Spaghetti with sea urchin

The adventure of Le Corbusier’s barge

Spaghetti with sea urchin

On a blustery day last February, I navigated my bicycle down to the Seine River. Along the quai d’Austerlitz floats a slightly dilapidated barge, where I had an appointment with two architects, Michel and Julien. They’re in charge of restoring Paris’ first-ever floating monument, a river boat called the Louise-Catherine. The goal of our rendez-vous ? A private tour of this unsinkable memorial to fascinating times past.

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.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Floating refuge

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.”

Spaghetti with sea urchin

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.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

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.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

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.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

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.

Current status

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.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

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).

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Why, you might be asking yourself, have I included a recipe with sea urchin ? Is it because you can find them in the Seine River, next to Le Corbusier’s barge ? No, but apparently there is indeed fishing in the Seine, as evidenced by second annual “Fish and Streets” competition in June !

In fact, Le Corbusier’s favorite dish was spaghetti with sea urchin. He spent a lot of time on the Mediterranean coast in the south of France, in his cabanon or holiday hut, near Monaco and Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. There, you’ll find an entire complex of stunning modernist architecture, including Eileen Gray’s villa E-1027 and Le Corbusier’s camping “units.”

On the site was a small bar and restaurant called the Étoile de Mer, or Starfish. Opened in 1949 by Thomas Rebutato and painted by both Rebutato and Le Corbusier, the tiny restaurant served local specialties, most likely including spiny urchin plucked straight from the Med.

Spaghetti with sea urchin

Back to the quai d’Austerlitz : in front of the Louise-Catherine, an ugly container-like box sits waiting for summer use as a drink stand, and in keeping with the theme, was decorated to look a little like the Étoile de Mer. Julien and I decided to have a drink, or at least pretend the weather was good enough to do so….

Spaghetti with sea urchin

This recipe was inspired by Alain Ducasse’s Grand Livre de Cuisine Méditerranée. I’ve simplified the recipe and reduced the number of sea urchins, since they’re fairly expensive, perfect for a Michelin-starred restaurant. But in Le Corbusier’s time, this dish was a humble local specialty served up at the sunny terrace of the Étoile de Mer – the kind of place where your elbows are on the table and your feet are still covered in warm sand.

In France, there’s only a short time left to buy whole, live sea urchins at the market. (From May to September, urchins are busy reproducing, so they’re not available for eating !) If you’re buying whole sea urchins, you can ask the fishmonger to open them for you, but you’ll need to use them within the hour. If you’re more adventurous, you can watch this video to find out how to open sea urchins, but whether you open them on the top or the bottom will depend on the exact species of urchin.

And if, understandably, you don’t want to bother at all with whole urchins, you can buy just the roe, labeled as uni in Japanese markets, and packaged in wooden trays.

ingredients :
- about 1.5 pounds (700g) whole sea urchins, or about 7 ounces (200g) of sea urchin roe
- 1⅓ cup (320ml) chicken or shellfish stock
- 2½ tablespoons (40g) butter, cut into cubes
- 2 tablespoons mild extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 ounces (340g) spaghetti
- small handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
- salt to taste
- plenty of fresh ground pepper, or to taste

Spaghetti with sea urchin

how to make it :
1. If you’ve bought whole sea urchins, start by emptying out the black liquid inside each urchin. Then use a small spoon to gently lift out the orange roe from each urchin. There are five “tongues” in each urchin, and if they look gritty, you can rinse them very quickly in a bowl of salt water.
2. In small saucepan, bring the stock to boiling over medium heat. Reduce the heat slightly, and let the stock reduce to about a ¼ cup. (A trick to know when you’re “there” is to measure out ¼ cup water in the saucepan before you begin. Note where the water level is on the inside of the saucepan, then dump the water, pour in the stock, and begin simmering to reduce.)
3. In a medium to large saucepan – you’ll need to add the cooked pasta to it later – combine the butter, olive oil, and warm stock. Add the urchin roe, stirring just to warm it.
4. Cook the spaghetti in a very large pot of boiling, salted water, for the amount of time indicated on the package. While the pasta is cooking, transfer the roe mixture to a blender or use an immersion blender to make a smooth purée. Transfer this purée back to the saucepan.
5. Drain the pasta, shake the colander well, and then add the pasta to the urchin purée in the saucepan. Stir well with a long carving fork, and then use this fork to wrap ¼ of the pasta around and around it. Place the fork on the plate and gently slide the pasta “tube” off the fork. Repeat for the other 3 plates, pour over any sauce left in the pan, and sprinkle with the basil. Serve with a large pepper mill so guests can add as much pepper as they like.

makes 4 servings ; sauce recipe makes about 1⅓ cups

Tags : Le Corbusier , pasta , sea urchin , Princess de Polignac , Louise-Catherine , Salvation Army , Winaretta Singer , La Cité de Refuge , Michel Cantal-Dupart


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Alisa Morov 25 avril 2016

I love this post, the Architecture and the Urchins.... Fabulous !

Allison Zinder 25 avril 2016

Thank you for reading and commenting ! Much appreciated.

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