November 6, 2015 12:22 pm
Running parallel to the Seine, Paris’s Rue de Rivoli stretches from the Place de la Concorde in the west to the Bastille in the east, through some of the most expensive real estate in the city. A cultural and commercial thoroughfare, vendors here sell foie gras and Chanel, summoning well-heeled tourists and locals as they drift from the Louvre to the Left Bank.
It is surprising, then, to stumble upon the multicoloured doorway of number 59. The former squat-turned-arts centre takes up an entire Haussmann building, its façade decorated with handmade banners and patchwork flags. The former Crédit Lyonnais office building, it was overtaken in the 1990s by the KGB — not the Soviet security agency but an art collective named after its founders: Kasper, Gaspard and Bruno. In 1999, the trio won a legal battle against local authorities and were able to turn what had been a dilapidated building into a free exhibition and studio space. Now fully supported by the state, 59 Rivoli has emerged as a cultural asset in one of Paris’s most expensive quarters.
“Our strategy was always to open this place to the public so that they could enter the ateliers and see the artists at work,” says Gaspard Delanoë, the “G” in KGB. “If nothing is done to help artists have some space, the whole city will just be a giant commercial mall with no creative places; no place to think, to discuss, to have some reflection about their own lives, because that’s what art is all about — it’s a social link,” he says. Today, property near 59 Rivoli sells for between €9,000 and €13,000 per sq metre, according to Fabrice le Ruyet of Sotheby’s International Realty in Paris. Even a conservative valuation, therefore, would put 59 Rivoli, which measures 1,200 sq metres, at a value of well over €10m. A five-minute walk from 59 Rivoli in Quai du Louvre, Sotheby’s is selling a four-bedroom apartment in a mid-18th-century building for €4.2m.
KGB is not the only collective intent on reclaiming prime real estate in the world’s major cities. In London, the fifth most expensive city in the world to live and work, according to Swiss bank UBS’s September report, a community project called Hive Dalston is concerned that properties that are bought as investments and then left empty are pricing out creative projects in the city. “We want to organise ‘meanwhile leases’ with owners for non-profit, artistic projects,” says Pete Phoenix from Hive. “We have to ensure the future of artistic projects in the city centre.”
Last Christmas, he worked with a group of squatters named Love Activists who tried to transform Cavell House, a former RBS building on Charing Cross Road, central London, into a homeless shelter and kitchen. The group were later evicted from the premises. The building had been empty since 2013 and is still unoccupied today.