the most lasting effect. (Images here by Gerald Zugmann.) Somehow the architect, Carlo Scarpa, managed to create an environment that felt as embedded in history as the Roman Forum, and demanded reflection and confrontation with one's own humnity and mortality. It could have been my youth (I was only 20), or simply the combination of the storm-cloud weather and the company, but never have I been so moved by a work of design (if not art). It was fascinating, too, how half the class quickly left the site after visiting while the other half stayed for hours—writing, drawing and talking with each other. The discussion continued the whole bus ride through torrential rain back to Verona. I guess some wanted to grapple with the question of their existence, others did not. That afternoon is as clear in my head as if it were yesterday.
Eric Heiman

Merci pour ça,
its always surprizing to see that only strangers (became) can appreciate a place that people living everyday stop to appreciate for its qualities.

I like the description of places around Montparnasse, a quarter that I know from my first years. About the Bon Marché, at typographic level their logotype for the dedicated part for food market is one of the most simple and beautiful I know.


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Jean François Porchez

First off Jessica, please accept my condolences on the loss of a significant person in your life. Also, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the funeral. It is never easy to express the swirling of emotions that surrounds such a loss.

I hope my observation is not too flip in light of the seriousness of your post but I couldn't help but notice your reference to the The Triplets of Belleville. A long time ago, a movie critic suggested the mark of a good movie (and I might suggest any other art) is its ability to stay in your mind. Just this week I read aloud a newspaper article about a successful Thai business that was selling canned deep-fried frogs and my husband looked up and said "Triplets of Belleville". Last fall, I visited northern Italy and as we drove in the Dolomite Mountains filled with Italian bikers with their wispy bodies and massive leg muscles I couldn't help but be reminded of that movie. And who wouldn't think of Bruno when encountering a loyal dog with his owner after seeing the movie?

I think the real genius of Triplets is that those emotions and character development were accomplished with little dialog and the absence of fancy state-of-the-art computer technologies. It's really a great movie.
Linda Tabeling

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