During IAP 2019, four MIT students explored Paris côté coulisses/Paris behind the scenes, under the guidance of Professor Sabine Levet as part of the January Scholars Program. The program is an award granted to the best students in the French program at MIT. It is supported by the French Initiatives Endowment Fund. Their stay in France included on-site visits, guided tours, presentations, concerts and plays, and delicious meals in brasseries and restaurants.
For two weeks, the students explored aspects of Paris that might be hidden to ordinary visitors but reveal how the city works: they discovered savoir-faires at the Gobelins, the factory created in early 17th century to weave tapestries for the royal court. The ancient techniques have been preserved and the work of liceuses nowadays hangs in public buildings. At Maison Chloé, they learned about the world of fashion, as they discovered 65 years of designs, fabrics, and accessories.
They visited Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale fresh food market, which replaced the ancient Halles de Paris in 1969. At Assemblée Nationale, they attended a session de questions au Gouvernement, where government members answered questions from the députés, as they do every Wednesday afternoon at 3pm. Going down a 18 meter staircase, they visited a stone quarry under Vincennes, now abandoned, where limestone, Paris’ main building material, was cut and extracted from the middle ages until the 19th century.
At Pavillon de l’eau, they learned about how water is distributed throughout the city and how it is treated, and found on a map all the public water fountains in Paris (fontaines Wallace), including a few with eau gazeuse (sparkling water). At la Défense, the business district just outside of Paris, they were lucky to be invited to take a tour of the construction site of the new Tour Saint-Gobain, with experts explaining the particular strategic challenges of building a 168 meter tower in the middle of a very dense area.
They visited ZAC Clichy Batignolles, an exemplary urban renewal project and écoquartier (eco-district) using renewable energies, water and waste management, built on a former railway site in the heart of Paris. At the new Tribunal de Grande Instance (Paris Civil Court), they visited the 38 story glass building built by the architect Renzo Piano and heard a presentation about the French justice system. Then they attended two hearings, seeing firsthand how a French court works, as they witnessed exchanges between the judge, the defendants and the procureur (public prosecutor).
They also heard presentations about fashion, the Seine river through the ages and the subterranean city. They walked through Montmartre discussing French film, along the Seine, and through the Marais where they learned how to read a street’s history through details of the buildings. They went to Orsay and le Centre Pompidou. And, finally, they enjoyed some free time to explore on their own and went to Marseille for a day.
Un immense merci! Thank you!
We would like to thank first and foremost Cindy and John Reed, who made this amazing experience possible!
Many thanks to the people who shared their time and expertise:
- Sophie de Loubens, Vincent Delaveau (La voix des lieux) and Emilie Lacombe, our expert tour guides.
- Maison Chloé: Géraldine-Julie Sommier, directrice du Patrimoine and Catherine Lebrun, responsable pôle conservation patrimoine.
- Tour Saint-Gobain: Marc Guerpin, directeur de projet, Guillaume Brugallé, responsable des travaux and Bertrand Tillaux, ingénieur travaux structure béton at Vinci construction France.
- Assemblée Nationale: Mr. Buon Tan, député de Paris, 9ème circonscription and Alexia Lechevestrier, collaboratrice parlementaire.
- Carrière de la Brasserie: Marc Baboolall, Mairie de Paris, Inspection Générale des Carrières and Florence Cavaillé, Gestion du Patrimoine, secrétariat Dicre, Inspection Générale des Carrières;
- Tour de Paris: Olivier Labbay, Altesses Limousine.
Thank you also to Sabine Levet, our professor. Finally, thanks to Global Studies and Languages, in particular Lisa Hickler, for arranging our trip.