Closed to the public for the moment, the 68-meter (or 223-foot) barge was built in 1919, with help from the Americans, to transport English coal upriver from Le Havre to Paris – even though it was only used for this purpose once ! Julien explained that the Liège, the boat’s original name, was one of a few rare constructions in reinforced concrete, and that the chaland, or unmotored barge, was an open vessel pulled upstream by a tugboat.
In 1929, the Salvation Army bought the vessel with the noble idea of converting it to house the downtrodden, those who were “without address, rest, nor hovel.” So how did such an illustrious modernist architect like Le Corbusier end up renovating a river barge destined for use as a “floating refuge” ?
I’ve written about Le Corbusier before, in this post. But that was before I learned of his patronage by a princess. The luckiest (or most well-connected) artists of that period had a mécène, or benefactor, and The Salvation Army certainly didn’t have the funds to pay Le Corbusier. In fact, he wasn’t even part of the project until the Princess de Polignac stepped in.
Marvelous musical salons
Born Winnaretta Singer in the United States in 1865, the princess was heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, and her first marriage was never consummated. On her wedding night, she allegedly jumped on top of an armoire and threatened her new husband not to touch her if he valued his life. In fact, “Winnie” wasn’t interested in any man touching her at all.
Winnaretta’s second marriage to Prince Edmond de Polignac was a successful arrangement, or mariage blanc : he was gay, and she lesbian. She became the Princess de Polignac and held marvelous musical salons, where the city’s most talented people would gather, such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Proust, Jean Cocteau, and Colette, who once wrote of Winnie, after a concert, “Bach’s music is a sublime sewing machine.”
The patronage of the Princess
But the princess wasn’t just interested in women and song : she was a budding philanthropist, and decided to co-finance the Salvation Army’s projects starting in 1926, on the condition that her good buddy Le Corbusier reign as official architect. That year Le Corbusier built La Cité de Refuge in the 13th arrondissement (soon to be opened to the public for visits), and renovated the barge which would become known as the Louise-Catherine.
As the influential architect Michel Cantal-Dupart and his assistant Julien Gautho led me around the boat, they pointed out various features of the original structure, and those that Le Corbusier had added. Since the barge was designed to transport coal, it initially had no roof. Le Corbusier raised the sides and installed one, under which seem to float long sash windows (known in French as “guillotine windows”).
The original windows were damaged, but they’ve been replaced with Le Corbusier’s design, and the special groove for opening them (which Julien is showing me) has also been reproduced faithfully.
Bunk beds and stilts
I’m not sure that Michel and Julien will attempt to reproduce every detail, because between the years 1929 and 1994, anywhere from 65 to 150 people were housed on board in 3 dormitories. There were showers, a kitchen, and a mess hall, which could also serve as a meeting room to insure “the material and moral comfort of…clients.” Bunk beds aren’t a part of the renovation project.
But other details are immutable, including some features of Le Corbusier’s “five points towards a new architecture,” (see here, p.6) among which figure the windows previously mentioned, as well as pilotis, or stilts, which he installed through almost the entire length of the boat.
And I was delighted when Julien demonstrated Le Corbusier’s modulor system of harmonious proportions, officially published in 1948. The height of the mezzanines follow the system precisely : Julien raised his arm to just brush the tip of his finger on the mezzanine level, adjusted to an average man’s height of 1m83 (or roughly 5 feet, 6 inches).
So what’s the current status of Le Corbusier’s barge ? Michel Cantal-Dupart is the head architect and president of the Association Louise-Catherine, one of the current owners of the barge and the organization working to revive its heritage.
But the renovation project is complex, and involves not only Cantal-Dupart and the Association, but also the Mairie (town hall) of the 13th arrondissement, the City of Paris, the Le Corbusier Foundation, and the head architect from Historical Monuments to help oversee renovation. (Not to mention the enormous budget, a good part of which must still be found.)
Who was Louise-Catherine ?
Although it’s still closed to the public, future uses of the barge could include rental for conferences or for architecture training, or for private groups. Or… how about renting the barge to shoot a movie about the colorful Princess de Polignac ? (You can read more about her here, or order this book in English.)
Last mystery : what about the name of the boat ? Who was Louise-Catherine ? The original funding for the purchase of the boat came from Madeleine Zillhardt, a friend of the Salvation Army director’s wife. Ms. Zillhardt’s lifelong companion was the artist Louise-Catherine Breslau, whose works are shown in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
Historic photos of the Louise-Catherine courtesy of the Association Louise-Catherine.
The self-portrait of Winaretta Singer was published before January 1, 1923 and is in the public domain PD-1923.
Find out more about the adventure of the Louise-Catherine by reading Cantal-Dupart’s book (in French).