Read The Paris Architect: A Novel Online

Authors: Charles Belfoure

The Paris Architect: A Novel (6 page)

“Did you ever think that those factories might help France after the war?” asked Lucien.

“Next, you’ll be giving me that collaborationist rot—‘Let’s show we’re good losers, get back to work as usual, and work together with the Boche.’ Anyway, now that the Americans are in this mess, you’ll soon be seeing bombers by the hundreds over France. Your masterpiece will be in ashes.”

Lucien chomped down on a piece of very stale bread. He
would
be designing buildings for France that would be used after Germany’s defeat, which at the moment seemed far-fetched. But he honestly believed it would happen. The main thing was to manage to stay alive to see it.

“I’m seeing Manet this week about the project,” he said.

Celeste turned slowly to face Lucien, a bloody knife in her hands. An evil smile came over her face.

“I bet you’d ask me to sleep with a client for a commission, wouldn’t you?”

“I’d never do such a thing!” he shouted. “What a horrible thing to say.”

“But you’ll design for the Germans.”

“This is war, and I’ll do anything to keep us alive.”

“What about keeping your honor?”

Celeste threw the knife into the sink and walked out of the kitchen as the lights flickered back on.

***

Celeste went into the bedroom and sat in a big overstuffed armchair by the window. It was her favorite place in the apartment. She liked to read there or, in the afternoon, watch the children play in the courtyard below. The chair was soft and comfortable, unlike the furniture in the living room, which was of the modernist style Lucien loved so much. She found the “clean, simple modern lines” of the chairs and sofa uncomfortable and cold. It was Lucien who chose the furniture. A price a woman paid when she married an architect, she learned. Celeste had gone along with his selections because she’d loved him and she trusted his architect’s taste in things even though her tastes were far more traditional. Flower-patterned wallpaper and carpets with carved walnut furniture were more to her liking, like the things in the apartment where she grew up.

Celeste pulled out a scarf from the stainless steel dresser inlaid with ebony wood, which rested against the wall opposite the bed. She paused and looked down at the bottom drawer, at what had been resting under the scarf. Baby blankets, dozens of them, in bright colors. She ran her hand over the soft lamb’s wool then picked one up and held it to her cheek.

6

When an elderly porter led Lucien into Manet’s office at his factory in Chaville, Lucien was shocked to see German officers sitting in front of the old man’s ornate mahogany desk, smoking cigarettes and casually conversing with him. He had imagined a private meeting with Manet, in which he would learn the particulars of the project. Maybe a leisurely lunch afterward with a glass of real wine and roast duck. Manet would be paying, of course.

Manet beamed a great avuncular smile when he saw Lucien and immediately rose from his chair. The Germans sat where they were, puffing away without the least bit of curiosity for the late arrival. Lucien was two minutes early, but being familiar with German punctuality, he knew they had arrived at least ten minutes early.

“Ah, Lucien. Thank you for coming,” Manet said. “Let me introduce you to the members of our team.”

Lucien took an immediate dislike to the word “team.” Team meant creative interference and problems.

“This is Colonel Max Lieber of the Wehrmacht.”

The stout, barrel-chested German rose, clicked his heels, and firmly shook Lucien’s hand. It was the first time Lucien had shaken hands with a German, and he was surprised that the officer did not try to squeeze the blood out of his hand. He imagined that Prussian military men often did that. Lieber looked like the stereotypical German soldier, with the short military haircut and bull neck that the French made fun of.

“A great pleasure, Monsieur Bernard,” said the German, in a soft smooth voice that didn’t conform with his coarse features.

“And this is Major Dieter Herzog, also of the Wehrmacht. He’s a structural engineer and head of construction and engineering of armaments facilities for the Paris region.”

This German was in his mid-thirties, of average height, with a face that could have been mistaken for a film star’s. He put out his cigarette in the ashtray on Manet’s desk and slowly rose from his seat. He had a handshake exactly like Lieber’s. Handshaking must have been taught at officer’s school. Herzog’s clear blue eyes gazed into Lucien’s, but he just smiled and did not say anything.

Lucien was still dazed by the presence of the Germans so close to him, in the tight confines of this office.

“Please sit down, Lucien, and we’ll begin,” Manet said. “I have a plan of the site so we can get an idea of how the building will fit.”

Manet unrolled a drawing and placed it on a clear spot on his desk. Lucien thought he should have pinned it up on the wall.

“Monsieur Manet, may I pin this drawing on the wall over there so that we can get a better look?” asked Herzog in a polite manner. “It’ll be easier to draw on if we have to.”

Lucien was impressed as Herzog took the drawing to the wall opposite the desk and secured it with some tacks. Without anyone saying a word, all four men dragged their chairs in front of the drawing. Herzog stood next to the drawing and studied it intently. He then pulled a small engineer’s scale out of his side tunic pocket and placed it on the drawing. Lucien knew that this man would be running the meeting and that from now on he would have to do whatever Herzog said.

“Since the factory will be on one floor, with the exception of some mezzanine space, let’s assume a 50,000-square-meter footprint,” said Herzog as if he were talking to the drawing. He moved the scale around and then pulled a pencil out of the same pocket, making tick marks on the paper.

“It fits without any problem, plus there’s plenty of room for stockpiling materiel outside.”

“Excellent, Major,” said Lieber.

“Maybe even room for expansion in the future,” Lucien said, knowing that this would please the Germans. Expansion would mean the war was going well for their side.

“Exactly, Monsieur Bernard. Room for a separate plant or just an addition,” said Herzog.

Herzog started to draw on the map but stopped and looked at Lucien.

“Monsieur Bernard, maybe you could come up and rough out the location and how you think the road would connect to the site. Just a rough concept, you know, to get us going.” He handed Lucien the pencil.

Lucien was delighted to take charge. For the next two hours he led a discussion of how the project should be sited, drawing the outline of the building on the map, then erasing it and placing it in another location, and then another, until all four men were in agreement on where the factory should be placed. They talked about entrances and exits, flow of production, and lighting.

While the Germans were talking to Manet about the cost of construction, Lucien, who had sat back down to listen, felt a shiver go up his back. He was so caught up in the planning of the new factory he’d completely forgotten about his extracurricular work for Manet. At this very moment, they both had their heads in the mouth of the lion. The realization made him nervous and prompted fierce perspiring. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.

Herzog looked over at him with a concerned expression. “Monsieur Bernard, you don’t look well. Do you want some water?”

“No. No. I’m fine. It’s just hot in here, that’s all.”

The Germans continued haggling with Manet about the cost, and Lucien continued to perspire. He then heard the magic words that all architects dream of hearing.

“Well, Lucien,” said Manet, “if the gentlemen of the Reich are in agreement, you should start the plans immediately.”

The Germans nodded their approval, and both stood up from their chairs.

“Monsieur Bernard, because of our time constraints, we’re looking for the most basic of drawings,” said Herzog.

“Are you available for lunch, Monsieur Manet?” asked Lieber.

Lucien was well aware of what the answer would be. Lieber’s invitation was merely a courtesy. Doing business with Germans in private was one thing, but dining with them in public in the middle of the day was crossing a forbidden boundary. The Germans also knew this, and while they didn’t care what the French did to collaborators, they didn’t want to rock the boat by endangering their French contractors.

“I’m afraid not, Colonel Lieber, but thank you for asking,” replied Manet.

Herzog came up to Lucien to shake his hand. “I much admired the building you did for Monsieur Gaston. Wrapping the glass around that exterior staircase was a wonderful detail.”

When Lucien heard the word “detail,” he knew the man wasn’t a layman but one of the architecture fraternity.

“Are you an architect, Major Herzog?”

“I started out to be. In fact, I studied under Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus in Dessau in the late twenties. But when my father came to visit, he thought it was all nonsense and put a stop to it. I transferred to study structural engineering at the Polytechnic in Berlin.”

Lucien could sense a great deal of regret in that last sentence and empathized with the German, but all the same he was damned impressed. “Gropius is a genius,” said Lucien. “Even to study under him for a short time would be a great experience. It is a shame he had to leave Germany.”

“The Fuehrer has different ideas of what architecture should be. To him, Gropius and his work were subversive.”

Lucien was about to say that Hitler’s taste in architecture was rotten but held his tongue. Herzog may have once been a modernist architect, but he was still a German officer. Lucien could find himself in an internment camp.

“Still, it was quite unfortunate that Herr Gropius had to leave for America,” said Lucien sympathetically. “What kind of person was he?”

“Ah, rather harsh and pedantic, but a man of great vision and even greater talent. Have you ever seen the Fagus Factory?”

Lucien was eager to tell Herzog that he had indeed made the pilgrimage to Germany in the mid-1930s to see all the famous German modern buildings. Many snapshots of them were often scattered next to his drafting table for inspiration when he was designing. “I spent two months traveling throughout Germany seeing my favorite buildings, but Gropius’s Fagus Factory is a masterpiece. Better than the Bauhaus School, which I also visited.”

Lucien saw a smile come over Herzog’s face. The major picked up his cap and gloves off a side table and put them on, moving slowly toward the door.

“I’ll be looking forward to seeing your design for Monsieur Manet. Maybe it’ll be another Fagus Factory,” said Herzog with his hand on the door handle.

Lucien grinned and shook his head. “Nothing of mine can ever come close to it, I assure you. But I will produce a building of advanced ideas.”

“The Reich will be most pleased,” replied Herzog.

7

Lucien had soon discovered one of the prices he’d be paying for all that money, the commission, and the thrill of designing the hiding place: living in a constant state of fear. He stopped in the doorways of three shops to check if he was being followed. Manet had insisted on a meeting. Lucien didn’t think one was necessary; he had done the drawings and that was the end of it. But Manet wanted him to see the finished work. On rue Euler, just a block away from the apartment building, Lucien looked out from another doorway and came face to face with three smiling German enlisted men.

“Pardon, monsieur, could you please tell us the way to Notre Dame? We’re totally lost,” said a handsome soldier with golden blond hair.

His companions laughed and shrugged their shoulders, admitting their helplessness. Lucien knew his face registered a look of abject terror, but the men didn’t seem to notice. The Occupation had brought busloads of German tourist-soldiers like these. Carrying cameras and guidebooks, they hit every main attraction in Paris, including climbing the Eiffel Tower and seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where they all insisted on getting their photo taken. Ever since Hitler had taken a two-hour tour of the city right after the armistice, every German soldier had had to see Paris, and the army encouraged them to do so. On one hand, it was kind of flattering to have Germans come to admire the city—they had nothing like it in Germany. Berlin was a second-rate city compared to the City of Light. Giving directions to Germans was a delicate matter, though, as misdirecting them could cause problems if the soldiers ran into you again. Teenagers and the elderly routinely gave them wrong directions—it became a running joke—but many adult Parisians put their hatred aside for a moment and directed the Germans as they would any stranger. Lucien fought the overwhelming urge to bolt. He swallowed hard and smiled.

“Certainly, gentlemen. Go down this street to the avenue Marceau, turn left, and stay on it until you hit the Seine, turn left, and walk along the river for about fifteen minutes, and you’ll see Notre Dame. It’s on its own little island in the Seine.”

A soldier with reddish-brown hair scribbled the directions in a little notebook. The blond one repeated Lucien’s directions aloud to make sure he had it right.

“Thank you so much, monsieur. You have a very beautiful city.”

“Enjoy yourselves. And remember, we have the best collection of dirty postcards in Europe.”

The soldiers roared with laughter, waved, and went on their way. Lucien stayed where he was until they were out of sight. He leaned against a wall of a building and reached inside his jacket pocket for his cigarettes. Could they be Gestapo men disguised as Wehrmacht soldiers who were following him? His hands were shaking, but he managed to light a cigarette and take a few drags before flicking it into the gutter. He waited another five minutes then finally made it to the building, nodded at the concierge, who ignored him, and started up the stairs.

He knew the Gestapo could be waiting for him in the apartment. He’d be tortured and killed, and he hadn’t even had the chance to enjoy all that money, having only spent 700 of the 12,000 franc fee on black market eggs and some real wine. At each landing, he felt like turning and running down the stairs, but he continued on. Lucien kept thinking of how fast the construction work had been done—in just a few days. It seemed impossible. Was it a trap?

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