Masterpiece by Oscar Niemeyer

© T. Joly
Listed as an historic monument, the Communist Party headquarters is one of the finest examples of modern architecture in Paris. Once a secretive place, it is now open to the public on some days.

[ Practical ]

Headquarters of the French Communist Party
2 place du Colonel Fabien
75019 Paris
Tel : 0140401212
A non-descript large roundabout situated in northeast Paris on the border between the 10th and 19th arrondissements, the Place du Colonel Fabien is nevertheless worth a mention in travel guidebooks. Set back from the road on its northern side, the French Communist Party headquarter is indeed a work by famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who drew up his country’s capital, Brasilia, and participated in the construction of the United Nation headquarter in New York.

© T. Joly
 Modernist architecture
A committed communist, he spent many years in exile, particularly in Paris, and he worked on this project free of charge. The building was constructed from 1965 to 1980, when the French Communist Party captured nearly a quarter of the republic’s votes and was Western Europe’s most powerful one.
So, it was for many years one of the most observed places in Paris by national and international secret services. In addition, there were speculations about the true nature of the building and many people believed its façade was bullet-proof or it was a giant bunker.
These rumours were reinforced by the unusual features of its modernist architecture. Standing atop concrete pilotis, the headquarters has a undulating glazed façade, a somewhat hidden sunken entrance and a white dome pushes through the garden courtyard.

© T. Joly
 Too expensive to run
But nowadays there is no more mystery. As the Communist political influence waned after Mitterrand’s election and the collapse of Soviet Union, the headquarter became too expensive to run for the Party that had no other choice than to rename it “Espace Niemeyer” and to rent out two of the floors to private companies. In 2000, Italian fashion house Prada event rented it to present its collection and Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton photo shoots also took place there. Besides, the building is open to the public during the Heritage Days in September, occasionally at other times of the year and group tours can be arranged by appointment.

© T. Joly
 Astonishing auditorium
Visitors enter through a slit-like aperture that drops down to the reception desk and a subterranean lobby. Like all corridors, it has textured raw concrete walls because Oscar Niemeyer didn’t want any unnecessary ornamentation in what he called “The House of the Workers”.
A few steps away is the main conference room lying beneath the white dome seen in the courtyard and used as the meeting place for the party's Central Committee. Lining the inside of this auditorium are more than 100 000 backlit aluminum strips that mute extraneous sound, spread light uniformly throughout the room and attract dust, which is then sucked up from above by a series of invisible air ducts. Looking like something out of a Star Trek film, it also has pneumatically controlled doors.

© T. Joly
 Original furnishings
Nearby are a series of more intimate and equally hermetic meeting rooms, including a leaf-shaped one for receiving foreign delegations. All these rooms keep their original furnishings, also designed by Oscar Niemeyer.
Contrary to what you might think, there is no portrait of Lenin hung to the walls of the corridors but on the 5th floor is a painting by communist painter Fernand Léger inspired by Paul Eluard Poem “Liberté j’écris ton nom” (Freedom, I write your name). Lastly, from the top floor, a spiral staircase leads to a rooftop terrace where ziggurat-like concrete sculpture forms were created in order to hide air conditioning units. This lookout offers nice views of Paris and especially of the Sacré Coeur Church.

September 13, 2013
Thierry Joly