A futuristic command center for the French Communist Party by Oscar Niemeyer
Oscar Niemeyer, who drew up Brazil’s modernist capital, Brasilia, and worked with Le Corbusier on the United Nations headquarters in New York, created a boldly futuristic command center for the French Communist Party when it was still a major force in the politics of the Fifth Republic.
The sinuous building presents a dramatic contrast to the majestic, centuries-old palaces occupied by most French government ministries.
“It was the only good thing those commies have ever done,” Mr. Niemeyer’s memoirs quote the Gaullist President Georges Pompidou as saying about his building.
After many years of waiting and preliminary work the French Communist Party’s central committee headquarters, or, as the official bulletins declaim, “la maison du Parti, de tout le Parti”, has at last been built.
Set in northeast Paris’s working-class 19th Arrondisement, the six-story headquarters was designed after Mr. Niemeyer took refuge in France from a military coup in his native Brazil in 1964. Mr. Niemeyer, a committed Communist twice refused entry to the U.S. because of his party membership, worked on the structure free of charge. The building stands atop concrete pilotis, with its glazed facade echoing the curve of the adjacent Place du Colonel Fabien, a circular traffic intersection named after a World War II Communist resistance hero. Originally intended as a secluded power nexus from which to advance the interests of the proletariat the headquarters is now open to the public and tours can be arranged by appointment.
Rather than ascending a grand staircase, visitors enter under a small, rippling-white concrete canopy into a slit-like aperture that drops down to a subterranean lobby with a concrete floor as uneven as the ocean bed. This anomalous design with its discreet, bunker-like entry sparked speculation about the true nature of political activity within the complex when it was first built, though Communist adherents were enthralled by elements resembling the crypt of a basilica or the sanctum sanctorum of a civic temple.
Mr. Niemeyer collaborated with another pioneering architect and engineer, Jean Prouvé, on the wavy glass curtain wall for which Prouvé devised a series of elegant mechanical window openers. Although Mr. Niemeyer eschewed traditional ornamentation, he averted cold austerity in what he called “the house of the worker” through the use of inventive sculptural shapes. A recurring, subtly seductive interior detail comes from textured raw concrete walls imprinted with the patterns of the wooden boards used to create them.
The pièce de résistance is a breathtaking domed chamber used as the meeting place for the party’s Central Committee. The cupola, looking like something out of a James Bond film, is hung with thousands of white aluminum panels that mute extraneous sound and spread light uniformly throughout. With this womb-like space, Mr. Niemeyer achieved one of the most spectacular auditoriums in all of Europe. The doors leading into the chamber are set at an angle and are pneumatically controlled. Nearby are a series of more intimate and equally hermetic meeting rooms, including a leaf-shaped one for receiving foreign delegations. The original, simple furnishings, also by Mr. Niemeyer—who is still working today in Rio de Janeiro at age 102—are intact. The premises are immaculately maintained.
The main building was inaugurated in 1971, but financial constraints forced the Communists to wait another decade until completing the domed hall. Strikingly absent from the building are any images of Leonid Brezhnev or other Soviet leaders to whom their French comrades were long obeisant. But Angela Davis, the activist once on the FBI’s most-wanted list, dropped by just a few months ago and my red-scarfed guide—he described himself as a “bénévole militant,” or unpaid militant for the party—proudly brandished a photo of her visit to the site.
Mr. Niemeyer himself predicted that his design would become a tourist attraction when he said the headquarters was ”a piece of work which will constitute in this city, I am sure, an example of contemporary architecture, and even, permit me to say, a tourist attraction.”
Yet he did not envision the reduced circumstances that have recently forced the party to rent out part of its headquarters to an architecture firm and an advertising and animation agency. The top floor originally housed a staff dining room and cafeteria but now contains party offices moved from lower floors taken over by the paying tenants. From here, a spiral staircase leads to a rooftop terrace covered in ziggurat-like sculptural forms that Mr. Niemeyer used to conceal service equipment.
Remembering Le Corbusier, Niemeyer has transformed this roof garden- terrace into a “promenade architecturale” shaping the two towers (containing the conditioning plants), as tiered pyramids and linking them by a sort of bridge.
He wanted a simple construction without ornament. The walls of the Place du Colonel Fabien have kept the marks of the wooden boards used to build them.
The building is considered emblematic in Niemeyer’s career, not only because it was born from a collaboration with figures such as Jean Deroche, Paul Chemetov, José L. Pinho, Jean Prouvé, and Jacques Tricot, but also for the significance of the project, since the architect was a firm, lifelong Communist.
The avant-garde building conceived by Oscar Niemeyer has become super hip. In 2000, Italian fashion house Prada rented the building to present its collection.
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