A fascinating and important branch in the Parisian culture scene, the 104 (Le Cent Quatre) is a vast communal art center in Paris’ remote 19th arrondissement. This sprawling artistic hub and community center– boasting 39,000 square meters or nearly 420,000 square feet of space– is home to an eclectic collection of studios, performance areas, shops, restaurants and workspaces for startups. Even better? It’s free to visit, and welcoming to visitors of all persuasions– even ones with kids.
Inside the enormous red brick building, which once housed a slaughterhouse and a city-owned morgue, artists working in all sorts of mediums and genres compete for free studio space. If you’re lucky, you can get a sneak-peek of them at work, too. The large facility also hosts temporary art exhibits and concerts. It boasts a restaurant and pizza truck, café, large bookstore, natural clothing boutique, secondhand shop and a play area for children.
Some spaces are designated for spontaneous performances or artistic practices by anyone who cares to make them happen. And on one Saturday afternoon per month, a ball dancing event takes over the center, to the delight of locals and perhaps a few intrepid tourists.
The center’s unexpected charm, however, lies in its vast outdoor courtyard, ideal for lounging in during warm spring and summer afternoons.
Equipped with bright red lounge chairs, a yellow shed that serves as a lending library (give a book, take a book is the concept here), a pizza truck, hands-on art exhibitions, and occasional concerts, the space is simply idyllic. It’s not hard to imagine spending your entire day relaxing in the “backyard” area alone.
Walking into Le 104 on a spring Sunday morning, the first thing I noticed about the large interior was how bright it was. Lit almost entirely by rays of sunshine cascading through the glass ceiling, the feeling of tranquility was palpable.
We sat on lounge chairs placed in the middle of the central space to watch a morning Tai Chi class go through their movements in virtual silence. It was also surprising (and pleasing) to see that most of the free communal space was being used for various activities: children who were on play dates, teenagers practicing dance routines, and even personal trainers leading workouts.
Lining the center space are various shops, Le Grand Tables 104 restaurant, and La Maison des Petits (“The Little’s House”), an artistically designed playroom that made me want to shrink down in size and go play myself. Perhaps the most interesting of the shops, however, is Emmaus, a secondhand boutique whose creative window display had me captivated. Sitting front and center was an antique miniature Guignol puppet theatre.
Read related: 8 Reasons to Love the Centre Georges Pompidou
I was ready to max out my credit card until I noticed the “not for sale” sign. The store featured a variety of odd items, from old park benches to creepy stuffed clowns whose faces immediately reminded me of Stephen King’s “It” character.
Trying to Sneak a Peek
Numerous corridors situated off the center of both the indoor and outdoor space of Le 104 contain the artist studios whose doors enable you to look in on the artist at work through a glass panel on the door. Unfortunately, as we arrived at around noon on a Sunday, most of the artists-in-residence were not yet at work. As our stomachs began to growl, we pushed open the doors leading to the breathtaking outdoor area, and quickly lined ourselves up at the pizza “truck”. It’s in fact housed in an old school bus parked in the courtyard.
Pizza, Sun and Art
Lunch at the pizza truck was remarkably affordable and delicious. There are currently 15 different coal oven-baked pizzas on the menu– bliss.
While my companion waited, I bolted to the railroad cart seating area, which was equipped with an opening side door and wooden benches and served as the perfect place to eat. The nearby lounge chairs were filled with a terrific mixture of parents with children, young students, and older couples, all soaking in the sun and enjoying the quiet of the space.
Activity Time: Checking Out the Installations
After staring longingly towards the “Batiment” installation by Leandro Erlich for close to an hour, I was relieved when the main exhibition space opened at 2:00 pm. After paying a very reasonable access fee, we were given blue bracelets that allowed us into the interactive display.
Erlich reproduced the facade of a classic Parisian apartment building (equipped with real banisters and ornaments), and laid it onto the ground. A mirror was suspended 45 degrees above it, so that when you are positioned over the flat facade, the standing onlooker sees you hanging, suspended or falling from the building.
Visitors take their own pictures and have an unlimited amount of time to twist and turn their bodies in various positions and locations on the structure in order to capture a unique image.
An Enjoyable Day’s End, & Final Thoughts
After spending an afternoon enjoying only a fraction of the activities offered at the 104, we decided to take one final look around. Paris’ Urban Film Festival was underway in a large projection room. Organizers were readying the radio concert, which throughout the summer featured music from a different country each weekend. Meanwhile, artist Anne-Flore Cabanis’ streaming fluorescent “Connections” installation rippled gently in the wind. There was so much happening in a single day, it would have been impossible to take it all in. But this only proves how vibrant this place is as a center for creation and community.
Overall, Le 104 is an ideal space for a lazy or activity-filled afternoon, and an excellent way to get acquainted with the city’s vibrant contemporary arts scene.
Location and Contact Information
The arts center is located in the rather remote but increasingly gentrified 19th arrondissement (district) of Paris, not far from the Canal de l’Ourq and its two lively waterside paths on the Quai de Loire and the Quai de Seine.
Opening Hours and How to Visit
The center is open Tuesday through Friday, 12:00 pm to 7:00 pm, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 7pm.
Tickets: Admission into the space and certain exhibits is free for all. Find information and ticket prices for temporary exhibits and shows here (book online).
What to Do Nearby the Cent-Quatre?
There’s plenty to see and do in the bustling, arty 19th district, from bar-hopping to galleries and Parisian-style picnics out on the canals or at the Buttes-Chaumont park.
See this hand guide to the neighborhood for ideas on where to go and what to do in the area.
Note from the Editor: This article originally appeared on About.com Paris Travel prior to being de-indexed. It has been lightly edited and updated.