Autumn 2005

A palimpsest . . . . . . of eccentricity and dissent [EXTRACT]

Paris Underground

By Caroline Archer & Alexandre Parré
Mark Batty Publisher, USD 40

Beneath the streets of Paris lies a vast system of more than 177 miles of tunnels and caves. They were constructed by the French state in the eighteenth century to survey and consolidate the Parisian substrata that had become weakened by centuries of quarrying. In the process they inadvertently created a network which amalgamated the previously isolated quarries, crypts and basements into one huge super system through which it is possible to travel across much of the city entirely underground.

As the city expanded above ground, an inverse anti-city was developing below where marginal communities could thrive while the traces of their presence remained undisturbed. The result is that today the tunnels are a palimpsest of Parisian dissent and eccentricity. The walls are thickly covered in centuries of marks charting the transient passage of its various occupants – from the engineers and quarrymen who created them, to the communards, members of the Resistance, Nazis, anarchists and punks who have sought refuge in them since. In the maze of tunnels it is still possible to see their legacies in the form of elegantly carved street names overlaid and obscured with delicate revolutionary pencil marks, gaudy spraycan graffiti and elaborate psychedelic murals.

Today the tunnels are the domain of an eccentric community of urban adventurers, Parisian youths who refer to themselves as ‘cataphiles’ or ‘kata’. Fiercely protective of this precarious illegal domain, they descend weekly to the Parisian underbelly to explore, eat, drink and party in the caves and tunnels. It’s the city’s best kept secret and they quite rightly want to keep it that way. Suspicious of the media, they are wary of those seeking to exploit its riches for personal gain. ‘Tread carefully,’ I was cautioned, ‘those who know don’t talk.’

The authors of Paris Underground have no such qualms, boldly announcing that their book ‘illustrates graffiti, painting, sculpture, mosaics and cartoons bringing to light these striking images with insightful text that will tell the tale that to date has remained underground.’

To some extent they succeed. The excellent photographs by Gilles Tondini and Gilles Thomas are a meticulous and beautiful archive of the catacombs that manages to capture the bold gaudiness of the large wall murals and the elusive spidery marks of ancient, charcoal signatures with equal skill. This in itself is no mean feat: the tunnels are pitch black and inaccessible. Many of the sites featured can only be located through an intimate knowledge of the system, and cameras and equipment must be lugged through miles of cramped tunnels often thigh deep in water and sometimes barely wide enough to crawl through.

This book should and could form the basis of an informative and fascinating history of both the catacombs and Parisian counterculture through the centuries and promotes itself as an ‘essential record for everyone with an interest in design or in contemporary urban culture.’ However, despite endlessly listing facts, the accompanying text fails to provide an adequate context or structure for the images. Without comprehensive or systematic annotation they become dislocated from their historical or geographical context and are reduced to just intriguing pictures of caves, ultimately negating the book’s relevance as any kind of study or record.

Where the text does reference the photography, it is confusingly annotated or incorrect, and there are errors such as an entire page of repeated text, all of which suggests that the project might have fared better with an editor on board.

Indeed, the repetitive and convoluted writing reads like a trip to the catacombs themselves: a fantastic, confusing stumble through claustrophobic, circuitous tunnels with an enthusiastic if slightly addled tour guide exclaiming in broken English at the helm.

While this is all very amusing, essentially the book is a wasted opportunity. What we are promised is the ‘essential record’ of an elusive and ephemeral treasure trove of urban history. What we get is yet another beautiful but meaningless flickbook of ‘vernacular typography’ destined for the coffee tables of lazy designers in search of an easy antidote to the homogeneity of their computer-based work. Which raises the question as to whether anyone ever bothers to actually read such books from start to finish at all.

With care and attention this has the potential to be a stunning, intelligent and informative book. In the meantime I think the authors say it best themselves when they tell us: ‘For 300 years the need to write ambiguous details, frequently repeated in obscure places and for no obvious reasons appears to have been a common urge among quarry visitors. Their motivations can only be guessed at . . . ’

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