The dilapidated building that was home to the famous Parisian nightclub Les Bains Douches — once the haunt of international celebrities from film, music and art — is scheduled to be redeveloped as a boutique hotel. But not before 50 street artists took up an invitation to fill the space with spectacular, ephemeral works
Words: Jean Grogan
The handsome, red brick building of 7 rue du Bourg-l'Abbé, with its twin bronze caryatids over the doorway, looks stately and bourgeois. As is often the case in Paris, appearances can be deceptive. A stone's throw from Les Halles, it was built in 1885 as an upscale municipal bathhouse. The basement, ground and first floors comprised Les Bains-Douches (a haunt of Marcel Proust), and the second to sixth floors were offices, apartments and maids' quarters respectively.
A marketplace for fresh produce from all corners of France, and surrounded with all-night bars, clubs and restaurants, Les Halles -- named the Belly of Paris by Emile Zola -- was a hub of activity 24/7. Employees from Les Halles visited Les Bains-Douches when their day's work was done.
One of the most spectacular works, was Sambre's Disco Ball. After selecting two rooms as his workspace on the third and fourth floors, he drilled a large hole between them and suspended a massive sphere made of ripped-up parquet floorboards. The low wall backdrop is made of plaster and rubble recuperated from the process
Les Halles relocated to Rungis in the Seventies, and the site was demolished and lay abandoned for several years. The district became a no-man's-land. As property prices fell, Les Bains-Douches closed and the building came on the market at a bargain price. In 1978, Jean-Pierre Marois, a professor at the Ecole de Médicine, was persuaded by a banker friend to buy it as an investment. Soon after, the construction of the Forum des Halles commercial centre with an ultra-modern urban transport system placed the Châtelet-Les Halles firmly at the heart of Paris once again.
Seth, aka Julien Malland. Inserted a colourful if slightly ghostly figure above the ripped-up floors of the abandoned venue Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz, Photography by Jérôme Coton
Marois was on the point of formalising a commercial lease of Les Bains to an IBM director when two young men with an idea of opening a restaurant or bar happened to walk past the building. Attracted by the central location, they persuaded the concierge to let them take a look inside. When they discovered the swimming pool in the basement with its 4m-high ceiling, they were hooked. They transformed their restaurant/bar idea into a nightclub, outbid another prospective tenant and the Les Bains Douches nightclub was born.
Their concept was completely new to the Parisian scene: a rock concert hall that transformed into a disco when the concert ended, with an all-night restaurant and bar. They hired an unknown young designer, Philippe Starck, for its interior decoration.
French artist YZ created a series of monotone murals, titled Angels of Destruction. She could only work for three hours at a time, affected by unheated rooms and the melancholy induced by her angels Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz, Photography by Jérôme Coton
In its time, Les Bains hosted concerts by Depeche Mode, The Cure, Dead Kennedys, Simple Minds and Joy Division. Andy Warhol would take Concorde to get to the club at the weekend with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, Sean Penn, Bono, Prince, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Grace Jones were all VIP guests. In 2009, Les Bains was named Best Nightclub in the World by The New York Times.
The son of the building's owner, also called Jean-Pierre Marois, had free access to the hottest nightclub in Paris. Marois Jnr did not follow his father into medicine. Instead he studied literature and discovered that he loved creating stories. He became a photographer, then a film director and producer. He inherited the building when his father died.
Artist YZ with one of her angels of destruction Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz Photography by: Stephane Biss euil
In the VIP rooms he rubbed shoulders with rock stars, models, actors and film directors. Spike Lee became a close friend. 'Let's go Bain-Douchin'!' Lee would say to him on his every trip to Paris. 'You can't beat it with a hammer.'
A Tunisian businessman, Hubert Boukobza, had meanwhile bought the club's lease from the original tenants (in France, a transfer can be enacted without the consent of the building's owner). He proved to be respectful of neither the building nor French laws: when the dance floor or bar was too cramped for the crowds, he would indeed take a sledgehammer to the walls. When he demolished the supporting pillars, the building began to shake. Tenants complained to Marois about deep fissures in their walls and ceilings.
Sambre goes to work with a chainsaw Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz Photography by Jérôme Coton
A Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucracy ensued to force Boukobza to cease his Destroy-It-Yourself campaign. When a commercial tenant moved his company and employees out overnight in fear for their safety, Marois took Boukobza to court. The judge told Boukobza he was insane and ordered him to cease forthwith; the following morning, he resumed his work.
French graffiti maestro Stew in front of one of his Creations Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz Photography by Stephane Biss euil
In 2010, a small fire broke out in the club. The fire chief refused to allow his men to enter the building and asked Boukobza if he had had a permit for the ad hoc construction work. 'Yes, I asked Jean Nouvel,' he is alleged to have replied, 'but, as he's busy, he told me to start without him.'
Thomas Canto with his mesmerising installation, Oeuvre en 3D Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz. Photography byJérôme Coton
Eventually, Boukobza was ousted from the building, and reconstruction work began. Seeing the whole building deserted, for the first time in 128 years, inspired Marois. 'It may sound pompous,' he said, 'but I can only say, looking round this ghostly, empty space, that I had a sort of poetic epiphany. I'd been coming here since I was 16. Les Bains was where I met the mother of my first child.'
These walls have eyes - artist Ash at work on site, with his owlish mural Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz. Photography by Jérôme Coton
He decided to redevelop the building as a luxury boutique hotel, inspired by the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, which describes itself as 'a fantastical folly in the land of make-believe'. Vincent Bastie has been tasked with the complete refurbishment of the building, and Tristan Auer and Denis Montel with the interior design. The hotel will be as unique as its location, in harmony with the multiple layers of history of the Bains- Douches and its boho-chic Parisian neighbourhood.
Writing - or doodling - on the wall, ceilings and floors, courtesy of Le Module Du Zeer Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz. Photography by Jérôme Coton
But, wanting to give something back before work began in April this year, Marois offered residency of the entire building to 50 world-renowned street artists, with carte blanche to create in the 3,000 sq m space.
A complex, composite mural by the art collective Le 9eme Concept ImageS courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz. Photography by Jérôme Coton
Atlas's outdoor murals may be the only works to be preserved Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz. Photography by Jérôme Coton
He contacted Magda Danysz, a specialist in street art with galleries in Shanghai and Paris, to ask her to curate the event. The project seemed madcap to her, but she was intrigued enough to meet Marois in the space. Teetering down the stairs in the dark to the club basement, she made a discovery -- a 1983 mural by the New York artist Futura. 'I discovered this piece in the dark, with just my iPhone light, when I first visited the place,' said Danysz, 'and that's probably what made me accept this crazy project.'
Native Parisian LEK also chose an exterior space, dripping his work across the building surfaces Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz. Photography by Jérôme Coton
That not a single artwork would survive after reconstruction work began was a condition stipulated to the artists at the beginning. 'There's a certain absurdity that I liked,' says Marois. 'Not many people would see it; it would all just disappear.' One reason for keeping it private was safety regulations. Each visitor was required to sign a disclaimer stating that they entered the building at their own risk, and that they had no heart or respiratory health issues. The time slot was short, from January to April 2013, in what was an exceptionally cold winter in Paris, but artists came from Los Angeles, Lisbon, Rome, Copenhagen, Berlin and Paris itself. In a world first, four generations of street artists were on view in a single space: from veteran Jacques Villeglé to Psy and Futura 2000, Popay, Lek and Sowat. At 87, Villeglé, doyen of street art, made a surprise visit to view the work in progress. Unprompted, he chalked on a wall: Nous sommes dans un lieu historique. Silence [We are in a historic place. Silence].
JF Julian's eerie mural peers over Cedric Bernadotte's spatial, tentacle-like installation in the former restaurant space Image courtesy Gallerie Magda Danysz Photography by Jérôme Coton
Several artists made joint artworks; relationships were formed. It is revealing that when Marois proposed throwing a goodbye party at the residence for the artists, they elected to sit down to dinner together at a long table, each contributing something to the meal. By request, there was no champagne or swinging of sledgehammers. At least the creativity of those four months won't disappear without a trace -- the experience has been recorded on a website and a book of photographs has also now been published (see below).
'The entire event has been a piece of art,' said Marois. 'It has been exhilarating, a beautiful way to say goodbye.' No regrets?
'What is that English literary advice they give to writers? You have to "murder your darlings".'
Words Jean Grogan