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The Pinault Collection in the Bourse de Commerce

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Illustration by Bronte Allan, 2020.

The conversion of the Bourse de Commerce is about creating a museum in order to prevent Paris from becoming one. The world’s first tourist destination is in danger of losing touch with the ‘now’, of becoming the new Florence. Museumification is seen to be hanging like an axe over the fate of the French capital, long anxious about being left behind by more ‘vibrant’ global cities. Hence, Paris must be made contemporary. But the Bourse de Commerce project is also shaped by the longstanding Socialist municipal leadership’s commitment to driving their social inclusion agendas through cultural policy. It is also a vector for one of the world’s most prominent billionaire art-collector’s obsession with culture as a financial asset. How do the global-city agendas of cultural and economic attractivity intersect with more local political pressures, while also accommodating the dictates of corporate capital accumulation?

It was announced on 26 June 2016 that billionaire Francois Pinault, one of the richest men in France, the founder of the 3rd biggest luxury goods conglomerate in the world and keen art collector (and coincidentally owner of Christie’s) would be leased the historic Bourse de Commerce in order to exhibit his large contemporary art collection.[1]  This extremely distinctive and strategic building, located in the heart of the city, not only physically but also at the centre of the transport network and on a major tourist route, had been underused and in a concerning state for a number of years.[2]  This lease comes on condition that the Pinault Collection bears the cost of renovation which has been carried out by Tadao Ando. This conversion forms the final major project in the complex and controversial regeneration of the large open zone known as the site of Les Halles, the city’s defunct wholesale food market. An extremely historically charged site, it has been the theatre of innumerable redevelopments over the course of its thousand-year old history, systematically responding to new appropriations of the space and the need for regulatory state control.

The exceptional ambiguity and density of this space makes it a striking object of study in relation to contemporary Parisian urbanism and inner-city redevelopment more generally. Different layers are embedded in this quarter and they can tell us about the emergence of the identity of this site over time and the transformations in its usages. These identify the different forms of diversity that have made and continue to make this a site where extreme disparities in symbolic and material capital meet in a context of ever-increasing pressure from the exclusionary drive of the private sector. The project for a contemporary art gallery in the Bourse de Commerce starkly highlights the issues at stake today in this zone, precisely through this symbolic attempt to give it a contemporary dynamic. Here, conflicting currents in the definition of contemporary play out. One driven by the endlessly renewing cycles of the global market and the other a means of analysing a site anchored in a horizontal approach which challenges a race for the new and seeks to integrate a diversity of expressions.

The project for the Bourse de Commerce has failed in its objectives before it is even completed. It is obsolete in a world where the tourist economy is no longer deemed a safe investment and the cultural service it offers at a local level is wildly below the brief. However, it is an emblematic site which crystallises a number of prominent urban issues in Paris.

The experience of this shapeshifting site carries a long legacy of regulation and adaptability. ‘Buildings necessarily both constrain and enable certain kinds of life and experience – they are inherently coercive in that they enforce limits to action and enable social practice to “take place”.’[3] What kind of social practice could this gallery have allowed to take place had it not imposed such exclusionary symbolism on the building hosting it? A space which might have embraced its links to the periphery, both historical and current, and encouraged the freeform appropriation which Les Halles has always been known for. This would have formed an approach which states the history of the site and its manifestations but attempts to integrate what might be valuable now, expressing the shared ownership of this urban site. Instead it will be a space for the performance of capitalism, a spectacle which tightens the hold that the luxury industry exerts on Paris’ contemporary identity.

The project for the Pinault Collection consecrates a drive towards distinction and an individual consumerist experience of the city. This type of project is the epitome of the derealisation of labour into sheer grey concrete, signed by a globally consecrated artist-architect to be experienced as an exclusive attraction. This signals the contemporary, but in this case not as the ‘new’ but as the overwhelming encroachment of competing but coexistent agendas and usages in a site which still embodies the successive re-appropriations of its history.

However, the notion of ‘contemporary’ contained in Pinault’s contemporary art is not the only way of understanding this notion. A contemporary analysis ‘is a mode of being in historical time, one that indicates that, if “we have never been modern,” we have certainly always been contemporaries’ as Ruffel defines it, reusing Latour’s provocative phrase.[4] The project for the Bourse de Commerce is not modern since it relies so heavily on a status quo of power dynamics, but it is part of a contemporary project for the city. This project as it stands, still incomplete, bears the hallmark in every respect of the fetishization of the art/architectural work. Yet it is also through this project, embedded as it is in the complexities addressed throughout the dissertation, that we can consider a new conception of the contemporary, not as the modernist gesture, but as the mixed outcomes that are constrained by the politics of the present and which make no claims to shaping a different future.

[1] Etienne Dumont, ‘Tadao Ando Présente Son Projet Pour l’ex-Bourse de Commerce’, Bilan, 2 July 2017.

[2] Commission du Vieux Paris, ‘Transformation de La Bourse Du Commerce En Musée,’ Compte-Rendu de Séance (Conseil de Paris, 22 February 2017), 6–7.

[3] Kim Dovey, Becoming Places: Urbanism/Architecture/Identity/Power (London ; New York: Routledge, 2010), 59.

[4] Lionel Ruffel, Brouhaha: Worlds of the Contemporary, trans. Raymond N. MacKenzie (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 177.

Copyright of image: © Bronte Allan

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