The headquarters of the PCF, a concrete block whose “magic still works”

The “ugly” buildings of the capital, according to Parisians – 20 Minutes

  • In the landscape, we only see these buildings. Massive, too high, not harmonious, failed, are the adjectives that come up to evoke these constructions which in the end have become emblems of our cities. The Eiffel Tower is one of the most obvious examples. In this series, 20 Minutes is interested in buildings that do not leave you indifferent, that stand out or even that some qualify as “ugly”.
  • The headquarters of the PCF in the 19th arrondissement, the work of architect Oscar Niemeyer, amazed as soon as it emerged from the ground in 1971.
  • But the strength of the Brazilian genius is still alive, “its modernity and its utopia” mean that “the magic still works”, explains Matthieu Salvaing, photographer and author of the book Oscar Niemeyer (Editions Assouline).

“The headquarters of the PCF will not simply be a good example of architecture, but a mark of socialist society which is already establishing itself with the force of a historical necessity”, predicted in 1965, the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, during an exhibition organized by the
Louvre Decorative Art Museum. A prophecy, a trace of which is still found in a special supplement to Revolution. If the French Communist Party weekly died in 1995 and was relegated to the rank of archive, it can nevertheless be consulted in the heart of Niemeyer’s project: “the house of the French communists” inaugurated in 1971.

Nearly fifty years later, next to a grayish roundabout frozen in time, at 2, place du Colonel-Fabien in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, the PCF headquarters are still resisting. On the occasion of a call for participation launched by 20 Minutes among Parisians on buildings which arouse debate because they do not leave indifferent, several monuments of the capital have returned: the Montparnasse Tower, this “Parisian wart ”Or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, regularly designated as the“ Versailles wart ”by the worshipers of the Commune. But the headquarters of the PCF was also cited. So, 20 Minutes decided to look at this reinforced concrete block in the east of the capital, at a time when the leitmotiv of the environmental allies of Anne Hidalgo (PS) is to free themselves from this material.

“Luxury bunker” and “sublime fortress”

Outdoor offices, an underground living, rounded corridors strafed with carpet, space shuttle doors and a dome that houses the sumptuous central committee room… The building explodes as soon as it emerges from the ground. It is described as a ‘luxury bunker’ by Dawn, a “sublime fortress”, by The world. The work does not leave anyone indifferent. The very essence of art? “At the time, the building itself was surprising.” While his figure has become familiar and even classic, one continues to marvel, for example, at how he rests on the tip in a sort of inverted isosceles triangle, ”he writes.
L’Humanité in its edition of December 2012, paying homage to Oscar Niemeyer then deceased at the age of 104 years.

Because the architectural style of the PCF headquarters is inseparable from its creator, a Brazilian genius, exiled in France, a former pupil of Le Corbusier and driven by freedom. Her style: curves. Its material: concrete. And a mantra defending itself from potential criticism: “Concrete is not responsible for ugliness,” he said. Iconic architect and prolific builder, he has to his credit the city of Brasilia that he put together from scratch, The volcano du Havre, the Bobigny Labor Exchange and the headquarters of the PCF. Which, he was convinced, would become “a center of curiosity and architectural attractions”.

“Not the most functional but the magic still works”

Matthew Salvaing, photographer, author of the book Oscar Niemeyer (Editions Assouline) who worked for twenty years with the architect still speaks with emotion. “Her curves were those of Pain de Sucre [à Rio], beaches, and women. There is modernity and brutalism with concrete in Niemeyer. And this futuristic and utopian vision which belongs to him and which creates magic ”, he explains to 20 Minutes. But is the future aging well?

“It was a time and he was honest with all of his contradictions. It is architecture that in my opinion was perhaps not the most functional and today we realize that concrete does not breathe. But the modernity, the futuristic aspect and the magic still work. So much the light of the chamber of the national council which “leaves from the ground and shines on the walls” seems still to operate.

The main room of the PCF headquarters – JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP

“As soon as an artist wants something modern, he goes to the PCF headquarters”

According to Georges Gosnat, treasurer of the PCF, in 1971, the building – “the Mecca of the workers’ movement” devoid of “luxury” was divided into two in 2008 and part of it became Espace Niemeyer to deal with the financial problems of the PCF. Very quickly, another crowd than the aficionados from the “Grand Soir” crowd there. From 2004, Prada organized a parade there. Then, filmmakers and artists walk the corridors of the Party to capture the unique light of the central committee room. Latest example with Belgian singer Angèle for her music video Jealousy.

“The seat had become a neglected seventies thing. But it has been rediscovered. It is now used and reused excessively. It has become iconic again. As soon as an artist wants a photo shoot, a clip, a modern fashion show, he goes to the PCF headquarters, ”reacts Matthieu Salvaing, who remembers his last meeting with Oscar Niemeyer in Rio. The discussion then revolved around a question: Can beauty save the world? “He told me yes and that it went through the loved one, through the woman. Until the end, people remained at the heart of its philosophy ”.

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