Renegade restorers

clock repair

If you don’t mind a long read, then you must check out this Wired article about the UX in Paris — a group of people who, in another time, would star as comic book heroes. With a perfect knowledge of all of Paris’ underground passages (including not just the sewers but also the telecom, electricity and water tunnels, and every other means of moving beneath the city), members of UX creep about Paris to commit renegade acts of…repair and restoration.

Their most public restoration was of the great clock at the Pantheon, which they completed in 2006.

A cadre spent months infiltrating the Pantheon, the grand structure in Paris that houses the remains of France’s most cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom, which they wired for electricity and Internet access and outfitted with armchairs, tools, a fridge, and a hot plate. During the course of a year, they painstakingly restored the Pantheon’s 19th-century clock, which had not chimed since the 1960s. Those in the neighborhood must have been shocked to hear the clock sound for the first time in decades: the hour, the half hour, the quarter hour.

Then they called in the director of the Pantheon to tell them about the clock’s restoration, figuring that since they had done all the labor and paid for everything themselves, perhaps now the city would take over the maintenance.

The result of this meeting was not what they expected: first the director refused to believe them, then the administration attempted to sue them for their act of unauthorized civic concern, to the tune of a year of jail time and 48,300 euros in damages. Worst of all, the Pantheon administration — get ready — rebroke the clock. To this day it does not run.

Check out the whole story. It’s worth a cup of coffee and a good read.

Photo by UX.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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9 Responses to Renegade restorers

  1. Jbrandao says:

    That is an amazing story, and it makes me sad people have to act all stealthy to do stuff like this, although I do suppose that’s half the charm of doing it in the first place 🙂

  2. Ana_ñ says:

    Yes, it is truly amazing. Thank you very much for sharing it – and, like so many of your posts, it makes me want to know some more 🙂

    I was impressed by the clandestine clock reparation and the small-minded response by some bureaucrats, trying to preserve the established order above all, then I wondered about these “elite” people called UX, their motivations, how they could share the catacomb space with other “tribes”, etc.
    And I found an interesting piece published in the Brick Magazine (85, Summer 2010), also a long read, which could complement your fantastic post and the Wired article:

    The Lizard, the Catacombs, and the Clock: The Story of Paris’s Most Secret Underground Society by Sean Michaels (http://www.urban-resources.net/pdf/sean_michaels_brick_85_the_lizard_the_catacombs_and_the_clock.pdf)

  3. JR says:

    Well…I guess I’ll be the dissenting voice.

    (being professional rant)

    As an architectural historian and a cultural heritage management professional (expertise: international preservation policy), I’ll say that what Untergunther did at the Panthéon is a bit horrifying. I can appreciate the complaints about lax security (although—just because my front door is unlocked doesn’t mean you’re allowed to walk right in and move things around) and the bureaucracy that seems to be inherent in cultural heritage management. However, arguing that restoring a historical monument/artifact represents “the more enlightened view” is misguided at best. I’ll spare you a review of 100 years’ worth of literature on the subject, but currently policy—particularly in France—emphasizes preservation/conservation, not restoration. And if they’re going to restore something, they should do it only after a careful consideration of the stakeholders–in this case, that stopped clock might actually have had some broader meaning within the history of the Panthéon or Paris, a meaning possibly (probably?) not considered by Untergunther. The clock as it was represented a fascinating moment of worker sabotage during the 1960s Paris—that alone was reason enough to leave it alone. I’m prepared to believe it remained in a non-working state because of neglect, but I’m not sure a single organization should be applauded for unilaterally deciding that it understood the role of an artifact in le patrimoine better than anyone else in the nation.

    Also (arguably), France alone can’t determine the fate of the Panthéon or the building’s contents. It’s not currently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, but I imagine France would like it to appear there one day. Being listed is important in terms of global tourism dollars, for one. Tourism dollars = money for conservation. Conservation, not restoration. To meet UNESCO standards, any restoration work must meet the following criteria:

    -no process may remove, diminish, falsify or obscure the document’s value as evidence;

    – no process may be used which would in any way damage or weaken the document (2.2.1);

    – as far as possible missing material should be replaced by material of the same kind, or with compatible, similar materials;

    – the nature and extent of any repair should be left unmistakably evident;

    – nothing should be done which cannot be undone without damage to the document, although there may be exceptions to this rule.

    Restoring the clock may have violated the very first “basic principle” of heritage management. Those principles represent (and I mean this literally) a century of debate and experiment and application. Our preservation policies change constantly, but we’re really trying to do our best for the world when we adhere to them.

    I don’t want the building falling down out of neglect, but I also don’t want people altering it without careful thought. You can’t stop time, and the building will inevitably change in meaning and possibly form over the next 100 years, the same way it changed from the Church of Ste-Geneviève (which is how I teach it to my students) to a mausoleum after the Revolution. The story of the fixed/broken clock will be subsumed into the narrative of that change, and that’s fine with me. The clock now has another story to tell to the world. Multiple new stories, in fact.

    I think I’m supposed to be celebrating the stealth and initiative of Untergunther, but truthfully, there are ways, even in the stifling bureaucracies of France, to protect la patrimoine. It may not be as glamorous as a stealth campaign through the sewers and it may take more time, but at least then we can hope that a multiplicity of voices will be heard in regard to a project, rather than the desires of just a single group.

    (end professional rant)

    • Ana_ñ says:

      I appreciate very much your valuable input, JR, and I don’t disagree with you, even if my previous comment didn’t show it.

      I was imppressed by the clock story, with a professional horologist involved and the differences between the former and the present director of the Panthéon, because the work done was assessed and considered good in this particular case. And that was a good way to attract attention on security problems and the situation of the patrimoine. It seems that it was a “legal vacuum” regarding these activities that changed in 2008.

      Apart from the clock, so glamorous, as you well say, I wanted to know who these people were. I read that Kuntsmann has written a book (La culture en clandestins: L’UX), and it seems that he knows very well how to sell himself as a charming person.

      In the article I linked I read about Untergunther and its restorations, La Mexicaine de Perforation doing events (like the cinema under the Trocadéro), a group called Mouse House (an all female infiltration unit), other branches of the UX dedicated to maps, etc. They share the miles of catacombs under Paris with the cataphiles, avoiding the catacops. Nazi characters, secrets, half-truths…

  4. Inge says:

    Perhaps a bit late to join the discussion.. but speaking as one that often goes into abandoned buildings, caves, mines,..

    We have a very active policy to not change anything: leave only footprints behind, take only photographs with you.. is what our behaviour is about. We believe in this and practise this.

    This is common sense (chemicals, gases,.. are left behind) but also because there are some places that have fragile nature which has regained some territory into these places. For instance bats.. if you wake during their winter sleep they will often die during the remainder of the winter. So we stay out of the known places at these time of the year.

    This does not mean i do not want anything new to come along. But often when ‘regular’ developers come along they have the obligation to preserve that fragile nature in one way or another. (Though honestly some places do feel like a loss when they are renovated, especially when the renovation doesn’t fit the charm of the place.)

    On the other hand i can sympathise with the idea of clandestine renovation in order to preserve. However in the case of the clock.. if you read the whole story behind it, i’m not even sure that getting it to work was the right thing to do. It’s story was about how it was sabotaged in protest. Still (if correct) renovating a bunker which has no known access to it.. (if no animals were harmed) i can not see the harm in that.

    So i would go for yes and no, depending on the story behind it.

    • Ana_ñ says:

      How interesting, Inge. I guess that your activities are similar to those of Forbidden Places (http://www.forbidden-places.net/), with its excellent photos. The author summarizes their motivation with these words: “We think that abandoned and futureless places are part of our cultural heritage. So before everything get rotten or disappear, let’s explore and photograph them!”
      They know that these places will cease to exist. Also, they recognize they have a spirit of adventure (enjoy the risk) and want to document the instant with an unquestionable artistic eye. They are witness, don’t act.

      With due respect to the obvious differences, we could establish a parallelism with World Press Photo: incredible photos that show to the world the reality, sometimes extremely hard and cruel. They don’t intervene, their mission is to report. Other people act. For instance, the photojournalist shows us people dying, and Doctors without Borders go and try to save them. People reporting and people acting. Sorry for the melodramatic example 🙂

      The authorities do not cover all the needs and sometimes people take an action, both to solve a problem and to draw attention. I’m remembering now those Indian citizens who created a civic group to clean the streets in Bangalore (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-15769402). And regarding the clock story — in such a place like the Pantheon, no less — I suspect that the main purpose of Untergunther was to attract attention, more so because they haven’t given proof of their other alleged interventions.

  5. James Haney says:

    A very good story, and I do like JR’s rebuttal.

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