The Mound of Vendme at the Canadian Centre for Architecture

On view at the CCA from June 19 to September 14,  2014 and curated by architectural historian David Gissen, The Mound of Vendôme revisits one key episode of French history when the Commune de Paris in 1871 voted to demolish the Vendôme Column, abolishing all allusions to the Napoleonic era. To protect the surrounding architecture during demolition, a radical landscape was erected on Place Vendôme. Informed by the methods of project and installation at the CCA traces the provocative history of the column and mound, while arguing for its historicization and reconstruction.

The mound is a seemingly simple yet provocative artifact: an ephemeral earthwork that became a central part of a radical attempt to transform urban iconography during the two-month rule of the Paris Commune in 1871. In his research and contemporary architectural proposal, David Gissen recalls this lost structure and offers new ways of thinking about memorial landscapes and monumental forms. As mirrors of the past, architectural monuments are reminders of collective memories and socio-political powers. Yet monuments are also subject to changes in values, representations and social tensions overtime.

The exhibition contextualizes the mound with the historical context of the Commune de Paris. On April 12, 1871 the Central Committee of the Paris Commune voted to demolish the Place Vendôme Column – a monument commissioned by Napoleon I in 1809 to represent his military victory at Austerlitz and renovated in 1863 by his nephew Napoleon III to celebrate Bonapartist rule. The Communards condemned the monument as a representation of “imperialism”, “barbarism” and “brute force” and constructed an enormous mound of sand, straw, branches, and manure to cushion the demolition and protect surrounding structures

from the impact.

The dirt and debris was quickly cleared following the suppression of the Commune and nearly a century and a half later all traces of these events are absent from Place Vendôme. To plan for the reconstruction of the mound today is thus a striking reminder of the events of that year as well as the Commune’s strategies of spatial occupation.

Drawn from the CCA’s extensive collection of Commune-era holdings, the exhibition showcases a series of photographs and engravings that document the square before and after the destruction of the column: an unknown photographer captures a perspective of the Column in 1851, Bruno Braquehais photographs the fallen statue of Napoleon in Roman imperial garments in 1871 and Charles Marville documents the reconstruction of the column two years later. The exhibition contemporary proposal is supported by a series of new works including visual renderings, a model of the column and the mound, photographs and the petition addressed to city officials to reconstruct the Mound of Vendôme.

As CCA Director Mirko Zardini explains: “This exhibition is presented as part of a wider agenda of the Canadian Centre for Architecture to survey the political environments and social issues within which architecture operates. With CCA’s archive material projecting the reconstruction of the monumental earthwork, the exhibition suggests possibilities for transforming the iconography and landscapes of urban space. It is through this form of pioneering urban intervention that architecture not only acts as a means to commemorate but also reveals its political consciousness”.

David Gissen is a historian and theorist of architecture, His work focuses on developing a novel concept of nature in architectural thought and developing experimental forms of architectural and urban historical practice. He is the author of the books Subnature (2009) and Manhattan Atmospheres (2014) and numerous essays and book chapters. He is an associate professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. For the CCA, Gissen has contributed in the 2012 publication Imperfect Health accompanying the exhibition and has participated in the research seminar “Toolkit for Today: Concept for Contemporary Architecture” that same year.

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