Parisian Walkways: The Rebirth of the Le Viaduc des Arts in the 12th Arrondissement

Parisian Walkways: The Rebirth of the Le Viaduc des Arts in the 12th Arrondissement

For more than a century, one of the main arteries feeding the heart of the French capital was a train line that arrived from east of Paris and reached its terminus at Place de la Bastille. Built in 1859, the project required the erection of a monumental viaduct across the 12th arrondissement of Paris made up of 64 splendid arched vaults. It heaved with traffic for 110 years, until in 1969 the creation of the RER A rendered the line redundant. The viaduct was subsequently abandoned and by the 1970s this once proud example of French industry had become just another example of urban decay in eastern Paris.

By the 1980s many were calling for the viaduct’s demolition, but the City of Paris instead hatched a bold plan. As part of a vast urban renewal programme, it would seek to give the abandoned train line a new lease of life in these neglected neighbourhoods, by injecting vitality of another kind. Above, where locomotives once fumed, thousands of trees, flowers, shrubs and grasses would be planted as a promenade plantée, a verdant, elevated promenade passing over the 12th district and continuing toward Vincennes. Below, the 64 vaults would become workshops and galleries to host arts and crafts professionals, who were increasingly being forced out of the capital. The last vaults opened in 1997.

Viaduc des Arts. Photo: Amel Buziarsist

In the 20 years since then, the Promenade Plantée, also known as the Coulée Verte, has become a beloved green walkway for nature-starved Parisians. And the vaults below have been transformed into le Viaduc des Arts, one and half kilometres of arcades along avenue Daumesnil occupied by 52 artisans of every sort imaginable – glass blowers, shoemakers, couturiers, jewellers, printers, cabinetmakers, instrument makers, metal smiths and gallerists, as well as restaurants, cafés, and other gourmet havens.

Yet the Viaduc des Arts was not an instant success. Only five years ago the French press reported on struggles to attract clientele. But, today, a fresh crop of artisans is creating a new dynamic for the Viaduc, and hopes are growing that the City’s bold experiment might just triumph after all.

Parisians enjoying the Promenade Plantée. Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

While not all Parisians have even heard of the Viaduc des Arts, master shoemaker Philippe Atienza seems to have been watching it his whole life. “I still remember walking in front of it as a boy,” he recalls. “It was a rather dodgy neighbourhood then, and most of the arches were boarded up. Some mechanics and garages had set up under a few vaults, but others had been taken over by drug dealers. We’ll just say it wasn’t the most attractive part of Paris!” Decades later, a job brought Atienza back to the neighbourhood again, just a stone’s throw from the viaduct, whose grand rehabilitation now captivated him. “I always thought that this viaduct, with its great arched windows, was the ideal place for an artisan to practise and present his profession. Because for me, artisans shouldn’t be hidden away in windowless workshops, they should show the public how they work.”

Today, it’s precisely that spirit that is driving the comeback of the Viaduc des Arts. “Il faut sauver le viaduc des Arts!” warned a 2012 headline in Le Figaro. “The City and its artisans launch measures to reawaken this somnolent showcase site,” the article read. Eva Saadoun, communication officer for Semaest, which manages the Viaduc on the City’s behalf, recalls the crisis. “The artisans felt that the avenue Daumesnil was not bringing them enough clientele,” she says.

“But in fact, people would pass in front of the Viaduc des Arts but never thought that they could stop and buy furniture, artwork or silverware, because the workshops appeared to be closed to the public. The artisans didn’t have opening hours on their doors, their windows were cluttered with supplies. Yet the real spirit of the Viaduc des Arts is supposed to be about sharing savoir-faire, it’s about creating a showcase of métiers d’art, arts and crafts professions in Paris.”

Philippe Atienza outside his workshop-showroom. Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

To meet the artisans invited to join the Viaduc in recent years, it’s clear that Semaest and the City have worked hard to rekindle that spirit. Take the most recent arrival – Philippe Atienza. After 40 years in the workshops of John Lobb Paris and later Massaro, two of the world’s most mythic luxury shoe companies, in 2016 the Viaduc des Arts gave him the chance to work on his own terms in a sunlit space at 53 avenue Daumesnil. For Atienza, that meant returning to the very essence of his craft – shoes made from the most precious materials, carved, cut and sewn entirely by hand, using the same tools cobblers had ages ago.

Visiting Atienza’s workshop showroom, one encounters so many strange 19th-century machines it seems more like a museum. “Yes, but a living museum,” notes Atienza. “Because everything here is used today to make modern shoes.” Whether it’s a traditional monk strap design, a plum-coloured Oxford in elephant leather, or a grey stiletto in python, each pair is patently the creation of a craftsman who has reached the pinnacle of his profession.

Bronze working at Mydriaz. Photo: Amel Buziarsist

Yet Atienza won’t be alone on his mountain top. Always by his side is a new young apprentice in training, he teaches workshops to novices who long to fashion their own pair of heels, and he’s even positioned his work tables directly in front the windows so any passer-by can view this age-old craft in process. “I believe that none of us is the proprietor of our profession,” he says. “We are only temporary custodians of a savoir-faire, and our job is to pass it on, to act as bridges to the next generation of artisans.”

Founded by Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert in 2015, Le Four is the only glass-blowing studio in Paris. Courtesy of Le Four.

That spirit of transmission also animates Le Four (101 avenue Daumesnil), the only glass-blowing studio in Paris, founded by the artist Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert in 2015. “We’re all in our twenties and thirties here,” says studio manager Lila Cegarra. “We’re a new generation trying to revive a profession that’s disappearing. When Jeremy took over the studio, his first goal was to bring down the wall between the artisans and the public, to permit them to come and stand at the window and watch a master glass blower shape his or her pieces right before their eyes.” Throngs of strollers are hypnotised daily by the spectacle of melted glass, whether it’s being formed into a tulip-shaped vase, a set of drinking glasses or one of the massive, free hand-blown ceiling lamps that made Wintrebert famous. (A singular talent, he was the subject of the 2015 documentary, Heart of Glass.)

Le Four. Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

“The Viaduc is really starting the change,” says Cegarra. “Not only are there more events, and more interaction with the public, there is much more cohesion between all the artisans of the Viaduc today.” Le Four frequently collaborates with Mydriaz (83 avenue Daumesnil), a design studio founded by three young artisan bronze workers who now create the stems and fixtures for Wintrebert’s lamps. In a similar way Atienza frequently trades tips, materials and tools with his neighbour, the master leather craftsman Serge Amoruso (37 avenue Daumesnil), while lithographer Stéphane Guilbaud of the eponymous art printing studio (63 avenue Daumesnil), couldn’t be happier to have an expert in restoring works of art on paper as his voisine – Mary Cattaneo of Atelier Cattaneo (71 avenue Daumesnil).

Inside the Atelier Stephane Guilbaud. Photo: Matthieu Gauchet

The Viaduc des Arts offers the public a chance to discover the work of exceptional artisans like Guilbaud. “It was a dream for me to find a place like this,” says Guilbaud, who moved his giant 19th-century lithography press into the Viaduc des Arts three years ago. “The arches themselves are so pleasant to work in, and there’s this ambience that comes from being surrounded by so many other artisans, even if their professions are often light years from my own. Being here has created a real dynamic, which becomes obvious during events like the Journées européennes des métiers d’art (the annual European arts and crafts days celebration).”

Parasolerie Heurtault. Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

There are fewer than 100 active Masters of Art in all of France, yet in the Viaduc des Arts, Guilbaud isn’t the only laureate. Michel Heurtault of Parasolerie Heurtault, a one-of-a-kind umbrella workshop at 85 avenue Daumesnil, received the honour in 2013. Heurtault is one of a handful of individuals in the world capable of creating umbrellas and parasols using exclusively 19th- and 18th-century techniques and natural materials. His designs cover the heads of European royals and haute-couture models, as well as actresses in period-piece productions on stage and screen. But an Heurtault umbrella is less a nostalgic throwback than a rejection of our modern throwaway culture. “The umbrellas we make here today demand a lot of patience,” he says, “but that’s what it takes to create an object not only of beauty, but an object which will last a lifetime – that is to say the opposite of everything else made today.”

Michel Heurtault makes umbrellas to last a lifetime. Photo: Anne-Laure Carmillieri

That same description could apply to the creations of Étienne Dulin, whose copper pots, skillets, omelette pans and cake moulds are used by three-star chefs around the world. Owner of the Atelier du Cuivre, Dulin founded an outpost of this 200-year-old copper manufacturer in the Viaduc des Arts in 1995. It evolved into the Atelier des Arts Culinaires (111 avenue Daumesnil), a showcase of French culinary craftsmanship. Chefs bring their copperware here for repairs by Ahmed Mouffok, a master turner who also manufactures copper tumbler drinking glasses on site.

Atelier des Arts Culinaires. Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

Further confirming how seriously the French take their culinary arts, in 2015 the Viaduc welcomed a chocolate-making workshop into this artisan stronghold. “Atelier C (123 avenue Daumesnil) was very lucky to be chosen,” says maître chocolatier Christophe Berthelot-Sampic. “Though it’s not traditionally the case, the City judged that chocolate making could be considered an arts and crafts profession.” Granted, Berthelot-Sampic is not your average chocolate maker. Using only the rarest, most aromatic cocoa beans from Mexico and Madagascar, Berthelot-Sampic makes chocolate like a winemaker, drawing out the specificities of different plantations, varieties, and harvests. A passionate educator, his bean-to-bar workshop is unique – you start with cocoa beans and a traditional Mesoamerican metate stone grinder, and you finish with your very own chocolate bar in your hand.

All along the Viaduc des Arts, craftsmanship is lived and shared, celebrated and – yes – sometimes even eaten too.

At Atelier C, you not only see chocolate being made, you can actually make your own


53 avenue Daumesnil, Tel. +33 (0)1 46 28 98 41

Before opening his bespoke shoe company in 2015, Philippe Atienza worked for decades in the world of luxury shoes, eventually rising to director general of Massaro, maker of iconic haute-couture footwear. He has now returned to the essence of his craft, creating both timeless and timely designs for men and women, entirely by hand, using turn- of-the-century tools and the rarest of leathers.

63 avenue Daumesnil, Tel. +33 (0)9 81 83 58 67

A world-renowned art lithographer, in 2010 Stéphane Guilbaud was awarded the title Maître d’art (Master of Art) by France’s Ministry of Culture. Now working in a spacious, windowed Viaduc atelier, the public can watch Guilbaud use his 19th-century press and peruse his vast gallery of rare prints.

Atelier Stéphane Guilbaud. Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

85 avenue Daumesnil, Tel. +33 (0)1 44 73 45 71

Michel Heurtault had a career as a high-flying costumier, equipping the opera and creating corsets for the Christian Dior fashion house, but he left that in 2008 to embrace his childhood passion for the umbrella. Blending haute-couture extravagance and unparalleled craftsmanship, Heurtault uses precious woods and damask silk to create umbrellas and parasols to last a lifetime.

101 avenue Daumesnil, Tel. +33 (0)1 40 29 91 59

Founded in 2015 by the brilliant glass artist Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert, Le Four (or ‘the furnace’) is today the only glass-blowing studio in Paris. Jeremy’s ceiling lamps have hung in Calvin Klein’s NewYork flagship store, his art installations in London’s V&A Museum, but Le Four’s team of young glass blowers also create glass work for daily life, from vases to lovely table services.

Atelier C. Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

111 avenue Daumesnil, Tel. +33 (0)1 43 40 20 20

First opening as a Paris branch of l’Atelier du cuivre – the historic Normandy manufacturer of French chefs’ most beloved copper pans – this workshop boutique evolved to showcase craftsmanship from across France. Foodies and chefs come for de Buyer utensils, Lion Sabatier cutlery, Wismer meat slicers, the repair service and the cooking workshops.

123 avenue Daumesnil, Tel. +33 (0)6 76 53 63 37

Atelier C’s Christophe Berthelot-Sampic is a maître chocolatier shop with a mission: to introduce chocolate lovers to the vast aromatic palette of true, grand cru chocolate. Approaching chocolate like wine, he highlights the distinctive flavours of each cocoa plantation, variety and vintage. He also teaches you how to make your own chocolate – from ‘bean to bar’ – in one remarkable workshop.

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From France Today magazine

Photo: Jeffrey T Iverson

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A native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, and a graduate of NYU’s Institute of French Studies and School of Journalism, Jeffrey T. Iverson has called Paris home since 2000. His stories of maverick chefs, enlightened winemakers and prolific artists have notably appeared in France Today, Time, Centurion and Departures magazines.

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  • Yvonne Hudacek
    2017-10-26 01:51:43
    Yvonne Hudacek
    Oh, how I wish I was there. Cafes there please. Yvonne