My husband, Francis, and I chose to live in eastern Paris because it’s the most vital, lively, liberal part of the city. Our neighborhood, Belleville, overlaps the 10th, 11th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements. We moved here 13 years ago, and we love it. Our apartment is part of a former printing works and is tucked away behind big doors, which makes it feel sort of secret. It’s full of light and very quiet. There’s a little lane planted with bamboo that we share with our neighbors, who are a diverse and friendly group of teachers, artists, musicians, and families. During the summer we often dine outside on our terrace and chat with these neighbors, so there’s a pleasant sense of community.
This quarter has a real social plasticity, too, because it is home to such a mixture of different cultures and ethnicities. When you go out the door and turn right, you’ll see mostly Chinese immigrants; if you turn left, you’ll find mostly people from Morocco. People here are very open and accustomed to seeing things that are new and unfamiliar. Where I notice this most often is at the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a beautiful English-style park created from an old quarry. Unlike most of the modern parks in Paris, this one has real personality. Its grottoes and lookouts give the feel of a romantic little universe. The neighborhood really unfolds at this park, and I always see something or someone who piques my curiosity. On my last visit, I was fascinated with a very old Chinese man who was practicing some kind of slow-motion gymnastics.
My work takes me around the world. Recently I was in Nefta, Tunisia, to design the Dar Hi hotel. Something that always strikes me when I come home is that, in Belleville, people are curious about each other rather than being threatened by difference. Walking the streets here, you get a palpable sense of the creative ferment generated by so much diversity, and by the fact that Belleville’s affordable rents attract working artists.
There are lots of young galleries in this neighborhood, and they are good because the owners are willing to take chances with installations and performance art you’d never find in the mainstream Paris galleries. My husband and I love to go to Le Plateau, which is an exhi- bition space for the FRAC [Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain, a government-sponsored project that supports artists and displays their work]. It’s a 15-minute walk from our apartment. A recent exhibit on the Italian futurist artist Bruno Munari and the art he inspired included a big plaster-and-chicken-wire potato that my son, Arto, who is 10, loved. It’s stimulating for me to live in a neighborhood where art is so much a part of daily life.
Belleville has never really been absorbed into the rest of Paris, so it remains like a village with a proud, collective sense of its working-class heritage. The architecture reflects this, too. I really admire the headquarters building of the French Communist Party, which was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1972. The use of prestressed concrete especially interests and inspires me, since I’ve been designing a collection of concrete furniture for the French company LCDA. People think of concrete as hard and heavy, but it can be light and sinuous, even playful.
My work is about questioning the codes that govern our everyday lives so that we can free ourselves from them and experiment. That’s why I find Belleville invigorating. There’s something instinctively irreverent about it.
See all of Matali Crasset’s favorite places in Belleville. Photo by Mari Bastashevski. This appeared in the August/September issue.
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