Architecture Noveau – Metz, France (2010)

Architecture Noveau – Metz, France (2010)

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Hitherto obscure, and ruled alternately by the French and the Germans, Lorraine, a province in the northeast of France has had its fair share of identity crises throughout its chequered history. That might however, be a thing of the past. From now on, it may no longer remain obscure, having firmly carved out its identity as a laboratory for creative arts, thanks to the just-established Centre Pompidou in Metz, the capital city of the province. Centre –Pompidou-Metz, like its whacky older cousin in Paris, is an avant-garde museum of eclectic art, housing a medley of creative art forms – paintings, sketches, photographs and even art from waste.

The museum opened only in May this year, and already, the Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) that ferries visitors from Paris to Metz in less than 90 minutes finds itself packed to capacity. You can hop across from the historic railway station in Metz to Centre Pompidou which beckons like a new jewel in box full of antique ones. Perched on a site that once housed a Roman Amphitheatre, Centre Pompidou Metz is a striking piece of modern architecture, no less distinguished than the one it displaced. A translucent white membrane stretched over a giant wickerwork of wooden beams crowns an impressive hexagonal base to form a unique structure which in itself, is a piece of art. Designed by Shigeru Ban and Jean the Gastines, the museum sprawls over a 10,700 square meter premises and has four thematically arranged galleries. What the Guggenheim did to Bilbao, Centre Pompidou is bound to do to Metz, namely, put Metz on the world art map.

That the novelty of the museum is not just in its external structure soon becomes obvious as you make your way through the galleries. This unusual museum teases your grey cells as much as it appeals to the aesthete in you. One of the exhibitions invites you to question the notion of a masterpiece itself. What constitutes a masterpiece? How does a work of art acquire the status of a masterpiece? Who and what decides whether an art work is a masterpiece? Once a masterpiece, always a masterpiece? Of course, there are no easy answers and the curators wisely refrain from giving a definitive answer. One of the other galleries in the museum was hosting an exhibition of selected works borrowed from Centre Pompidou Paris and these included a few rare Matisses and Picassos.

Metz, pronounced Mez by locals derives its name from the original tribe of Mediomatrici which populated this region in the ancient times. In the Chrisitan era, Romans occupied the town and went about developing it systematically, coaxing water out of a mountain spring 23 km away and channelling it through aqueducts and planting vineyards on its salubrious soil wedged between two rivers – Moselle and Seille. In those days, Metz enjoyed greater popularity than Paris because of the splendid wines it produced. The Romans went on to build one of the largest amphitheatres in this part of the world which, alas, exists no more.

Metz passed into the control of Germanic tribes, not without resistance, and then fell to Attila, the Hun and eventually in the fifth century, came into the possession of the Franks. Metz saw its heyday during the reign of the Merovingian kings. Even emperor Charlemagne considered making Metz his capital before settling for Aachen. Metz remained intermittently independent as a duchy but also changed hands frequently between the French, the Germans and neighbouring Luxembourg.

Today’s Metz owes a lot to Bismarck, who, after the Franco-Prussian War,embarked upon Prussianization of the town, building fortifications and a city wall. After all, coal from Lorraine fuelled the Krupp smelters and fashioned arms in copious quantities to maintain the might of the Franco-Prussian empire. Emperor Wilhelm II converted it into a garrison town to house troops and built the impressive railway station to move troops to battle fields. Little remains of the fortifications except a city gate. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles returned the city to France, only to be grabbed back by the Germans in the run up to the Second World War. Eventually, in 1945, Metz was handed back to France and has remained a French province since then.

Sauntering through the leafy avenues bursting with spring blossoms, we find ourselves in the spacious Place d’Armes, the central city-square which comes alive with road-side eateries and live street entertainment. The Cathedral of St.Etienne, just across the square is a stunning Gothic structure with very tall naves and embellished by gorgeous stained glass, not just the traditional variety, but also some very modern and impressionistic designs crafted by none other than Marc Chagall. In fact, the Cathedral has more than 6500 square meters of stained glass so much so the interiors are floodlit by sunlight filtering through in rainbow colours earning it the nickname ‘God’s lantern’.

The French are at pains to reclaim and reinforce the Gallic character Metz. Quiche Lorraine, the signature dish of the region has acquired a French flavour and French vintners’ expertise has been marshalled to revive the once famous Moselle wines that graced the tables of royalty in Europe. The French have even managed to tame the sour Mirabelle, the local golden plum and incorporated it in their daily menu. In fact, there is no escaping the Mirabelle while you’re in Metz. In its alcoholic avatar, it comes in the shape of a slender bottle claiming to be ‘eau de vie’ (elixir of life), but it can also transform itself into jams, preserves, and even toffee and find its way into the most innocuous of dishes.

We make our way to the Garden of Taste at Laquenaxy, an hour’s drive from Metz. A member of ‘Gardens without limits’, it is a treat to all the senses, not just your taste-buds, although its usp is edible flowers – marigolds, violets, nasturtiums. It is spring time and the garden is festooned with rainbow colours and palpable life. The herbal enclosure assails you with its heady scent of thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, lavender and many exotic fragrances. Hothouses coax unusual tropical plants to flourish in a temperate climate, a tribute to man’s ingenuity. Fecund trees laden with ripe fruit line the foot path and gentle music wafts out of discreet loudspeakers. Strategically placed cane lounges and easy chairs encourage you to linger and savour the delights that the garden has to offer.

Next on our itinerary is Nancy, the other town in Lorraine province, a two-hour drive away from Metz. Nancy is an ornate contrast to the quiet and understated elegance of Metz. Dressed up in baroque and rococo architecture and embellished with Art Noveau, Nancy has more in common with Versailles than with its sober German cousin Metz. Later I learn that Nancy is indeed modelled on Versailles and was built to rival it by an unlikely Polish duke who governed Nancy for a while.

Nancy was the original capital of the duchy of Lorraine. In 1725, Louis XV married the daughter of Polish King Stanislaw Leszczynski and appointed his father-in-law, the Duke of Nancy. And Nancy never looked back. Ambitious Stanislas, enamoured of the grandeur of Versailles, went about rebuilding Nancy in the image of Versailles. He built a pedestrianized square wedged between the ducal palace and the government building, enclosed the square with gilded wrought iron fencing and ornamental gates embellished with decorative lanterns, Italian-style fountains and marble statuary. During festivals, our tour guide gushes, these fountains actually dispensed wine although now you can buy your glass from any of the fashionable bars that dot its streets. The square has been taken over partially by street cafes and a live band has struck up music in one corner.

The square which subsequently acquired a statue of Stanislaw himself, has now come to be known as Place Stanislas a (French version of Polish Stanislaw) is the largest of the three squares that dominate Nancy’s landscape and is believed to be the most beautiful in all of Europe. UNESCO has endorsed this belief, bestowing World Heritage Site status to Place Stanislas and its two adjacent squares – Place Carriere and Place d’Alliance. But Nancy’s gentrification began even before Stanislas when Duke Rene, his predecessor and a much-celebrated hero gave renaissance touches to the Ducal Palace. He also founded the Fransiscan Monastery and Convent in 1482. Now, he, along with other Lorraine royalty sleeps in elaborate baroque tombs within the Church of Cordeliers.

We’re there on a Saturday and early in the morning, a sprawling flea market in the historic old town has brought many of its older citizens to the street hawking some quaint bric-a-brac. Refreshingly, making a sale seems less important than making conversation with visitors curious about the history of the city. Porte de la Craffe, Nancy’s formidable city gate which housed prisoners in the 15th century forms a magnificent backdrop to the flea market. The pedestrian-only streets and squares give you the illusion that you’re in a time-capsule suspended in the medieval period.

Despite Stanislas and his love of ornate baroque architecture, Nancy today is a quintessential Art Nouveau town. Art Noveau was a movement that originated in Europe around the late 19th century and soon enveloped the world by its universal appeal. It was a youthful and perhaps rebellious reaction to the classical architecture that had held sway hitherto and is now viewed as a necessary bridge between Neo-classicism and Modernism. Characterised by whiplash curves, curlicues and arabesques, its dynamic, undulating, and flowing lines are found throughout the architecture, painting, sculpture, and other objects of everyday use. Many wealthy merchants fleeing German rule after the Franco-Prussian war settled down in Nancy and built elaborate homes and offices in Art Nouveau design.

A stroll through the city convinces you that Nancy must have been one of the leading lights of the Art Nouveau movement. When you stop at a bank ATM to make a transaction, you’re surprised to find that its roof is entirely made of gorgeous stained glass. Even classical gothic buildings sport whacky balustrades and balconies that stand out as much because of their Art Nouveau design as for their asymmetry and curvilinear shapes. In fact, Art Nouveau seems to pervade everyday life in Nancy, be it the covered markets or municipal offices.

Nancy’s Museum of Fine Arts, located in the Ducal Palace at Stanislas Square has pieces by Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Reubens, Delacroix, Monet and a galaxy of other stars, but most of the crowd heads straight down to the lower level where there is a collection of over 600 pieces of Daum glass in exquisite shapes and lustre in all rainbow colours. Jean Daum, dispossessed and persecuted by the Germans escaped to Nancy where he bought a derelict glassworks hoping to scratch out a living. Over a period of time, his factory came to be known for its quality. The next generation of Daums elevated the mundane glass objects to Objets d’art, incorporating Art Nouveau designs. But more than that, they used glass as a novel form of protest to defy Germans. They crafted glass objects celebrating French heroes like Joan of Arc and symbols like fleur-de-lis. Now Daum glass has acquired iconic status and is sought after by connoisseurs. Ecole de Nancy, the other museum devoted entirely to Art Nouveau has a collection of samples made of wood, leather, glass, ceramics, stained glass and metal and is an excellent introduction to Art Nouveau in everyday life.

But Nancy is not just a museum town, but a bustling contemporary European city with its share of malls, fashion boutiques, cafes and bars. It is evident that Metz and Nancy are emerging out of the chrysalis to which history had relegated them hitherto, to find their new identity on the art map of Europe.

We wrap up our visit to Nancy with a spectacular sound and light show played out at Place Stanislas with the City Hall as the facade. The history of Nancy comes alive in moving psychedelic images draped over the City Hall and working their magic through the summer night, transporting you back on a time-machine.

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