Feature Articles – Mitterrand’s Great – Unknown – Work
The glass pyramid of the Louvre, La Défense, even the quaint “Monument to the Rights of Man” are known to sit within the French President François Mitterrand’s enigmatic building obsession. But Cergy-Pointoise’s “Axe Majeur” is both the largest and never cited work developed under Mitterrand’s reign. So why is it so unknown?
by Philip Coppens
When Khufu built the Great Pyramid, little may he have known that millennia later, his pyramid would be remembered as the greatest monument ever erected by a head of state. Still, it is logical to assume that even in his days, the pyramid was seen as a major accomplishment.
In modern France, President François Mitterrand, nicknamed “the Sphinx”, may – or perhaps should – go down as a man who tried to accomplish as much. His modifications of Paris, specifically with the pyramid of the Louvre and the extension of Paris’ main axis towards La Défense, have captured the imagination of many, including Dan Brown and Robert Bauval, the latter who has seen this “Great Work” as a series of subtle modifications with a hidden, esoteric meaning, in line with sacred Egyptian town planning and stellar alignments.
Some authors have also drawn attention to the “Monument to the Rights of Man and the Citizen”, a small building in the shadow of the Eiffel tower, modelled on an Egyptian funerary temple. It is aligned to the summer solstice, when the sun at noon penetrates a shaft between its two columns. It is said that Mitterrand sometimes came here during the night, apparently to think, meditate or reflect.
Few, however, have noticed one of the grandest, most enigmatic and impressive creations that Mitterrand’s regime accomplished: the “Axe Majeur” in Cergy-Pontoise. As the name indicates, this is a veritable “major axis”, in a town – La Pontoise – where one of the most infamous alchemists of all times, Nicolas Flamel, was born.
As to Cergy: contrary to other new towns that derive their names from existing villages or geographical features, there was no place named Cergy. The story goes that someone observed that paths in the upper part of the Axe Majeur, which was already integrated in the general lay out of the project, looked like the letter Y, and proposed to name the new town Cergy, the inversion of “Y Grec” – the Greek Y – in French. The letter Y was one of the favourite symbols of the Pythagorians, indicating that the path of anyone’s life divided into the two paths of vice and virtue. The axis is the feature of Cergy-Pontoise, a suburb of Paris, roughly between the city centre and Charles de Gaulle airport. The axis is the creation of artist Dani Karavan and is the “soul” of this new town. It stretches for three kilometres and, if ever archaeologists were to stumble upon its remains in future centuries, would be classified as a leyline. Though it is doubtful leylines have any earth energy attached to them, the “axe majeur” actually might. But, primarily, the axis was to be the creative energy for the local community, offering the town’s inhabitants a site to walk, relax and attend festivals.
Karavan was an artist born in Tel Aviv in 1930 and from 1963 devoted his life to monumental art. He started with the “Negev Monument” in the desert around Beer Sheba, and created similar works in Spain, Italy, Korea and Germany, where in Nuremberg he created a sculpture in homage to human rights.
The idea for a feature for Cergy-Pontoise existed as early as 1975 and became more than just talk when, in 1978, the works of Karavan in Florence were noted by those in charge of the Cergy project. A long exchange of letters began and in 1980, Karavan visited the town and accepted the project, making a wooden model of his plan over the next month, which he submitted for approval. The idea of the “Axe Majeur” thus predates Mitterand’s regime, which began in May 1981. This may explain why it does not feature on his list of Great Works. But, as was so often the case with this French president, things are not that easy. Furthermore, even though Karavan’s project predates Mitterrand’s Great Works… it is – remarkably – also the last to be completed. Hence, it is the alpha and the omega, encapsulating everything else. Mitterrand’s Great Works were spread not only in a precise location, but also in a precise timeframe. The greatest work, size-wise, that Mitterrand accomplished was La Défense, or the “Grand Arche de la Défense”, commissioned in 1982 and completed in 1989. A gigantic inverted U-shape, the structure was meant to express Masonic and Pythagorean symbolism. The design was by Johan-Otto von Spreckelsen, who called it a “porte cosmique” – a cosmic door, or star gate. It sits at one end of the major axis that runs from the Louvre through the Champs Elysées. Bauval has noted how on specific days of the year, the sun can be seen to set along this axis, its disc framed by the Arch.
In front of the Arch, there is the commercial centre of the “Four Times”, a reference to the four ages of the esoteric tradition, the Age of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron. Here, time and space has thus become entwined.
But it was definitely not a coincidence that the Arch itself was inaugurated on July 14, 1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, when the G7 Summit was hosted in Paris. As Jules Boucher observed: “It were of course seven masters that participated in the search.” Seven is indeed one of the most holy numbers. And, of course, the letter G is an important Masonic letter, referring to God. Masons normally depict the letter G in the centre of the Blazing Star. All of these “coincidences” make it clear that Mitterrand was working to a preconceived timeline, with subtle clues, containing major significance. Before focusing our attention on the “Major Axis”, indeed, its name implies there is a smaller axis. This “Minor Axis” runs from the local train station, with the “place de l’Horloge”, a giant watch, which is visible from one end of the Major Axis. Hence, both Minor and Major Axes are linked… but, especially, time, with the giant watch, is a main component of this Great Work too!
Furthermore, just like the Minor and Major Axes interrelate, some have argued that the “axis” of the Champs Elysées is integrated with the “Axe Majeur”. Plotting the two axes, they cross – or link –on an island in the river Seine, in the town of Carrières-sur-Seine. Coincidence, or design? As mentioned, the “Axe Majeur” had – and has – several phases. It remains a work in progress. As a whole, the axis has twelve stations, some of which are more recognisable than others. The twelve stations are: the observation tower, the “place des colonnes Hubert Renaud”, the Impressionists’ Park, the Esplanade de Paris, the terrace, the garden of Human Rights Pierre Mendes France, the amphitheatre, the scene, the bridge, the astronomical island, the pyramid, and the “Carrefour du ham”.
The axis is thus a complex artistic realisation, involving several components. Its origin is a tower, known as the “Tour Belvédère”, which is a phenomenal structure, rising to a height of 36 metres. Originally, the now square tower – with sides of 3.6 metres each – was going to be circular. It sits in the centre of a semi-circle of buildings, and at the centre of a ring of 360 paving stones, each 36 centimetres big. At its foot, the axis commences, cutting its way through an opening between the two semi-circular buildings, the passage having a width of 3.6 metres. The number 36 is obviously key in the overall design.
The tower thus acts like a solar gnomon, casting its shadow on the surrounding pavement, while the axis throws itself in between the buildings that were created by Ricardo Bofill, but which were not originally part of the design. The two buildings of Ricardo Bofill are exactly oriented East-West. One is a semi-circle, symbolising the sky, oriented westward, and the other, half a square, symbolises the earth, oriented eastward, the inversion of the traditional orientation. Bofill incorporate the same orientation to two other buildings, located on top of the highest hills around Paris. On the other side of the building are well-maintained gardens, in which apple trees grow. It is said to be an homage to the impressionists that loved to paint the countryside and especially fruit trees that were covered by flowers in springtime. Of course, the apple is a very symbolic fruit – and what to make of the fact that Mitterrand labelled one of the skyscrapers to be designed around La Défense “Eve”? Unfortunately, the first series of planted trees did not produce any apples. In 2007, new trees were planted – which hopefully will bear fruit. A lot has been made about the Glass Pyramid of the Louvre, if only because of its prominent inclusion in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”. Brown adjusted the number of glass panels to 666, to imbed even more symbolism into this structure. But what is often overlooked, is that to create this structure, some of the old – and beautiful – paving stones of the “Court Napoleon” had to be removed, to make room for the pyramid. These paving stones were carefully dug up, and transferred to Cergy-Pontoise, where they are now positioned in a semi-circle, an official part of the “Axe Majeur”. Coincidence? Or design?
It is not the only Louvre connection. Perhaps the axis’ signature feature is the twelve columns, which have the same dimensions as those of the arch of the Carrousel of the Louvre. These twelve columns, as well as the twelve components that make up the axis, underline that apart from the number 36, the number 12 is equally important. And 12 and 36 obviously are no strangers to each other. Twelve is a primary number in the zodiac and timekeeping, whereas 36 and 360 were key features of the Egyptian calendar – a time, and a place, with which Mitterrand was enamoured by. In fact, some argue that Mitterrand believed he was the incarnation of an Egyptian Pharaoh! Do these twelve columns also refer to the twelve columns of the New Jerusalem? Furthermore, some claim that the Arche de la Défense is also built on twelve columns. Its outer shape is that of a cube, like the New Jerusalem, though it is empty (to some extent, it is the same in the Axe Majeur where the twelve columns support nothing), while the New Jerusalem, although containing no temple, is filled with God’s Glory. The site’s “leyline” connection is concretised between the slabs that were formerly in the Louvre and the twelve columns: the “Fountain of Vapours”, which was designed to evoke the geothermic qualities of the site, as underneath the site sits a hot water reservoir. One could even wonder whether this feature – less impressive than most others on this line – may nevertheless have been one of the primary reasons why the axis was located in this precise location. The vapours emanate from the Dogger Phreatic layer, found at a depth of 1000 to 1500 metres beneath the Ile de France. Its temperature varies from 56 to 85 Celsius degrees and is used to provide heating to 34 locations, Cergy being one of them. Some observers have seen the vapours rising from below as symbolising the Underworld.
From the twelve columns, a series of steps descends to the river Oise below. It is in this garden that the personal involvement of François Mitterrand can be proven: on October 18, 1990, he planted an olive tree… which had been especially imported from Vinci in Italy. Some may wonder whether that was a coincidence, or a symbol, and whether this is yet another, if not the real, Da Vinci Code – or Vinci Code. As mentioned, the project was conceived as one whole, yet certain sections were only constructed at a certain time. Though this would often be given logical explanations (such as funding, a special occasion, etc.), sometimes, its phased realisation resulted in higher costs. Hence, some have suggested that the project had a prescribed timeline, which was not necessarily communicated to all. Hence, though the project is often not seen as a Great Work of Mitterrand, largely because of a timeline that preceded and post-dated the French President, such purely three-dimensional considerations might be totally wrong in the realisation of a – and this – Great Work.
Though conceived in the 1970s, it was only in 1986 – well into Mitterrand’s regime – that the first three sections were completed: they were the “Place de la Tour”, the “Tour Belvèdere” itself and the “Vergers des Impressionistes” – the apple tree garden.
Then, on August 26, 1989, the year France was celebrating its bicentenary, and six weeks after the G7 summit in Paris, the twelve columns were inaugurated in the presence of 10,000 people. The following year, the laser light between the Tour and the Carrefour du Ham became operational, materialising the axis into an axis of light. As mentioned, the following year, Mitterrand personally came on site… to plant a tree. Any Great Work has an idea, a realisation and a completion. And the realisation definitely involved Mitterrand. The third and lowest level of the Axis are the structures around the river and an artificial lake. No doubt the most ingenious of these constructions is a pyramid that seems to be emerging from the lake’s surface, and which sits just off the axis itself. The pyramid was completed in 1992 and is meant to symbolise the harmony between Man and Nature. It was designed so that the wind, one of the Four Elements, would play with its layers, so that a type of natural music was created on this island that is only reachable by boat. Those who arrive, will find the pyramid is hollow and open on one side, revealing its blue azure-like interior. By coincidence or design, it has become a breeding site for migrating birds. Are they to represent the Egyptian Bennu bird – the phoenix – or are they instead references to those birds that carried the soul of the deceased? Or is it just coincidence? Then, for several years, little if anything happened. In 2002, a red bridge was added to the complex, which ran from one side of the river to the other. In 2007, work began on completing “the Path”: the possibility that Man walks from one end of the Axis to a circular island next to the submerged pyramid: the “Astronomical Island”. This island is a highly intriguing feature, both in visual appearance and in name, adding a stellar connotation to the project. A remnant of an old sand pit, the island is equally unfinished, as it is expected to see the installation of a sundial, a meridian stele, an observational staircase and various other instruments that will make this island true to its name. Whatever the axis of the Champs Elysées might represent, it is clear what the Axe Majeur is meant, and will one day, represent. As mentioned, in 2007, the bridge over the Oise was extended, so that it would finally reach the island. Why someone would build a bridge in 2002 and then wait five more years to build a relatively small extension that would complete the design, is a question that few have posed, and for which the reason cannot be due to funding or other excuses. It is here that it becomes clear, that this was intended as such and that the entire project conforms to a specific timeline. As with any sacred building, the creation of sacred space, requires a knowledge of sacred time. And only by mixing those ingredients, correctly, can one potentially realise the Greatest of Works. This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 9 (2007) and Atlantis Rising (September – October 2011).