Vincennes zoo research lab

Stéphane Degoutin et Gwenola Wagon

Texte et tirage photographique

2010

Early 21st century. Closed for several years, the Vincennes Zoo awaits a rehabilitation which is slow in coming. The lack of money for maintenance, the vegetation proliferates, invades the alleys, climbs on the walls of the rocks, overflows the surrounding walls, the roots make the ground crack. Worn out by age and bad weather, the thin concrete envelope of the artificial rocks is deteriorating. A patina covers it, giving it a paradoxically natural appearance – except at the points where the concrete crumbles and exposes the metal reinforcements that are supposed to hold it in place.

NB. The action takes place at Vincennes Zoo in the late 2000s, before its renovation.

Photos taken on the last opening day of the zoo, November 30, 2008

The large rock, renovated a few years earlier, has a smoother and more uniform grey skin. It appears at the bend in the outlook of Vincennes and Saint-Mandé as a giant plastic toy forgotten in the midst of the quiet residential suburbs. A triangle furtively inserted in the interlacing of an exit from Paris, neither central nor peripheral, it disappears from the thoughts of the inhabitants of a metropolis that lacks neither wealth nor problems.

Yet the zoo continues to live in virtual secrecy, hidden within its walls. The animals, deprived of the distraction of the public, still sleep in their rocks. Guards continue to patrol the empty alleys. The administration manages the daily business.

A group of researchers who have not found any accommodation to rent in Paris or the suburbs, break into the zoo at night, with the complicity of a keeper, to sleep in an empty rock.

It is in May, the weather is mild and the rocks provide them with a minimal shelter. The zoo operates on a small staff, and it's easy for the researchers to go unnoticed. Friends join them. Gradually, the group grows larger and the makeshift shelter is gradually built, starting with the inside of the cages, invisible.

When the administration finally learns of their existence, the squatters are too numerous to be easily dislodged. Demonstrations of support are organized. The zoo has become a utopian space of freedom, a lawless zone outside the city, inaccessible to intruders. It is inhabited in an animal-like manner by a regressive community of semi-primitive intellectuals.

Photos taken on the last opening day of the zoo, November 30, 2008

In Saint-Denis, François Coignet had discovered the universal character of concrete, a plastic material that lends itself to all uses, a magic powder that makes traditional constructive logic obsolete and allows any architectural creation to be made (see Cyborgs in the mist). Le Corbusier would later show that reinforced concrete « frees » the plan (« plan libre »), « frees » the façade (« façade libre »), « frees » the ground construction (pilotis). The shape of a building is no longer dictated by the constraints of the materials : the universal material makes any shape possible and frees the architectural design from the old constructive necessities.

At Vincennes Zoo, the result of this logic is that construction is totally liberated. Concrete paradoxically returns to the state of nature. It is used to build an artificial nature, reconstructed from a single basic cell – the rock – a completely free natural form that spreads throughout the space, and expresses by itself in different variations, forming a continuum, the supposed environment of all the exotic species present.

The rocks form a unique and uniform setting : apart from the large rock, all the others have the same character. The dull and homogeneous skin spreads with indifference. Neither architectural nor organic, the rocks are more like « blob » and formless. A certain essence of reinforced concrete is attained here, the indifference of the material is manifested in the construction of an artificial environment reconstituted in powder form, homogeneous, devoid of life : animal housing cells, a continuous monument whose architectural framework is replaced by the infinite unfolding of an inexhaustible stone.

Credits

Tirage photographique 150 x 100 cm

Avec l'aide du Centre Photographique d'Île-de-France.