Thursday, February 23, 2012

I love Le Bon Marché, and Other Thoughts on Grand Magasins

When I first realised that the old 17th century building in which I was about to reside was within ten minutes walk of Le Bon Marché, my first thought was one of trepidation.

"Oh no," I thought. "I'm going to spend all my time and money at Le Bon Marché."

I think I was correct on the first part. I lasted all of three days in Paris before giving in to the psychological current pulling me down the Rue de Sèvres. I told myself I was going to open a bank account (and I did step into the bank, to my credit) and I somehow ended up at La Bon Marché.

It's still my first week so I probably can't give myself too much credit just yet, but I didn't spend all my money at Le Bon Marché. I realised, gliding up the escalator, that my salvation from extreme poverty lies in just how beautiful the store is; there's no product there that can tear my attention away from the building itself.

I think Le Bon Marché is the best of Paris's grand magasins. Galeries Lafayette and Printemps get all the attention; this attention is misplaced. Firstly, Galeries Lafayette has a wowishness that's about the presence of a dome in a department store, not about the dome or the store itself, and that wears off quickly. The beauty isn't spread all through the store -it's just concentrated in this one central dome. Secondly, this dome doesn't really relate to what's underneath it. The shopping experience takes place around and under the dome, but the beauty isn't linked to the function. By contrast, Le Bon Marché could lead you to write love letters to escalators.

As for Printemps, I think the attention is mostly due to the location next to the Galeries Lafayette and to the fact that if you actually do care about buying luxury products (and not getting lost) it's probably better than the Galeries Lafayette.

This isn't to say that I don't like the Galeries Lafayette or that nobody appreciates La Bon Marché. I do like Galeries Lafayette; I've been known to purchase espresso just so I can sit and look at the ceiling. And I'm pretty sure everyone who goes to La Bon Marché thinks it's beautiful -it's just that tourists choose to visit the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps instead and that's just so upsetting! They do, at least, pretty much all visit one architect's other major Parisian building, the Eiffel Tower.

Because yes, before Gustave Eiffel switched from railways and bridges (and the magnificent Galeries des Machines of the 1867 Universal Exposition) he worked with Louis-Charles Boileau on La Bon Marché. Isn't that reason enough to prioritise it over the Galeries Lafayette?

The other Parisian grand magasin I have a crush on is Le Samaritaine. Le Samaritaine has been closed for the last seven years; this sort of heightens the beauty of the exterior because you can see beauty more clearly when the use-value is stripped away. Simultaneously, though, it makes me want to cry because I've never seen the interior -and the reason it was closed was because it didn't meet 21st century safety standards, so I guess they're making changes before they reopen in 2013.

Le Samaritaine was founded by Ernest Cognacq and run by him and, later, his wife Marie-Louise Jäy, who are generally remembered as two of the coolest people in Paris; they pop up in all sorts of interesting parts of 19th century history and they left their really exciting house (with Fragonards inside!) as a public museum. Le Samaritaine is actually the largest of Paris's department stores and the architects were Frantz Jourdain and Henri Sauvage, resulting in a beautiful fusion of art nouveau and art deco that's totally singular. 

Le Samaritaine, as a store rather than as a building, was inspired by La Bon Marché and now LVMH owns both stores. I haven't felt strongly about Le Samaritaine for as long as Le Bon Marché (mostly because I just made Le Samaritaine's acquaintance comparatively recently) but I really felt my pupils dilate into hearts when I went past on the bus yesterday. 

Henri Sauvage is one of my favourite architects (as is Gustave Eiffel, for that matter, though he can't be given major responsibility for La Bon Marché) and I didn't know until recently that he was responsible for Le Samaritaine but it makes perfect sense. Most of Sauvage's buildings are quirky and original and stand out in the same way Le Samaritaine does. Knowing Les Piscine des Amiraux, the pool at the centre of Sauvage's Immeuble des Amiraux in the 18th, I'm guessing the interior's really exciting too (and photographs suggest the same). 

I'm eagerly awaiting the reopening of Le Samaritaine in 2013 and hoping they don't change too much architecturally. For the meantime, La Bon Marché is Paris's best grand magasin and I have a responsibility, as a student of French architecture, to loiter in the food hall and ponder the important questions, like: in the salt aisle, should one choose pink diamond salt or viking salt? Or wasabi and black sesame salt? Is somebody really going to buy the crab that's 292e a kilogram? Is there anything I can afford here? I'm sure once, a year ago, I found something affordable... but what was it? Should I buy green tea?

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