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October 03, 2016

Miniature Cities: Petit Paris

Text by Radha Kapoor-Sharma. Illustrations by Sirawon Khathing

View small-scale models of entire regions at a go and marvel at the dexterity involved in creating these mini cities…

Nestled in a garden high on a hill in Vaïssac, in the south of France, around 70 kilometres from Toulouse and 600 kilometres from the French capital, is Petit Paris. It is a beautiful, miniaturised reproduction of the original with its majestic monuments, elaborate gardens and even the iconic river Seine. Set in an exotic, French-style formal garden with evergreen yuccas, succulent agaves and lush palm trees, Petit Paris is the brainchild of artist and creator Gérard Brion.

Brion did not set out to recreate Paris. It all began in 1983 when, at the age of 13, his parents uprooted him from the town in which they were living to settle in Vaïssac, a small, isolated village. In the summer of that year, as the long holidays loomed endlessly before him, the bored young boy discovered a passion for singing. He was an ardent fan of one of France’s most popular music TV shows of the time, Champs-Elysées, in which stars sang against the backdrop of a famous Paris landmark, the Concorde Square. Wanting to do likewise, the enterprising young teenager set about building an Eiffel Tower in his parents’ garden just so he could pretend he was in Paris while singing. And thus, he discovered his vocation as an artist-cum-model-maker.

Over successive summer holidays, at school and later, even as a university student, without having visited Paris, he added more and more monuments: the Louvre, the Champs Élysées, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the National Assembly, Napoleon’s tomb…. Fourteen years and 25,000 working hours later, he had painstakingly recreated the whole centre of Paris with over 40 monuments, public parks, main streets and fountains.

He showed proof of his inventive and artistic talent by using recycled materials, cut-up squash bottles, baby food jars as well as concrete for his models that were 130 times smaller than the originals. His creations slowly invaded every inch of available space in his parents’ garden and, at one point, his father even threatened to demolish all of the models.

Initially, it was only the postman and a few friends and relatives who were privileged to glimpse these works of art. Slowly, as word spread, people in the neighbourhood began asking if they could visit. But it was Princess Diana’s death in August 1997 that proved to be the turning point.

In Paris, grieving visitors started placing flowers and cards at the Flame of Liberty sculpture by the Alma Bridge, where the tragic accident took place, making it an impromptu memorial. Visitors to Brion’s garden started to do the same. People came in droves to pay homage to the princess and to assuage their own grief. The media got hold of the story and since then, there has been no looking back. Today, the parental home is open to the public and attracts around 15,000 people annually. The creator of Petit Paris is now in the process of shifting his mini city of Paris to a larger venue in a more touristic area to attract even larger crowds.

Brion has attempted to make his little Paris as authentic as possible. His Louvre museum has over 500 reproductions of the works of the grand masters, like Leonardo da Vinci, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Raphael and more that he himself has executed. A sound and light show at his Moulin Rouge has little dolls dancing the French cancan. At night, all the monuments are lit up, just like they are in Paris.

The vital difference is that in Paris, the visitor looks up in awe at the lofty monuments while in Petit Paris you have the exhilarating experience of having Paris at your feet!

Radha Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based journalist, writer and interpreter.

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