A Paris Funeral Home Becomes an Art Center

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Edouard Caupeil

Dying for some art Visitors can satiate culture cravings with a packed calendar of shows

By all accounts, Paris is a city happily reconciled with death: its cemeteries, from Montparnasse to Montmartre and Père-Lachaise, aren't dour sites of mourning and mortality so much as elegiac pleasure grounds. They memorialize the city's famed, infamous and all but forgotten in parklike environments studded with tombs so exquisitely imaginative that they resemble works of art. There's a certain macabre logic, then, to Le 104 (or the Centquatre), an ambitious multidisciplinary arts center that was once a state-run pompes funèbres — a municipal funeral hub from which hearses, coffins and corpses were dispatched to cemeteries.

Nowadays, the 136-year-old building betrays few signs of its grim history thanks to a $150 million makeover spearheaded by Mayor Bertrand Delanoë as part of a long-term effort to revitalize Paris' 19th arrondissement. Launched just over a year ago, with high-profile events by fashion giant Alexander McQueen, trip-hop icon Tricky and art-rock legend Lou Reed, the immense 39,000-sq-m space was renovated by architectural firm Atelier Novembre. It boasts artist studios, designer boutiques, a café, a bookshop, a children's area and even a free-standing pizza truck under its soaring glass roof, which echoes the spectacular glass-domed Grand Palais rather more closely than the set of Six Feet Under.

Today, 200 working artists from around the world are based within the complex. Studios can be occupied for up to 10 months without charge, on condition that they are opened regularly to the public. Tenants range from rappers and conceptual sound artists to classical composers and theater directors, so visitors should expect diversity: during a recent visit, happenings included a complimentary qigong workshop, a staging of Racine's Phèdre and a mechanical chair lurching across the complex's imposing central courtyard to the fraught polyrhythmic stylings of a string quartet. It's enough to wake the dead.

See 104.fr for details.