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Building Bastille

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The Tangled and Improbable Story of the Opera Bastille

This is a documentary that was broadcast last night on Knowledge Network. We got it by streaming but it may well be available elsewhere.

And once again instead of my opinions and typos here is what I got from Zoot Pictures


In 1982 the new socialist French president Mitterrand opens  a blind competition, to build an opera at the  site of the notorious Bastille prison. The jury seems to have found the best design, by prominent American architect Richard Meier. Or so they thought.

Until the Minister of Culture blanches and stumbles through the name Carlos Ott, Canadian. No one has heard of him and he has never built anything.

Hastily informed, Carlos flies to Paris with an expired passport and is tossed into an airport holding cell for immediate deportment. Official panic ensues. Things get worse from there.

When right wing Jacques Chirac is elected Prime Minister, he hates socialist Mitterrand and works to stop the Opera. Carlos Ott receives Chirac`s stop work order with threats of prison, then the money is cut off. It seems all the sacrifice was for naught.

But, like French politics, nothing is what it appears.

Building Bastille is a feature length documentary that tells the comic, dramatic and tangled story of modern history’s greatest case of mistaken identity and seized opportunity, combining current footage with archival images, and original 16MM film.

Building Bastille is produced by Zoot Pictures Inc. in association with Knowledge Network, TVO, RDI, SRC and with the participation of the Canadian Media Fund, the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, and the Manitoba Film and Video Production Tax Credit. Produced with the participation of the Rogers Documentary Fund.

Building Bastille was developed in association with Knowledge Network, the Canadian Media Fund and Manitoba Film and Music

Distributed Worldwide by:   Ampersand


The reason I am doing this is that when I published my picture of the Opera Bastille on flickr I wrote a slab of text that I have now come to regret. I feel the need to make amends. Not that my tastes in architecture have changed, but I wrote in ignorance. In Paris we had visited Opera Garnier, and greatly enjoyed walking around the auditorium and some of the building that was open to visitors. They were even polite enough to listen to our request for any tickets that might have been available. We ought to have known that they are as rare as hen’s teeth. In fact that was one reason why Mitterand wanted to build a new, bigger opera house in Paris. Opera was – and is – very popular but the existing building was just too small. Mitterand wanted not just a monument to his presidency – though it is that – but for somewhere ordinary people could go to enjoy the opera. Even ignorant tourists. When we got to the Opera Bastille there was some kind of demo going on for legalising pot. The doors were almost certainly locked against invasion. Anyway, we didn’t go back or even try to find out what was on, and what ticketing availability was like. I now think we ought to have done. And of course while I was aware that the new opera was a controversial project in the early eighties, I had my own concerns back then and had not yet decamped to Canada. So I did not know this engrossing story nor did I feel any kind of connection to the place. In fact while this was the site of the notorious prison it was also later the site of a large railway station. That had been closed and the viaduct converted into a delightful linear park the Passage Plantée. If anything I was a bit sad that the railway had closed: I have always had the feeling that we should hang on to railways and not turn them so readily into trails. In Paris they have been a bit more imaginative – and they have won much more convenience and service value by their skill at insertion of tramways into boulevards. So I am afraid that I was a bit prejudiced against the project from the start.

Do try and see this movie. It is well worth your time.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 26, 2021 at 12:21 pm

Posted in architecture

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