There Goes the Neighbourhood
When Poush Comes to Show: Art and Capital in the Age of Real Estate 2.0
“garret | ˈɡarət, ˈɡarɪt | noun a top-floor or attic room, especially a small dismal one: the starving artist in a cold garret in Paris.”
The dictionary entry above is inaccurate. Starving artists don’t live in cold garrets in Paris. They can’t afford to. Even if they could, an empty, available garret is all but impossible to find. Small studios are among the scarcest bits of real estate in Paris. Those that haven’t been snatched up to house AirbnBers at €10,000-€13,000 the square metre, rent out for €650 to €1,200 a month.
Even the tiny illegal chambre de bonnes, with a water closet on the landing and a cold-water sink down the hall. One of these, 6.51 m2 in the 4th Arrondissement, sold for €134,000 in 2020.
So, where are starving artists starving these days?
In la petite couronne – the inner suburbs around Paris, which is also referred to as la ceinture rouge – ceinture because it’s just outside the Périphérique, Paris’s ring road “belt”, and rouge because of its predilection for communist mayors.
More recently, attempts have been made to re-brand the region as the more inclusionary “Grand Paris”.
The first intrepid waves of artists moved to Montreuil, just to the east of Paris, more than two decades ago, converting industrial sheds into squats and studio spaces, starting festivals, artist-run spaces, and citizen-driven arts initiatives. Coffee shops, brewpubs, bookstores, organic markets and cinemas followed, as did, inevitably, real estate developers. Rents spiked.
People moved to Pantin. There, the same scenario played out, at an even more accelerated rate. The Centre National de Danse opened. Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris sits on its edge. Thaddaeus Ropac opened a giant gallery space in a former boilermaker factory. Massive re-developments along the Canal de l’Ourcq, which cuts through Pantin and links it directly to Paris, brought Chanel and Hermès headquarters to its banks, along with the CNEAI (Centre National d'Art Contemporain), the global giant BETC ad agency, a gazillion bicyclists and joggers, umpteen bars and restaurants, and dozens and dozens of crack addicts.
Next up, Romainville, which has no metro or train links to Paris. Still, they came, coalescing around Komunuma, a four-building arts complex designed by the French architectural firm Freaks. The 11,000 m2 complex houses an international artists' residence, exhibition and association spaces, five contemporary art galleries, a campus of the Parsons Paris School of Art and Design, a bookstore and bookmaking workshop, a dance company, an audiovisual production company, a printing house and the art reserves of the Frac Île-de-France.
Neobistrots followed, and a craft beer pub with €8 “happy hour” pints.
The Great Replacement?
Montreuil, Pantin and Romainville are all in le 93 – the infamous “no-go” department (Fox News, 2015) of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest part of mainland France.
Seine-Saint-Denis citizens have made the international news only three times in the last quarter-century. First, in 1998, when France won the World Cup, thanks in good part to the play of three men from Grand Paris: Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Lilian Thuram. By the time of their World Cup win in 2018, a full third of the French squad were from the region, and other Séquanodionysiens played for Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia and Senegal. Today, astoundingly, Grand Paris produces more professional footballers than North America, Asia and Africa combined.
The third time le 93 citizens made the front pages was in 2005, when two teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois were electrocuted in a power substation while trying to escape the police. Their deaths — and the launch of police grenades in a crowded mosque during evening prayer — sparked nationwide riots. Nine-thousand cars and hundreds of buildings were torched. The police arrested some 3,000 rioters, all of whom, according to Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister at the time, were led by foreign-born racailles and voyous — scum and hoodlums — that should have had their citizenship revoked and been deported.
The above-mentioned Lilian Thuram, foreign-born yet considered then as now a national treasure by most French people — he’s a Knight and Officer of the Legion of Honour — put the blame entirely on Sarkozy, discrimination and unemployment. “I am not scum,” he told Le Parisien. “Violence is never gratuitous. We must understand where the malaise comes from. Before talking about insecurity, perhaps it is necessary to talk about social justice. I believe that the political debate must be about how to give work to people who live in the suburbs. Not on how to repress riots. We make France look bad. Whose fault is that?”
The government’s response? Chirac announced a national state of emergency. Sarkozy drafted thousands of extra police. Villepin, the Prime minister, tightened immigration.
Le 93 has been seething ever since.
No place more so than Aubervilliers, another township, like Montreuil, Pantin and Romainville, in le 93.
Aubervilliers is home to 96,000 people, almost 40% of whom are not from mainland France. In all, 110 nationalities are represented in the city. Around a quarter of the population is unemployed (40% of those under 25) and half live below the poverty line.
What percentage of Aubervillais are Muslim or of “Muslim origin” is difficult to know, as French law prohibits the collection of statistical data based on race, ethnicity or religion. Estimates run from 40-65%, however these figures are probably exaggerated.
And this month, Aubervilliers is being invaded by a new wave of disruptive foreign elements.
From 40 countries.
Our podcast guest is Yvannoé Kruger, the artistic director of Poush, a “third space” for artists, which has found a new temporary home in a former perfume manufacturing plant in Aubervilliers.
Poush is an “artist incubator”. It rents studio space to artists at below-market prices, and gives them administrative, legal, production, curatorial and communications support. It opened in 2018, with 80 established and emerging artists, in a former goldsmith and silverware factory in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. In 2020, just before Covid, Poush moved into an empty 17-story office tower at Porte Pouchet in another Parisian suburb, Clichy. By the time they moved out last month, 230 artists were working there.
The plant in Aubervilliers is a heritage site. It is owned by the Societé de la Tour Eiffel, a company begun in 1889 by Gustav Eiffel to finance the Eiffel Tower. The Saint-Denis space, also a heritage site, is owned by Quartus; the Clichy building by Sogelym Dixence. All three developers signed temporary, two-year rental contracts with Manifesto, the company that runs Poush.
These are examples of transitional urbanism, where developers (or the state) give over vacant spaces temporarily to local communities, or to projects with social purposes, that could not otherwise afford them.
There is an element of quid-pro-quo largesse in these projects.
The artist get cheap(er) studios.
The developers, for once, get to look like the good guys:
“As a real estate company, we have a role to play in supporting cities and regions in their efforts to create urban projects. Temporary occupation is proving to be a fabulous tool for the creation of cities and the emergence of transitional urban planning that is supportive and adapted to the uses and expectations of citizens. We plan to enter into other partnerships to make our properties available during the periods of vacancy inherent in the start-up of redevelopment.” Société de La Tour Eiffel press release (February 4, 2022)
But they are also otherwise incentivised – either through present or future tax breaks, or the lifting of financial penalties.
And handing over the keys to an organisation like Poush buys them two years to figure out what to do next.
Slow Food. Slow Fashion. Slow Real Estate?
Quartus has since announced that the Saint-Denis complex will become a start-up incubator in two years, with 20,000 m2 of office space tucked in the back, along with a gym, a library, and a craft market. Sogelym Dixence is demolishing the Clichy tower (the only one of the three sites not protected by heritage status), to make way for a new building – unlike the 16-story social-housing block Bois-le-Prêtre just a few steps down the Periph, which the 2021 Pritzker Prize winners Lacaton & Vassal (upcoming Hexagon podcast guests) sustainably retrofitted and expanded instead of tearing down a decade ago.
We’ll have to wait at least two years to see what’s in store for the perfume plant. In the meantime, we will start seeing more of these transitional urbanism projects. Last June, Paris and Greater Paris signed a charter for this kind of arrangement, what they call temporary and transitory occupations, with 45 partners, mostly real estate developers. And then another in August, for the development of temporary occupation in Paris, with another 15 public and private companies.
This is happening everywhere. Montreal, Christchurch, Cairo Madrid, Los Angeles, and Budapest have all adopted the transitional urbanist model. The idea bubbled up in the 1970s but has gained momentum in the last decade. Especially in Paris, which has seen successful temporary occupations in SNCF train yards, an old abandoned hospital and on dozens of other sites.
Successful because temporary
The animating hope everywhere is that the artists will have a positive spillover effect, and then piss off, instead of staying put and squatting, as has usually happened in the past, forcing the authorities to either expulse them or purchase the real estate and permanently accommodate them.
So far, the model works. The artists swarm and buzz like bees, and their pollination brings value and growth, creating jobs and services and an ephemeral, but in the long-term sustainable, ecosystem. Not so much by their direct, quantifiable, material output—by what they make and do and sell—but by their external effects.
To paraphrase the artist Richard Serra, if something is free — or, in these cases, well below market price — you’re the product. But it’s a win-win, really. The low rents and structural help that the artists get in return for their buzz is their enticement.
For Aubervilliers, which elected a centre-right mayor in 2020, the first non-communist (except one socialist) since 1944, the honey – the art – just sweetens the pot.
The real prize is the classic branding 3-V trifecta. Vision. Visitors. Visibility.
The artists do their trailblazing, establish safe corridors and organise open houses, workshops and local-DJ driven street parties. And then, two years later, they move on to another incubating hive, leaving behind, Inchallah, a stronger, more inclusive, more revitalised community.
That suddenly discovers it has a serious hankering for minimalist Scandi furniture, avocado toasts and oat milk lattes.
And the real development elephant in the Seine-Saint-Denis room?
Grand Paris, specifically the Seine-Saint-Denis townships of Saint-Denis, Saint-Ouen, La Courneuve, Le Bourget and Aubervilliers, is where the bulk of the 2024 Olympic Games’ €3.8 billion investment is focused. Swimming pools, Olympic Village, Media Village, Media Hub, shooting (!), all on industrial lands—and workers’ allotment gardens—that will be re-developed after the Games into a shiny new neighbourhood, along the lines of what happened a few miles away at the proposed site, on old rail yards, for the Paris 2012 Olympics, which ended up London. The city went through with its plans and developed Clichy-Batignolles anyway. It is demonstrably successful. And permanent.
But we’ll save the Olympics for a future podcast/newsletter. This one is with Yvannoé Kruger, Poush’s artistic director, a former member of the Palais de Tokyo team under Jean de Loisy and one of France’s most dynamic young curators.
Next week’s Hexagon guest is Camille Labro, longtime food writer for Le Monde, cookbook author, goddaughter of Alice Waters, and director of L’Ecole Comestible (The Edible School) which brings farmers, gardeners, cooks, bakers, cheesemakers and pizza oven builders into schoolyards and classrooms around France free of charge.
We hope you enjoy our podcasts. They are free. Please like them and share them and subscribe. Your monthly subscription will allow us to wholly devote our energies to Hexagon, which will result in better podcasts, which will increase your appreciation of La Belle France, intensify your joie de vivre and make you a better lover.
So, don’t do it for us. Do it for your lovers.
I love this Chris! Incredible amount of work went into this. So informative!
Very much enjoyed this, always lots to learn about the developers. Looking forward to the next one.