Vingt Paris Magazine, 16/05/2010
On the corner of Boulevard de la Chapelle and Boulevard de Magenta, at the heart of noisy, relentless Barbès, stands a building. Amidst the clatter of the overground metro and the chatter of the traders lining the market below, and the unnatural din that emanates from the bazaars, cafes, stalls and kebab shops, and endless crowds of passers-by, the quiet of this battered monument is remarkable. No trace of its former glory remains, seemingly, until the sun breaks through the April storm clouds and lights up the golden tiles of a faded Egyptian facade. Floral scarabs and cobras lead the eye past a giant winged disc above the entrance to the relief on its far side, which reads, in magnificent art-deco lettering ‘LOUXOR – PALAIS DU CINEMA‘.
Designed by the architect Henry Zipcy, the Louxor first opened its doors on October 6, 1921, more than a decade before Le Grand Rex in the 2nd or La Cigale in the 18th. Inspired by the archaeological discoveries making headlines in the French press at the time, the flagship cinema of the Pathé chain was built in an Egyptian art-deco style. The facade outside was mirrored inside by murals depicting Egyptian scenes, hieroglyphics, plants and papyrus leaves. Two balconies overlooked the seats, orchestra pit and stage below. Its curious appeal made the cinema popular in early years.
However, despite the introduction of sound, colour and CinemaScope, by the mid-Fifties audience numbers began to decline. In the Seventies the decision was made to program an increasing number of Indian and Arabic films in ‘Version Originale’. Paris was changing, and the cinema originally created to amuse French-born Parisians with a glimpse of the exotic was now actively seeking to attract the increasing numbers of immigrants arriving from these far-away lands and settling in areas like Barbès. Nevertheless, the cinema continued to struggle financially.
In 1981, as various renovations were being carried out to the interior, the roof and facades were listed in the Inventory of Historic Monuments after a public campaign. The final years of the Eighties were marked by rapid decline; a murder took place in the stalls and Pathé sold the building to the bargain-store Tati. It briefly became the home of ‘Megatown’, a gay nightclub, and became increasingly associated with drugs, criminality and prostitution. In 1990, it was closed and left deserted.
In 2003, after a concerted local campaign, the Marie de Paris purchased the site. A program of restoration was begun under the direction of architect Philippe Pumain, with the intention of reopening the Louxor as an art-house cinema in 2013. The main hall and its murals will be restored, and the original balconies replaced with faithful replicas. The stage will be removed and two new multi-purpose rooms will be created in the basement. A cafe and terrace will be created on the roof overlooking the entrance. Modern features like disabled access and sound-proofing will be added.
The first phase of this renovation was completed last month, prompting a visit by Bertrand Delanoë , the popular Tunisian-born mayor of Paris. “Its truly magical, much more beautiful than I had imagined” he enthused. But the work has not been without controversy. Some have criticised a lack of consultation with the community, and questioned whether having spent an estimated 29 million euro renovating an historic local treasure, an art-house cinema represented the most valuable use of the site.
The main hall in the new Louxor will be named after Youssef Chahine, the ground-breaking Egyptian director who died in 2008 and a particular effort will be made to showcase films from Africa, India and Latin America. An attempt is being made to celebrate the cultural heritage of immigrants that came to areas like Barbès and flourished. Alongside the recently opened CentQuatre nearby, it represents another step in the ongoing regeneration of the north-east of Paris. For a building which has witnessed the evolution of this quartier throughout almost a century it could well become a symbol for those changes.