Unlocking the Mystery of Paris' Most Secret Underground Society (page 6)

Stopping Time

UX doesn't have a blog. Members share a single email account. Lazar Kunstmann is not on Facebook and the group's other members do not speak to the press. In this era of full disclosure, of never-ending networking, forwarding and sharing, they are an organization that refuses friend requests. They have only as many contacts as they require and they will not invite you to events.

The group's secrecy makes it hard to check their facts. Almost everything one can check out, does check out. For the rest, you have to believe or disbelieve their claims. Kunstmann says the group has between 100 and 150 members ranging from age 11 to 56. They are mostly professionals in their late thirties and early forties. UX's groups formed "by accident" in the early 90s, gradually formalizing and adopting names. They are the product of "aggregation," the regrouping of kindred spirits within "the same, very reduced, geographic area."

Of the dozen teams that Kunstmann says exist, only three have been revealed – LMDP, the Untergunther, and a group called the Mouse House (recent inductees), allegedly an all-female "infiltration unit." All members benefit "from access to a [Paris-wide, universal, integrated] map, all the possible keys, all the possible knowledge." By sharing resources, pooling expertise, everyone is able to "work less for the same results, or to work the same amount for a better result."

Viewed a certain way, UX offers the same thing as Wikipedia or Google Earth – information for the community to do with as they please. But whereas Wikipedia relies on the wisdom of the masses to perfect its frustratingly imperfect data, while flashmobs rally as many participants as possible, UX remains private. They reject openness, spurn crowds. The group's discretion allows them to slip below the authorities' radar, to operate with impunity, but there is more to it than that: by closing the network, they accomplish better works. There is no need to screen a film before thousands, to trumpet mysteries from the rooftops, to bring dancers and musicians and chefs making crêpes. UX quietly create wonders, carefully rescue treasures. Members are expected to be capable, informed, autonomous. "Everything is dedicated to avoiding wasted time," Kunstmann says. The doing, not the discussion, is what matters.

Because of this pragmatism, the Untergunther always knew they would have to reveal their venture to the Pantheon staff. "If you want a monumental clock to work, someone has to mount and maintain it," Kunstmann explains at the bar. Two, 10, or 50 years after the gears are set in motion, they must still be regularly tended. "The logic always being to minimize the amount of work for a given project, it's a conversation we had with the whole group. At a certain point, the administrator would need to be clued in."

Standing with my tour-guide under the clock's black hands, I ask him if the mechanism still works.
"No."
"Why not?"
"Management took a piece away."
"Why?"
I glimpse the tiniest sarcastic roll of the eyes. "Pfft. I don't
know."

At the end of September 2006, the Untergunther claim they met with Bernard Jeannot, administrator of the Pantheon, and his assistant Pascal Monnet. (In the book, Monnet's name loses an 'n.') Jeannot was thrilled, delighted with the Untergunther's ingenuity, marvelling at their secret workshop and horological handiwork. Monnet was less enthused. Still, everything seemed set for the clock to be mounted, for it to resume functioning – except that it didn't. Weeks passed. The administration, UX allege, did not want to reveal their failure to maintain the clock, or the way it had been restored.

With real sorrow in his voice, Kunstmann confesses they "misjudged the internal tensions that ruled at the CNM [the organization responsible for Paris's monuments] and the administration of the Pantheon. How different interests would exploit this affair to pursue their own agendas." Shortly after the UGWK was revealed, Bernard Jeannot left – or was forced out of - his job. Monnet ascended to the top seat. "That was the defeat," Kunstmann says. "That was the fuck-up. That we underestimated these factors."

It was an oddly naive mistake. Most citizens of Paris – indeed, most citizens of the world – know to never underestimate the hopelessness of their bureaucrats. Blinded by their own panache, UX assumed their work would be embraced by the very people it shamed. Instead, two months later, the clock had still not been mounted.

The Untergunther are usually content for their restorations to remain hidden, but they were curious about their Pantheon handiwork. UX did not even know if the repair job had been successful. They decided to test it, on a day when the Pantheon is closed. The options were few: Christmas Eve, New Year's Day, May 1st.

On December 24, the Untergunther once again slipped past security and into the building. They mounted the clock. It began to chime. The mechanism was found to lose less than one minute per day – Viot deemed it "acceptable."

But when Monnet returned from his holiday, he marched up the Pantheon's steps and gazed furiously at the tick-tick-ticking timepiece. He called a clockmaker to unmake the clock. The man who came, reportedly from the maison Lepaute, refused to sabotage the mechanism. Instead, he removed the escapement wheel – the same piece damaged those decades before, rebuilt by Viot. At 10:51, the Wagner mechanism stopped.

Kunstmann is still livid. "The notion of conservation, the value of the objects [in Monnet's care], don't concern [him]. He thinks only of his career, to have a good retirement." I write to Monnet, asking for his version of events. The Pantheon administrator responds in an unmistakeable tone. "I absolutely refuse to discuss this file. It is part of an active case and the law prohibits me from commenting."

After the story of the clock repair broke, journalists swarmed – and Kunstmann once again came forward, revealing all. "Underground ‘terrorists' with a mission to save city's neglected heritage," shrieked the Times of London's headline. Monnet agreed with this characterization, pursuing the Untergunther in court. But there was one problem: They didn't seem to have committed a crime. Nothing was damaged during the Untergunther's stay at the Pantheon, and at the time there was no such thing as "trespassing" on public property. (This has since been rectified, with a bill passed in December 2008.) Authorities had to wait almost an entire year before finding a reason to bring UX in.

On August 14, 2007, Pantheon security claimed to find four members trying to force the building's locks. The case was heard on November 23, 2007, before the 17th Chambre du Tribunal de Grande Instance. The CNM sought a total of €51,394.76 for damage to public property. The accused: Sophie Langlade (surely Lanso, the Untergunther's leader), 35, unemployed; Dorothée Hachette, 39, nurse; Christophe Melli, 38, artistic director; Eric Valleye, 38, filmmaker. Four members of Untergunther, revealed before the court.

"A real experiment never presumes its results," Kunstmann says. "If someone had asked us, 'What are the chances that one day you will appear in court to talk about the repair of the clock?' We would have said, 'Zero percent? One percent?' The improbable is still within the realm of the possible."

The charges were ultimately dismissed. Kunstmann says UX took back the removed escapement wheel, stealing it from Monnet's office. LMDP claim to have used the Pantheon for another full year, staging photo exhibits and a festival of police films. And the clock? "[It] is simply waiting for its chance to run again," Kunstmann told Architects Journal.

The way that Untergunther tell it, this acquittal was inevitable. UX's members are so clever, after all. They are so sophisticated. They are a world away from hoi polloi like Crato, caught in the catacombs and awaiting presidential amnesty. UX are not Ravioli. And you would certainly never see Kunstmann in the same room as the Painted Lizard.

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