Anyone visiting Monaco for the first time will be struck by this land of contrasts. On the one hand it is very distinctly its own nation, with its own culture and language, revelling in its proud Grimaldi history. On the other, thanks to its tax status, it is also the pied-a-terre, or perhaps that should be the berthing-place, of any number of the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires.
It shares land-borders with la belle France, and has its own railway station, although the trains are administered by SNCF. Its tennis championship – the Monte Carlo Masters – is defiantly held a week before the Roland Garros. And although its football team (recently snapped up by a Russian billionaire) rides high in the French Premier League, its presence there is not without dispute, owing – once again – to the team’s favoured tax status.
The principality’s cars have their own number plates, but the cars which race around the Grand Prix circuit are driven by an international brigade of daredevils – several of them resident in Monaco – in a daring contest hemmed in by a street-pattern which is still in some places mediaeval. And above the shoreline where once only fishermen’s huts stood, soar the condominia and glistening towers of a thousand millionaires. Many think of Monaco as Manhattan-on-Sea, and they’re not far off the mark.
The contrast of wealth and super-wealth is best exemplified by the architecture. Monegasques and their relationship with celebrity culture is one thing, but the relationship has resulted in some truly spectacular – and to some critics – odd juxtapositions. What should a casino look like? Or a restaurant? or a five-star hotel? Or a football stadium? These are not new questions for Monaco.
Driving the coast road from Italy to France (the same one along which Grace Kelly drives in To Catch a Thief, and the same one on which she would meet her untimely death in 1982) reveals the architectural uniqueness of Monaco in plain view. For twenty minutes or so, the skyline changes abruptly, thanks to Prince Rainier’s 1960s decision to allow tower blocks to be built on the slopes that dominate the vista of Monte Carlo.
But it’s not just the high-rise apartments. In Casino Square itself, Charles Garnier’s extraordinary fin-de-siecle Casino – in the eyes of some visitors, one of the few surviving places with any architectural charm – is currently staring out over a vast gaping hole in what was once a park. The current building works, which will replace the Art Deco Sporting d’Hiver building in Casino Square (below) with a new shopping centre, is causing sufficient ripples to have resulted in a visit from the BBC, who will shortly be airing a documentary film on the subject.
In this context, the current exhibition at the Villa Sauber – Monacopolis – is topical. Its theme is unpublished documents, plans, watercolours, photographs and films referring to earlier plans for the Casino, the Café de Paris, the Hôtel de Paris, the Etablissements des Bains de Mer and the Palais des beaux-arts. A twin exhibition at the Villa Paloma explores some of the more recent designs such as this 1998 impression by Emilio Ambasz for a public park and residences.
For anyone interested in architecture or urban planning, or for those who feel passionate about the development of Monaco as a residential or business area, the exhibition, hosted by the New National Museum of Monaco, is a must-see.
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