Paris axes its Morris columns in bid to clear city of clutter

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A cultural civil war has broken out in Paris over the future of Morris columns, the cylindrical advertising billboards which have been part of the city's street furniture for 150 years.

In an attempt to "declutter" the streets, the town hall plans to uproot almost a third of the illuminated columns which provide cheap advertising for plays, concerts and films.

Fury has swept Parisian theatre and music venues. They say the loss of 223 columns, out of 773, "can only have dire consequences for the live arts" in the city. They accuse the Mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, of putting money before the arts and betraying his pledge to revive Paris as a cultural capital.

How could a humble advertising column cause such a high-brow row? The columns, named after printer Gabriel Morris, who invented them in 1850, have become objects of mystery and literary adoration, copied by cities from Beijing to Birmingham.

The original columns, replaced by lit-up versions in 1980, are mentioned lovingly by Marcel Proust in his novel À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. He describes dashing out each morning to enjoy the "dreams offered to my imagination... by the colourful posters, still wet with glue..."

Over the years, people have become fascinated by the locked doors on the column sides. Urban legend has it that they lead, via spiral staircases, to the labyrinth of catacombs beneath the streets. The truth is banal. The insides of the columns store equipment for street-cleaners.

Last July, the town hall agreed a new contract to manage Morris columns with JC Decaux, one of the world's leading street-furniture companies. The town hall demanded, and received, a far bigger slice of profitsand agreed to reduce column numbers from 773 to 550, saying this is in line with its policy of "decluttering" public spaces in Paris.

The Mayor plans to replace the surviving three-sided 1980 columns withfive-sided ones. Theatres and concert halls will have almost as much advertising space as before, at less expensive rates. But Georges Terrey, president of the association of independent theatres in Paris, said: "The space reserved for us is already insufficient. It is going to be a massive loss. The town hall will gain a lot of money but none of it will go to culture."

But one sub-tribe of Parisians is delighted. Far-left activists who campaign against all advertising kinds saluted the decision with a Parisian anti-advert blog headlined "Yeah!" In English.