Paris match

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
Evolution, contemporary art and books: Stephen Thomas on new attractions

If I needed any excuse to give the tourist spots a wide berth when I was in Paris a few months back, the lurking threat of terrorism was compelling reason enough to explore the less demotic, little-publicised and quieter corners of the city.

The Jardin des Plantes has long been one of the more faded pleasure grounds of Paris. It got a reviving shot in 1994 with the exciting FFr40,000 conversion of the disused 19th-century zoology museum into the new Galerie de l'Evolution. There has been a major rethink of the way in which the exhibits are displayed. The pervasiveness of animalism means there are no mangy stuffed creatures here. Instead, dozens of superbly sculpted life-size models of elephant, rhino, giraffe and leopard fill the base of the atrium. below is the sea, and rising above on a series of terraces reached by glass lifts, the story of evolution and the origin of species is told in a calm and detached way, going bravely and controversially against the current fashion for the meticulous recreation of natural habitats and environments.

The glut of galleries in Paris obscures the fact that there are remarkably few spaces for contemporary art. Jean Nouvel's new building for the Fondation Cartier in Montparnasse is a stunning addition. Since 1984, Cartier has been diverting some of the spoils from its jewellery business to collect, commission and exhibit the work of practising artists. Nouvel's design for the new gallery and European headquarters resists the temptation to over-develop the compact site.

The transparent steel and glass building is set back 20 metres from the Boulevard Raspail, surrounded by a garden protected at street frontage by a free-standing glass wall. Trees and vegetation are reflected in and shimmer through the magnificent building, blurring the boundary between inside and out.

When I visited the Fondation it was a splendid setting for a clanking moving exhibit by Jean Tinguely, together with the fascinating cardboard, paper and plastic "extreme sculpture" of Zaire artist Bodys Isek Kingelez. Group tours of the frequently changing temporary exhibitions with an English speaking guide can be arranged.

The appeal of Montmartre now palls rapidly, with hawkers in the Metro and on the butte itself, prodding you peevishly with everything from absurd umbrella hats to kitsch musical key rings. The Musee d'Art Naif Max Fourny, in the old Saint-Pierre market hall below the Sacre Coeur, is a wonderfully restful bolt-hole. It houses a regular series of delightful temporary exhibitions of the work of naive artists from round the world presented in a way which always has a young audience in mind.

It's 33 years since the architect was commissioned yet the new British Library next to St Pancras is still not finished after delay, frustration and rising costs. The French National Library project, the Tr s Grande Biblioth que, conceived by Francis Mitterrand in 1988, has already been completed, at a cost of Pounds 450 million and handed over to the client earlier this year.

Four 20-storey glass storage silos, which will hold the bulk of the 12 million books and 300,000 periodicals, now dominate the banks of the Seine opposite the new park at Bercy, to which it will be linked by a slim pedestrian bridge. The monumental severity of the massive structure of the TGB is dramatically tempered by a marvellous forest of mature trees, shipped in from Normandy, and re-planted in the garden at the heart of the building to create a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere for reading and research.

With its highly sophisticated computerised catalogue and 8 kilometres of track to transport books from store to reader, the TGB will offer, when open to the public in 1997, unrivalled opportunities for teachers and students to explore French culture. Demand is high, but group tours of the cavernous building are already available, together with opportunities to visit an excellent free exhibition about the library and the rapidly developing Bercy quarter of Paris in the "Tip I" near the Quai de la Gare Metro station.

I left Paris encouraged, once again, that it is possible for urban life to be stimulating and inspiring, but regretting that I still had not had time to fit in the Piaf Museum in Menilmontant and failed to track down the grave of Jean Sablon in the Montparnasse Cemetery.

For details of group and individual booking for train travel to and in France telephone Rail Shop: 0345 300 003 * It costs only FFr10 for members of school groups to visit the grande Galerie de l'Evolution, tel: 40 79 36 00 (Metro: Jussieu) * The Fondation Cartier is at 261, Boulevard Raspail: Tel: 42 18 56 50 or 42 18 56 67 for group visits. (Metro: Raspail) * For details of exhibitions at the Musee d'Art Naif Max Fourny tel: 45 58 72 89 (Metro: Anvers) * The exhibition about the new National Library of France and the development of the Bercy Quarter is at 9, Boulevard, Vincent Auriol. Tel: 44 23 03 70 for details and to make bookings for Sunday group visits to the building itself. (Metro: Quai de la Gare) * The Piaf Museum is at 7, Rue Crespin du Gast, Menilmontant. Visits have to be arranged in advance. Tel: 43 55 52 72. (Metro: Menilmontant) Stephen Thomas travelled to Paris on Eurostar.

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