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Sauf aux Riverains: the riverine memorial of Georges-Henri Pingusson

Adler, Gerald (2018) Sauf aux Riverains: the riverine memorial of Georges-Henri Pingusson. In: Adler, Gerald and Guerci, Manolo, eds. Riverine: Architecture and Rivers. Routledge, Abingdon, UK, pp. 145-158. ISBN 978-1-138-68178-1. E-ISBN 978-1-315-54562-2. (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:65397)

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Riverine has echoes in English of the sign you see on streets near to rivers in France: ‘sauf aux riverains’. This refers to the access given to locals to the narrow passageways leading down to the river, and seeks to bar ‘foreigners’ from getting too close to the water. In towns, most buildings like to keep a healthy distance between themselves and the flowing river, apart from those parts that have an intimate relationship with the water, such as landing stages and warehouses. Nonetheless, the general principle obtains, that urbanised rivers become embellished with raised embankments, raising houses and gardens well above the waterline, and out of harm’s way. We see this most clearly in those cities with well-developed riverside terraces, such as in Dresden with its Brühlsche Terrassen, in London with its Adelphi development of the late eighteenth century, and generally by the banks of the Seine in Paris, where the streets end abruptly in a precipitous canyon into which the river appears to be sunk, to be reached by narrow stone steps accessed through chinks in the closely packed bouquinistes lining either bank.

At the extreme eastern end of the Ile de la Cité, behind the chevet of the cathedral of Notre Dame, you find a low concrete mass split in two places by narrow stairs. Descending, you pass between a pair of concrete ‘grindstones’ and arrive at a hard, concrete courtyard, hemmed in by bush-hammered walls. Above, the sky, while ahead, you see and hear the Seine rushing past, its waters virtually level with the pavement at your feet. This was the scene designed by the French architect Georges-Henri Pingusson (1894-1978) and is his late masterpiece completed in 1962. The external sunken courtyard leads to a labyrinth of cave-like spaces that tunnel beneath the tip of the island; the whole ensemble is the monument to the deported, the place of ‘collective memory’ for Paris to remember those of its citizens, largely Jews, who were rounded up and deported during the German occupation of the Second World War, en route to being sent east to the extermination camps in the Reich.

Pingusson’s work is, to borrow the subtitle of the monograph on his oeuvre by Simon Texier, ‘la poétique pour doctrine’, and represents one of the great brooding and evocative spaces of modern architecture. Like the great bulk of his practice output hitherto, it is accomplished by recourse to simple geometries and everyday materials, yet manages to evoke an almost mythical atmosphere, as if one were descending into Hades, stopping awhile at the lapping waters before Charon, the ferryman, carries us off. The spatial configuration and material presence remind us of other, uncanny, riverside ensembles, such as the Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London, the skateboarders’ undercroft at the South Bank, or Harry Lime being given chase through the sewers of Vienna, before they empty into the Danube. The location behind Notre Dame lends the memorial a sacred aura, while its location upstream from the site of the 1961 massacre of peaceful demonstrators against the Algerian War, led by the Paris police chief (and later convicted war criminal) Maurice Papon, further intensifies this, the most haunting of memorials to the infamies of the twentieth century.

Item Type: Book section
Uncontrolled keywords: memorials,twentieth-century architecture, riverine
Subjects: N Visual Arts > NA Architecture
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > Kent School of Architecture and Planning
Depositing User: Gerald Adler
Date Deposited: 13 Dec 2017 12:58 UTC
Last Modified: 09 Dec 2021 23:09 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
Adler, Gerald:
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