Urban experiments, a stopped clock and the practice of everyday life
In the autumn of 1981, a group of Parisian teenagers goaded each other into staying the night in The Panthéon, the national monument to French cultural heroes in the Latin Quarter of Paris. A dare, a double dare. At the end of tourist’s opening hours, they squeezed into a good hiding place inside the building and waited until it was closed. After the security guards had locked up for the night, they emerged with the whole place to themselves. It was an act of infiltration that was exhilarating, addictive and surprisingly easy. It was also the first act of an underground cultural collective known as UX (Urban eXperiment).
Paris is a city with a diverse network of underground tunnels and interconnections – catacombs, drains, service tunnels and shelters – some of which link up with the basements of public buildings and institutions. There has been a long tradition of subversive use of these underground spaces in Paris, from willful exploration to hedonistic partying. It is an obsessive hobby for some, ‘cataphiles’ as they prefer to be known. They take pride in developing an inside knowledge of the underground networks trading master keys and maps with each other in clandestine meetings.
UX have been influential within this subterranean clique. During the thirty years of their existence the group have used their expert knowledge of the city to instigate some very surprising cultural and spatial initiatives. They have staged secret theatre performances in The Panthéon without permission, and art exhibitions in the catacombs. They have held film festivals, including Urban Deserts, based on the hidden areas of the city that they have become so familiar with. The venue of choice for this event was a little used screening room beneath the Palais de Chaillot, which they furnished with a bar and dining facilities. All of these cultural actions were un-publicised and largely unknown to the authorities and owners of the buildings.
A subgroup of UX, called Untergunther, has an unusual specialisation. From years of urban exploration they have identified Parisian cultural urban artifacts that have been neglected and left to decay by the state. Instead of just observing and moving on, they have planned elaborate conservation projects without the need to ask permission. A disused metro station has been lovingly restored for the benefit of no one in particular other than those other cataphiles who might stumble across it in their adventures. Likewise a First World War air-raid shelter and a twelth century crypt have been tended to. Perhaps Untergunther’s most remarkable act of conservation occurred at the Panthéon in 2006.
The idea first came to Jean-Baptiste Viot, a clock-maker by trade and founding member of UX, at one of the group’s performance events at the Panthéon in 2005. He took the opportunity to examine the building’s impressive nineteenth century Wagner clock, which had been broken for over fifty years. Viot came to the conclusion that with time and effort it might be repairable, and so he assembled a team of other UX activists and set about the task. Their first act was to construct a temporary workshop in the dome, concealed by the typical wooden crates that were already littered around the building. The workshop contained chairs, tables, bookshelves, sofas and an area for preparing food. Makeshift drapes enabled a degree of temperature control for the careful work they were about to embark on, and electric cables were connected to the grid to provide lighting, power for tools and web access. For nearly a year the eight members of the conservation team worked through the night on the clock, then left before the morning without being detected. The clock had become rusted due to neglect so each part of the device had to be carefully removed, cleaned and polished before reassembly – a painstaking and laborious process. The pendulum bob and escapement wheel of the mechanism were missing and broken, so these were reconstructed and the clock’s broken glass front plate replaced. The process was intended as a careful act of conservation in which as much as possible of the original device was left in tact. On 24 December 2006, the work was complete. The conservation team left the workshop for the last time and the clock worked once more, chiming at every quarter hour – much to the surprise of the Panthéon’s administration.
There is cultural value in the Panthéon’s built form, its construction between 1758 and 1790 required innovative techniques. It was one of the first buildings of this scale to use reinforced iron bars embedded into the structural stonework to support its slender columns and wall structures. However, its most striking value is as a last resting place and monument to the strength and influence of French culture as created by their most auspicious innovators. After its conversion from a church to a mausoleum in 1791, only those deemed worthy of significant status in French culture have been interned at The Panthéon, including Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Rousseau and Marie Curie.
UX are very much aware of this, which is perhaps why they have developed such an affinity with the Panthéon, returning to it again and again with new ideas for interacting with it. Their relationship with the building has developed over time in a way that is different to how others experience it. And because of this, they have acquired a particular sense of ownership. But their understanding of ownership does not fit into the conventional political or economic model.
"When we speak of cultural heritage, we generally speak of it as belonging to someone: it’s a nation’s heritage; it’s a region’s heritage; it’s a city’s heritage. This manner of speaking can lead you to believe that all cultural heritage has an owner. In truth, heritage only has managers." (UX, 2012)
With this attitude, it is easy for UX’s members to feel emboldened enough to act as the Pantheon’s manager, if only for a brief period of time whilst they are experiencing and contributing to the building in a way that is personal to them. When they are using the space, it is theirs. It is a part of their own heritage on a range of levels that are all important: as an integral part of the history of their own group, their city and their country.
UX’s programme reminds me of Michel de Certeau who came to prominence in May 68 as a champion of the student rebellion, and has applied a Freudian psychoanalytical approach to his philosophical investigations into place and social interaction. His most influential work, The Practice of Everyday Life, was originally published in 1980, just a year before UX’s first youthful foray into the Panthéon at night. de Certeau attempts to make a critical argument relating to how we experience the use of spaces and objects; how individuals develop ritualistic behavior patterns that make their experience of buildings and the exterior areas of the city their own. It is this appropriation of the everyday by individuals that is interesting and essential for the functioning of society, though this personal relationship is often challenged and restricted by enshrined ownership. However, expected use patterns that have been imposed by organisations through ownership can be subverted and changed. de Certeau suggests that it is this act of subversion that coerces society to function more productively in the pursuit of a collective and private happiness.
"The purpose of this work is to make explicit the systems of operational combination which also compose a “culture”, and to bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean that they are either passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term 'consumers.' Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others." (de Certeau, 1984)
Here de Certeau deliberately separates the term “users” from “consumers”. He presents consumers as a collection of individuals that are complicit in their use of “production” (the urban environment, retail goods, the media) in a way that has been coerced by those that have produced it: the “dominant economic order”. Whereas a user may employ “ways of operating” that are varied in order to reappropriate production in a way that is personal to them.
The Practice of Everyday Life is summed up with a discourse on time, and history. He sees place as a complex strata of conditions that have been laid down over time, a cultural palimpsest, with a “fictive” character that immerses us as individuals, and can be added to. A modern technocratic approach to the organization of politics and production ignores this in preference for entirely new modes of production and organization.
Beneath the fabricating and universal writing of technology, opaque and stubborn places remain. The revolutions of history, economic mutations, demographic mixtures lie in layers within it, and remain there, hidden in customs, rites and spatial practices." (de Certeau, 1984)
So for de Certeau, it is the combined programmatic effects of finding personal and subversive ways of using place, and an emersion in the subtleties of historic cultural practices that may provide an impetus to break through the restrictive organisation of place and ownership that have been imposed on society by dominant producers of culture. The result may be an artful, and profoundly personal relationship to our environment that is empowering, and productive. And it is here that we can return to UX, and a building.
UX’s relationship to The Panthéon appears to be artful, productive and empowering in just the way that de Certeau might approve of, and probably more so than any other organisation, including the public body that oversees its official management, Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN). UX’s members have scoured the building: every room, corridor, alcove and surface, and have familiarised themselves with its layout, surveying alternative places of entry, exit and escape routes. They have looked for details and objects within it that can be used as part of their projects. They have formed a bond with the building that has engendered in them a profound sense of ownership on their own terms, and through this they have adopted a self-appointed managerial role. So in this frame, it was perfectly natural that a clockmaker should see a broken clock, and decide to repair it. Of course, this leap of judgment requires a subversive program in the context of conventional structures of ownership, but it is certainly not a revolutionary act.
Through their conservation subgroup, Untergunter, irrelevantly named after two guard dogs encountered on a memorable excursion through unnamed passages, UX adopt a proactive managerial role in many of the places and objects of culture that they encounter in their travels. They have developed a sophisticated philosophical approach to their understanding of the heritage that they encounter. This takes into consideration minor heritage and that which is “non-visible”. For UX, these small fragments of the past are experienced at close proximity in a way that is meaningful. It is minor heritage “that touches individual’s most directly” – layers of localised cultural historical knowledge, which UX feel motivated to bring back into focus. So when the group encountered an underground First World War bomb shelter that was starting to crumble into the tunnel, they examined it, formed a bond with it, conserved it and used it in their projects. They took ownership, where nobody else had, though it was not their property.
So UX argue that heritage that has acquired a strong personal meaning to some people is culturally more valuable to society than heritage that has remained non-visible. However, non-visible heritage is embedded with latent potential; ‘Non-visibility need not be permanent. It is only non-visible for a time’. This is embedded into UX’s approach to conservation – but if non-visible heritage is to become visible, to enable it as a mediator of cultural meaning to an individual or many, then who is likely to make this happen? UX argue that there is an inherent problem with the hierarchy and organization of conservation. It is not spread out evenly, but a group is designated by the public to take on that role on their behalf. And so, the majority of people who come across a piece of non-visible heritage and feel that it should be preserved take no action as they lack a mandate. They do not see that they have ownership of the heritage, despite the fact that they might be one of only a small number of people who are aware of, or care about its existence.
Would it be fair to describe UX, with their method of reacting to existing spaces, as bricoleurs? They seem to relish their temporary occupations instinctively, and creatively. And perhaps they enjoy the freedom of operating in this way, without the constraints that are characteristic of a modern approach to dealing with space: planned, strategised and pre-authorised.
Like everyone, UX are a product of a cultural environment. They have acquired a deep subjective understanding of the place where they live that has taken in the history of its culture, the physicality of its structure, and philosophy of its thinkers. However, unlike most groups or individuals who go about their business led by restrictive urban and political structures, UX operate a free program. Their actions have become an unencumbered devotion to space, which has accumulated subjectively during their travels and interventions: a careful and gradual series of explorations.
UX’s understanding of place seems to be phenomenological. They are not interested in respecting allotted functions, and established programs. Instead they wish to engage with the space in a creative and playful way. They learn through experience of their senses and intellect, and react as bricoleurs to their surroundings: reforming them, repairing them, and making them their own. And in the terms that Michel de Certeau has laid down, UX are ‘users’ rather than ‘consumers’ of production.
"Users make (bricolent) and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules." (de Certeau, 1984)
Perhaps this is a useful model for designers to take note of? de Certeau points to a way of urban organisation that is less prescribed than classical or modernist principles of planning that rely on rigid programmatic and technological structures. Buildings and cities are becoming hyper-engineered in a way that is forcing individuals to bend and adapt to a pre-planned program, and this is facilitated by the political principle of ownership. Architects happily play into the hands of this process. Buildings and masterplans that are designed with a rigid functionality attached is appealing to the designer who is looking for a way of influencing and controlling the urban environment beyond that of aesthetics. UX have demonstrated that it is possible to subvert this positively, and in doing so have added something significant to the city. Could architects moderate their design approach to promote this way of experiencing space in our cities?
POSTSCRIPT: SO, WHAT BECAME OF THE CLOCK?
When the clock was fixed, having discussed it carefully amongst themselves, UX decided that they should approach the Director of the Panthéon, Bernard Jeannot, to inform him of their actions. At first he did not believe them. But they showed him the working clock and the hidden workshop, and he was forced to accept that their far-fetched story was indeed true. UX advised him to take credit for the repair. They would be happy to sink back into the shadows of the catacombs without fanfare – the important thing was that the clock was repaired, and it would continue to be looked after and function. However the Director did not take that advice, he told lots of people, and was promptly given the sack. His deputy, Pascal Monnet took over the Director’s role and with the CMN instructed lawyers to seek criminal damages from four members of Untergunter’s conservation team – at one point seeking a jail term. The case of the French government vs. UX became a celebrated story in the French national press, giving the secretive group some unwanted publicity. The case reached the courts on 23 November 2007, and was thrown out – the president of the tribunal, Eric Meunier, described the prosecution as ‘incomprehensible’. Apparently there is no law in France against the repair of clocks, and neither is there for trespass on public property.
The clock itself is no longer working, stuck at 10:51am. On the 26th December 2006, when the Pantheon opened again after Christmas, Monnet, instructed another clockmaker to silence the clock by breaking it. Fortunately, it is not in the nature of clockmakers to break clocks, and so he simply removed the escapement that had been repaired by Untergunter, and put it in a cupboard in an office of the Panthéon. Two days later, it found its way back into the possession of UX for safekeeping. Meanwhile, Untergunter were already formulating plans for their next covert act of conservation – though we are never likely to learn anything about it, unless we ourselves become catophiles, and stumble across it by chance in the catacombs.