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Marcel Storr, bâtisseur visionnaire at the pavilion Carré de Baudouin, Paris, until 31 March.
One draws cities for practical and for visionary reasons. Whatever they may draw as preparation, usually builders are preoccupied with cities that can be built and lived in. As in New York, where there is not much difference between the drawings of Hugh Ferriss and the Chrysler or Empire State buildings, in Paris the difference between the visionary city and the one which exists is less clear than in other places. Haussmann’s projects were, for better and worse, the personal dreams of an imagination pierced by perfect boulevards. The Haussmannian approach was a response to practical needs which nonetheless expressed a very particular aesthetic, more even than the projects completed by Robert Moses in New York. The transformations which took place in Paris under the Second Empire, or even some of the grands travaux of the 1980s, were not far from the drawings of a visionary such as Marcel Storr. Consider the Bibliothèque François Mitterand, a strange building all the stranger for pretending to be rationalist. Once built these projects show us the joys and perils of visionary urbanism.
This is Marcel Storr’s (1911-1976) context. His life, little known, about which little is known, was hard. Abandoned as a child, he was placed in a series of farms by l’Assistance publique. He was beaten and became deaf. He always drew, probably as a way of escaping the obstacles of this bitter existence. Until the 1960s he drew churches, or cathedrals, in greater and greater detail, sometimes over several large sheets of paper. While working as a “cantonnier d’empierrement saisonnier” or street-sweeper, in the Bois de Boulogne, he began to draw cities, or more probably different views of the same imaginary city. This was the time when La Défense was under construction, a specter Storr would have seen growing in the distance every day. His response, “des tours, il faut des tours,” transformed his art. He abandoned churches for towers. Though his drawings always remained drawings, Storr wanted to build; during his last years he became convinced that the president of the United States would come to consult him after Paris was destroyed in a nuclear catastrophe.
Although his art was clandestine and transpired well outside the artistic movements of his time (until his discovery by two art-lovers in 1971), Storr was no hermit. His statement about nuclear catastrophe shows that he well knew the themes of his time, even if his reality owed more to science fiction than journalism. One of the pleasures of this exhibition, which reunites the sixty known Storr drawings for the first time, is to try to guess his influences. One imagines that the briefest image flashed across the television or seen in the street would have had its effect. Like Gaudi, the architecture of the city of Storr comes from a gothic tradition, very evident at first in his churches and then more and more freely interpreted in his towers, where other possible influences, such as the temple of Angkor Wat, are evident. A visionary can go far with the gothic, a style which seems to attract a certain kind of strange and solitary genius. The exhibition makes an apt comparison between Storr and Simon Rodia, who built the Watts towers in Los Angeles. Both shared an approach in which detail proliferates, in which objects unfold piece by piece rather than according to a master plan. The imperfections which result become intrinsic. Although human beings are almost absent, except as ant-like swarms, Storr’s drawings gain their humanity thanks to all the little decisions made by his own hands.
There are no grand axes stretching to the horizon in Storr’s drawings. He had trouble with perspective and his buildings appear mostly in the foreground, almost in elevation. His colors, always autumnal, are his real success. These drawings depict both imaginary places and detailed patterns. Seen up close, the thousands of windows become patches of contrasting color, almost pixels. They give the impression of walking along the page. Sometimes a small misalignment causes a building to lean like the tower of Pisa, but these imperfections give the lively sense of movement and infinite complexity which is missing from those imaginary cities which are too perfect, too Haussmannien, even.
Storr’s real city, Paris, is a city of many modernisms. Art Nouveau, Art Deco and various singular mixtures are as important as the international style which dominates elsewhere. Here, ornament is never a crime. If La Défense inspired his towers, it was perhaps an older Paris which formed Storr’s sensibility. In any case, his art is true art brut. Builder or not, Storr seems to have lived in the city of his own imagination.