A local's guide to Paris - Laurent Lise-Cabasset - Citimarks

Laurent Lise-Cabasset

Between rupture and continuity


Citimarks: Laurent, as a co-founder of RestART Beirut, an NGO dedicated to safeguarding Beirut's cultural heritage, you spearheaded the restoration efforts for the Sursock Palace. Can you elaborate on how this initiative originated and discuss the main challenges you are encountering in realizing its goals?

Laurent Lise-Cabasset: I was invited to visit a friend in his hometown, Beirut. Both of us being avid Opera fans, we visited the opera house of Beirut -which has yet to recover from the last war- and felt compelled to raise awareness for its restoration. Shorty after a devastating bombing that reduced Lebanon’s port to a mass of ruins, I returned to Beirut with a couple of friends. Together with our host, we launched an initiative to aid in the rebuilding efforts. Our attention turned to the bombarded Sursock palace, a magnificent architectural gem and one of Beirut’s illustrious residences. Perched on a hill overlooking the port, its façade was showing signs of decay, endangering its structural integrity.

Determined to help, we joined forces with the palace’s owners to raise funds and coordinate the restoration process. Our vision was to transform it into a residence for artists, reminiscent of Villa Medici in Rome. Our initiative, named 'RestART Beirut,' serves as a platform to facilitate the realization of this ambitious project. Supported by European Universities and the United Nations, our team has made strides in stabilizing the palace’s structure. However, the challenge remains in securing funds in a city grappling with urgent needs, such as repairing basic infrastructure in public transport, education, and healthcare. Despite the hurdles ahead, we remain optimistic and committed to our cause.

What is your earliest memory of Paris?

One of my oldest memories is the distinctive scent of old apartments in Paris. It's something I always notice upon returning to the city after a trip. This unique aroma emanates from the aged wood of the flooring, mingled with traces of humidity. Initially striking, this sensation typically fades within an hour as I acclimate to it.

Another vivid childhood memory revolves around my bus rides through the city. I recall sitting aboard bus number 68, mesmerized by the iconic landmarks passing by: the Louvre Pyramid, the Tuileries garden and Rivoli Avenue. These journeys offered a seamless transition between grand boulevards and narrow streets, sheltered arcades and large squares, providing a rich tapestry of architectural diversity. Indeed, Paris unfolds as a series of distinct architectural frames, with each marked by its own defining landmark. Moving from one monument to the next, one never feels disoriented, and the city paradoxically feels more intimate despite its grandeur.

"Across centuries, French monarchs and presidents sought to align their image with that of the Louvre, reflecting upon it their vision of France"

Let’s delve into Paris’s architecture. Which monuments in Paris have stood out over the decades?

Let’s begin with the Louvre - a historical bastion of power and culture, and above all, a symbol of the city’s evolution. Across centuries, French monarchs and presidents sought to align their image with that of the Louvre, initiating renovation projects to reflect upon it their vision of France. Over time, the building underwent numerous rehabilitations, resulting in an extraordinary fusion of architectural styles.

Moving forward to the 19th-century, Opéra Garnier stands as an exceptional monument, epitomizing the spirit of its era by honoring the triumphant upper-middle class of Paris. One of the most prestigious constructions of the Second French Empire, the Opera was conceived to provide a magnificent backdrop for the haute bourgeoisie to flaunt their wealth. In the 1920s, the Palais d’Iéna designed by Auguste Perret deserves special recognition, particularly for its grand staircase, crafted from remarkably lightweight concrete. Similarly, the Palais de Chaillot, characterized by its imposing colonnades and stunning Art Deco details, serves as a testament to the architectural trends and totalitarian ethos of its time.

In the ‘60s, Oscar Niemeyer’s brilliant concept for the Communist Party’s Headquarters employed curves to infuse a sense of tenderness into the modernist style, seamlessly integrating with Parisian architecture. A decade later, the Centre Pompidou emerged as the most remarkable architectural achievement. The building made history with its avant-garde design, but also stirred controversy due to its incredibly high management costs. Moving into the 1980s, the Opéra Bastille boasts one of the most admirable designs –although very few Parisians share a favorable opinion. The building features one of the largest and most technologically advanced stages in the world. With the capacity to retract up to 25 meters deep and to extend as far down as six basement floors, the stage unveils a fascinating hidden dimension, rendering it a truly intriguing monument.

The Palais d’Iéna, designed by Auguste Perret, boasts a grand staircase, crafted from remarkably lightweight concrete.

The HQs of the Communist Party, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, features an exquisite ceiling in the auditorium, lined with thousands of light-diffusing aluminum strips that also enhance acoustics.

"Paris unfolds as a series of distinct architectural frames, with each marked by its own defining landmark. This way, one never feels disoriented and the city feels more intimate despite its grandeur."

What are some of your favorite contemporary buildings in Paris?

Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation building, Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris and the Institut du Monde Arabe are three marvels of contemporary architecture. The Ministry of Finance, a structure stretching out to the Seine River like an enormous cruise liner, stands as another extraordinary example of audacity. The intriguing part of the story was that competition regulations prohibited construction above the Seine. Yet, it seems that telling a French architect "no" only serves to urge them to do the exact opposite. In essence, Parisian architecture is the story of daring and unconventional architects. It is fascinating how within such a conservative city, there beats a bold and innovative heart.

Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris

Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation building.

What are your thoughts on Paris today, and how do you envision its future in the face of challenges posed by climate change and immigration?

I am among the minority of residents who support the initiatives of Anne Hidalgo, the current Mayor of Paris. She is a woman of vision and strong convictions. Her plan to expand bicycle paths in the heart of the city at the expense of car lanes has stirred controversy. However, I align with the spirit of this initiative for a city with fewer cars, more bicycles, and more greenery: a city where historic public gathering places and demonstration sites, such as Bastille and République squares, offer more space to sit and greater openness to the rest of the city.

When discussing protests, would you agree that these large-scale demonstrations are integral to Parisian identity?

One of the quintessential moments in Parisian life occurs when citizens take to the streets in protest. The right to protest is revered as a sacred political entitlement deeply ingrained in the French identity, serving as a crucial means to express social belonging and solidarity. Parisian protests exude the atmosphere of a grand collective celebration, adhering to a well-established protocol: they attract immense crowds —sometimes reaching up to 1 million participants— and are meticulously organized with distinctive banners, balloons, floats, and musical accompaniment.

These demonstrations unfold in specific locations chosen for their ample space and revolutionary history. Socialists typically rally at Denfert-Rochereau, Montparnasse, and Boulevard Saint-Michel—sites steeped in the legacy of the May '68 uprising—as well as a circuit of squares deemed "leftist," including Place de la Nation, Bastille, and République. Conservative factions, on the other hand, gravitate towards the western, more affluent districts of the city, such as the Champ de Mars esplanade and the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Each social class and every protest aligns with particular landmarks that have remained unchanged over the decades. This enduring culture of protest exemplifies a timeless trait of Parisian life. For those seeking to delve into the essence of the Parisian spirit, partaking in a Parisian protest is an opportunity not to be missed.

June 24, 1984: More than 1,5 million protesters march against a law for private education. (c) AFP/Archives.

May 1, 2002: 900,000 people protested against the vote of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2nd round of the presidential election. (c) Eric Feferberg/AFP.

"The right to protest is revered as a sacred political entitlement deeply ingrained in the French identity, serving as a crucial means to express social belonging and solidarity"

Another enduring trait attributed to Parisians is their reputation for rudeness. Is this criticism fair?

This reputation is attributed to a series of professions encountered regularly, such as waiters, taxi drivers, and bakers. These individuals seldom go unnoticed. One day they may exhibit exceedingly rude behavior, while the next they might be exceptionally helpful. Some exude cheerfulness, while others prove intolerable. Alternatively, they can be quite amiable but utterly inept in their service. Regardless, none conform to the stereotype of the polished professional with a sterilized smile and impeccable demeanor. Many feel free to express their thoughts openly and strive to remain true to themselves—sometimes to a fault from our perspective. Yet, their unfiltered attitude imbues everyday life in Paris with a vibrant and distinct hue.

"Parisians do not conform to the stereotype of the polished professional with a sterilized smile and impeccable demeanor. Their unfiltered attitude imbues everyday life in Paris with a vibrant and distinct hue."

What single change would you implement to enhance city life in Paris?

If given the opportunity, one thing I would prioritize is creating more space for artistic creativity. For instance, every metro station could serve as a platform for artistic expression, facilitated through collaborations between the private and public sectors. We should organize more artistic events and street performances, fostering an environment where creativity flourishes. Let us not forget that Paris was once the world's capital of arts, drawing countless artists from around the globe to both contribute to and draw inspiration from the city's vibrant artistic scene. Preserving this aspect of Paris as a hub for creativity is crucial, ensuring that the city remains open to new ideas and continues to evolve in line with contemporary needs.

Is there a hidden gem in Paris that you consider an absolute must-see?

The Opéra Garnier's underground water reserve stands as a marvel of engineering, ingeniously designed by Garnier to manage groundwater and prevent damage to the building structure. In a broader sense, I would encourage adventurous visitors to explore the mysterious world of underground Paris. The Parisian catacombs represent a city within a city, offering a glimpse into a realm that remains largely unmapped. It's astonishing to think about the number of people who live and work in this subterranean environment, which may be one of the few places in Paris – or perhaps the only one – that has not yet been fully charted. Here, events can unfold unexpectedly, giving rise to rumors and perpetuating the mystique that surrounds these underground passages.

Skulls and bones of past centuries are stacked in the catacombs of Paris.

The vast water reserve of the Opera Garnier is situated 15 meters below the theater stage.

"The profound connection we, as Parisians, share with our city, and the constant need to express this bond, this sense of belonging to Paris is incredibly strong and something that I cherish deeply."

What aspect of Paris would you miss the most if you were away for an extended period?

Desserts! Paris boasts some of the finest pastry shops in the world. This culinary expertise is deeply embedded in the French identity, particularly in the Parisian culture. On a non-food-related note, I would undoubtedly miss the profound connection that we, as Parisians, share with our city, and the constant need to express this bond. The sense of belonging to Paris is incredibly strong, and it's something I cherish deeply.

Cadavre Exquis

If Paris were a book, which one would it be?

"Bonjour Tristesse" (English: "Hello Sadness") by Françoise Sagan captures the occasional melancholic vibe of Paris. Moreover, its author, a sophisticated upper-class socialite, encapsulates the spirit of Paris in every sense. If Paris were a lady, Sagan would undoubtedly embody her essence.

If Paris were a film?

The narrative of "The Leopard" by Luchino Visconti resonates with the spirit of Paris, encapsulating its perpetual struggle between rupture and continuity. The famous line "tutto deve cambiare perché tutto resti come prima" ("everything needs to change so that everything stays the same") echoes Paris's ongoing pursuit to embody the zeitgeist while staying true to its authentic identity. Only by embracing the spirit of its time can Paris maintain its authenticity amid the flux of history.

A piece of music?

"The Rite of Spring," Igor Stravinsky’s ballet and concert work, is renowned for the sensation it provoked in Paris at the dawn of the 20th century, igniting controversy with its groundbreaking music, choreography, and scenography. By shattering established conventions, the ballet sparked intense polemics, exemplifying Paris's penchant for rupture within continuity.

A word?

Capital city. Capital city of the avant-garde, of historic breakthroughs, of the Enlightenment, of world-inspiring revolutions, of the Declaration of Human Rights. It is a city where universal symbols resonate deeply.

A pastry?

"Saint-Honoré" in tribute to the namesake patron saint of French bakers.

If you could turn back time, which point of the Parisian history would you like to discover?

I would explore a period spanning from 1870, marking the beginning of France’s Third Republic, to the avant-garde phase at the turn of the 20th century. That golden epoch of Paris was marked by revolutions in every sector: technology, economy, arts.

If you could meet an historic figure which one would it be?

I would be interested in hypothetically join a vibrant group of people, like the Surrealists, and perhaps even participate in a Cadavre Exquis game with them. In this scenario, I'd include historical figures born in French colonies, such as Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire. Exploring how their Parisian studies in French Republicanism influenced their later involvement in the anti-colonialist movement would be fascinating.

24 hours in Paris

9 am
A nice café for a morning coffee.
Any café conveniently located near my house or office would be perfectly suitable for me.
10 am
A park to stroll.
The Luxembourg Gardens, in my opinion, stand as the most exquisite urban garden in Paris. This park perfectly encapsulates the art of the French-style garden while also boasting elements of an English-style garden. With its picturesque views of the Luxembourg Palace, the seat of the Senate, this garden is meticulously maintained by skilled gardeners entrusted by the Senate. The array of flowers is among the most vibrant I've ever encountered, and the spectacle of spring blooming is simply breathtaking.
11 am
A museum to explore
The Musée Carnavalet, known as the Museum of the History of Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art in Trocadéro are must-visit attractions. Concluding the tour with a stop at the Petit Palais, where you can savor a delightful coffee in the museum's charming garden, adds a perfect finishing touch to the experience.
1 pm
A nice lunch.
I would indulge in a delightful French meal at the restaurants 'Richer' and '52,' or opt for a charming dining experience at the 'Café Compagnon'.
3 pm
A monument or museum to admire its architecture.
I would visit three distinctly unique places: the Opéra Garnier to experience the grandeur of the 19th century, the Centre Pompidou to explore the modernism of the 20th century, and the Institut du Monde Arabe to immerse myself in its captivating oriental futurism.
4 pm
Tea time at a 5-star hotel.
The Hotel de Crillon is a must-see destination in Paris.
5 pm
Shopping time
Every visitor should pack a bite of French food in their suitcase before leaving town, so I would highly recommend a visit to 'La Grande Epicérie', the largest deli shop in Paris.
6 pm
A walk in a serene area.
At the 'Coulée verte René-Dumont', a 5-kilometer elevated linear park constructed on top of an outdated railway infrastructure between Bastille and Vincennes Park, visitors can escape the hustle and bustle of the city. This equivalent of New York's High Line offers an ideal respite from the 'popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi' (the populous desert they call Paris), as aptly described in the play 'La Traviata'.
7 pm
A relaxing spa session.
The Ritz Hotel boasts the finest pool in Paris, providing guests with an unparalleled spa experience.
9 pm
A romantic diner.
At the hotel 'L’Hôtel' for its magnificent Art-Deco ambiance, and at the restaurant 'La Société' for its French chic interior decoration. Both establishments boast serene, softly lit dining rooms where there is ample space for two people to sit comfortably side by side, a rare luxury in many Parisian restaurants.
11 pm
A favorite wine bar.
A chain of three wine bars named 'L’Avant Comptoir de la Mer', 'L’Avant Comptoir de la Terre', and 'L’Avant Comptoir du Marché' offers excellent seafood and meat dishes paired with extensive wine lists. They are reminiscent of tapas bars, but with a French twist.
12 am
A rooftop cocktail.
At the hotel 'So/Paris', guests can enjoy a breathtaking rooftop experience offering exquisite views of the Seine River, spanning from Île Saint-Louis to Notre Dame de Paris and the Eiffel Tower.
1 am
A walk under the stars.
The walk would commence from the Opéra Garnier, then proceed to Place Vendôme, the Cour Carrée of the Louvre Museum, Pont des Arts, Saint-Germain-de-Prés, and finally culminate at the marvelous Place Saint-Sulpice.

More from Paris