A Plunge in the Thirties

Boulogne © T. Joly
To the south west of Paris, Boulogne-Billancourt possesses a rich architectural and cultural heritage from the first half of the 20th Century. The highlight is the Albert Kahn museum and garden, one of the most beautiful in France, which also houses a large collection of early colour pictures.

[ Practical ]

- Getting there
Metro lines 9 and 10 go to Boulogne
- Musée des Années Trente
28 Avenue André Morizet
Tel : 01 55 18 46 42
- Jardin Musée Albert Kahn
14 rue du Port
Tel : 01 55 19 28 00
- Musée jardin Paul Landowski
14 rue Max Blondat
Tel : 01 46 05 82 69
- Parc Edmond de Rothschild
3 rue des Victoires
- Information
The tourism office, Boulogne-Billancourt Tourisme, offers thematic guided tours around town on Saturday or Sunday all year round.The Itinerary of the Thirties is downloadable from its website.
Tel : 01 55 18 50 50
For most of the tourists and even for many inhabitants of Ile-de-France, the name of Boulogne evokes above all the wood located in the Western part of Paris. But it is also a town near the capital, whose official name is Boulogne-Billancourt and which has seen enough sights to offer you an enjoyable day.

Jardin Albert Kahn © T.Joly
 Magnificent garden
The best known of these sights, or at any rate the least unknown, is right beside the end of metro line 10. It’s the Albert Kahn museum and garden, named after a banker from Alsace. Born in 1860, deeply affected by the 1870 and 1914-1918 French – German wars, he spent his entire life working for peace. Believing a better knowledge of populations and foreign cultures promotes mutual respect, peaceful relationships and thus is capable of preventing wars, he sponsored around the world trips for newly graduated students between 1898 and 1931. In addition, from 1909 he sent cameramen and photographers to more than fifty countries to record everything from religious rituals and cultural practices to momentous political events.

Autochrome © Musée Albert Kahn
 72 000 autochromes
Missions that brought back 100 hours of film footage, 4 000 stereoscopic plates giving pictures in relief, and 72 000 autochromes, the world's first user-friendly photographic system capable of taking true color pictures. Named “Les Archives de la Planète”, this collection of early color photographs is the largest in the world. An invaluable ethnographic and cultural treasure that the museum displays to the public during temporary exhibitions. The next one will open June 17th and will focus on India. However, it’s planned to make this unbelievable collection visible permanently within a few years. Lastly, to symbolize harmony between peoples and show that human beings from all continents should be able to coexist in peace, Albert Kahn had a park with biotopes and landscaped creations of the whole world arranged around his house.

Jardin Albert Kahn © T.Joly
 Oasis of serenity
A traditional French garden with a palmarium and an orchard where climbing roses embrace fruit trees. A forest from Vosges, to remind Albert Kahn of the landscapes of his childhood. An English garden with a bridge of loose stones. A blue forest which combines cedars of the Atlas and the spruces of the Colorado. A swamp with a small pond invaded by water plants including water lilies. A golden forest, consisted of weeping birches which take a yellow color in autumn. A Japanese garden with a tea pavilion and two traditional houses. And the whole is maintained so as to preserve its original aspect. The only change was in 1989 when the Conseil Général des Hauts de Seine, the owner of the premises, decided to add a contemporary garden paying homage to Albert Kahn. Designed by Japanese landscaper Fumiaki Takano to be a metaphor of his life and his thought, it goes along harmoniously with the other gardens. An oasis of exoticism and serenity only a few metro stations away from the centre of Paris.

Parc E.Rothschild© T.Joly
 Remarkable trees
To a lesser extent you get the same feeling in park Edmond de Rothschild. Located on the edge of Bois de Boulogne and by the Seine, it shelters English and Japanese gardens set up around a lake and vast lawns perfect for picnicking or for letting the kids run around. It also holds some remarkable trees such as oriental plane trees, lime trees of Holland, bitter orange trees of Japan and aesculus parviflora. Even more unusual around Paris, it’s sometimes possible to spot herons and kingfishers that find refuge in an uncultivated area. For the 45 acres park, once larger, has experienced many ups and downs. A proof is the ruined 19th century castle that was in the past part of the estate. A vision many find romantic.

Quartier Les Princes © T.Joly
 Residential town
Northern Boulogne-Billancourt was always a residential area and it’s still like that. This is particularly true in the neighborhood close by the Roland Garros tennis stadium, where mansions and villas are numerous. But it’s the more working class and industrial Southern part of town that made it famous in the early 20th century when several new activities developed there. The automobile, with a Renault plant that occupied till 1992 a large area now under reconversion and rehabilitation. The aviation industry, with the pioneering companies of Louis Blériot and Farman Brothers . The cinema with the creation in 1908 of L’Eclipse studios, then of Billancourt studios and of Boulogne studios where were some of the great classics of French cinema such as Hotel du Nord or Le Salaire de la Peur were produced. Thanks to this economic growth, Boulogne was in 1934 the first suburban town reached by the metro and many architects came there to show their skill building public offices, villas, artist’s studios and apartments blocks.

Boulogne © T.Joly
 Architectural heritage
To such an extent that Boulogne is the French city holding the most important architectural heritage from the Thirties. All these buildings are listed in a leaflet available in the Tourism Office, the “Parcours des Années 30” (Itinerary of the Thirties) also downloadable from internet. Taking in 29 buildings with explanatory panels, this itinerary can easily be done in three or four hours by foot or more quickly by bicycle. It gives the chance to discover works from some of the greatest 20th century architects. Tony Garnier and Auguste Perret who were among the first to use concrete. André Lurcat, Raymond Fisher, Georges Henri Pingusson and Norbert Mallet-Stevens who learned how to get the most out of this new material to create buildings with innovative shapes. And lastly the most famous of all, Le Corbusier who set up his studio on the top of an apartment block he built near the Paris football stadium, the Parc des Princes. A stroll which can be rounded off by a visit to the Musée des Années Trente (Museum of the Thirties), since several painters, sculptors, art dealers and designers moved to Boulogne in this period.

Muséum of the Thirties © T.Joly
 Arts from the Thirties
A rich cultural life that this museum recalls as well as all the main artistic movements of the time. Decorative art, with ceramics and pieces of furniture from famous designers such as Leleu and Ruhlmann. Fashion posters. Monumental sculptures meant for the decoration of new modern buildings. Colonial art, represented by artists who traveled overseas with in particular superb drawings made by Iacovleff during the Citroën car expedition to Asia and Africa, the Croisière Jaune and the Croisière Noire. Sacred art coming from the revival of artists’ studios working for the reconstruction of churches in towns destroyed during First World War and in suburban cities to evangelize the working class. The Ecole de Paris, that mainly gathered artists coming from Eastern Europe. The vogue for worldly portraits is illustrated among others by a beautiful Tamara Lempicka painting. Figurative painting with large frescoes and pastoral themes…… The collections are varied and will soon be joined by works from sculptor Paul Landoswki, creator of the Corcovado Christ in Rio de Janeiro, whose museum will close in the near future.

April 17, 2008
Thierry Joly 

[ Memories of Empire ]

Boulogne’s Marmottan library has only one point in common with the museum in Pqris of the same name: its former owner, Paul Marmottan. Fond of the First Empire, he traveled all around Europe to visit battlefields and places where the Emperor and his family lived. During these trips he also bought pieces of furniture, objects, painting, books and prints from that time. To host this collection, between 1890 and 1920 he had his Boulogne mansion laid out in the Empire style and didn’t hesitate to decide the rooms dimensions according to his acquisitions. Apartments that are open to visit. But the building above all houses nearly 12 000 books about the First Empire. Contemporary ones as well as documents from the time including maps, administrative reports and newspapers from different countries occupied by France. All are on free access. Moreover the library regularly organizes temporary exhibitions about artists from the First Empire. From now until June 21st it’s the painter Charles Meynier, author of mythological frescoes, portraits and battlefield scenes, who is on the agenda.
Bibliothèque – musée Marmottan
7 place Denfert-Rochereau
Tel : 01 55 18 57 60