If you’ve ever wondered what to do in Paris when you’re tired of the big museums but wish to take in a small exhibition or art installation, or watch a performance in a chilled place with a youthful vibe, cultural center 104, in the 19th Arrondissement, is the place to go.
Located in the north of Paris, the building itself has an interesting history. It used to be a municipal undertaker’s (Service municipal des pompes funèbres, or SMPF) before the state monopoly (yes, there was one!) on undertakers ended in 1993. Within the vast and high-ceilinged building, there used to be offices, workshops and stables where carpenters, carriage makers, bricklayers, mechanics, tailors, painters, porters and others toiled away. It was apparently a happy, buzzing and self-sufficient community that even had its own orchestra and football team. The SMPF closed its doors in 1998 and a cultural center encompassing all forms of art, with an emphasis on the community, was conceived.
Nave of 104, former municipal undertaker’s, now a cultural center.
One of the first things you’ll notice as you enter the courtyard is the number of young people rehearsing. I counted at least six amateur groups scattered, practicing hip-hop or reciting lines. A second courtyard leads to the nave and main hall, a lofty space with sunlight streaming in from the glass ceiling. On the day of my visit, part of the hall had been rented by the Picard group for its company lunch, but other days would see the space filled with anything from film projections in one of its theatres to exhibitions, concerts, art installations and its monthly Bal Pop, open-air dancing open to one and all.
Lofty hall filled with students rehearsing and people relaxing.
Flanking this long space are workshops and studios for rent. 104 has resident artist programs as well as incubator programs, and peeking into these studios, one can see artists at work. It is easy to spend a good part of a day at 104, because there is also a lovely bookshop, le Merle Moqueur, with a good range of art books and foreign literature.
Le Merle Moqueur, 104’s sunlit bookshop.
Next to the bookshop is the appartement Emmaüs. The Emmaüs association operates a number of thrift shops in Paris, but what makes this one different is that it has been designed to look like a real apartment, so there’s none of the usual clothes dumped pêle-mêle or dusty books in boxes! Unfortunately it was closed when I was there (note that it’s closed on Sunday and Tuesday), but I’m coming back to explore this quaint-looking shop. Parents would also be happy to know there is la Maison des Petits, which organizes free reading and art programs in the afternoons—which would explain the number of children and baby carriages I saw on the premises.
La Maison des Petits, for children.
The main draw should of course be the cultural offerings at 104. There are too many to summarize here, but take a look at the 104 website and see if you won’t be tempted. From apartheid-era South African dance to a breathtaking solo acrobatic performance, from recitals melding cinema and music to a “live” exhibit on colonialism, the emphasis seems to be on contemporary, eclectic, collaborative and cross-genre. Even if you don’t go with anything in mind, you can spend a very agreeable afternoon browsing in the peaceful sunlit bookshop and people-watching on one of the deck chairs. On Saturday mornings, there’s even an organic farmers’ market on the premises. You can also grab a bite from la Table or Café Caché, two restaurants in the center, as well as a pizza truck.
Grab a bite at Café Caché, one of the center’s eating spots.
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5, rue Curial, in the 19th Arrondissement.
Open Tues–Fri, noon–7 p.m.; Sat–Sun, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; closed Monday.