Wed, Nov 28, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Undercover restorers repair clock

`CULTURAL GUERRILLAS' The members of an underground movement worked in a secret workshop in the Pantheon for more than a year without any official noticing

THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

The French presidential guard stand outside the Pantheon in Paris on Jan. 18.

PHOTO: EPA

It is one of Paris' most celebrated monuments, a neoclassical masterpiece that has cast its shadow across the city for more than two centuries.

But it is unlikely that the Pantheon, or any other building in France's capital, will have played host to a more bizarre sequence of events than those revealed in a court last week.

Four members of an underground "cultural guerrilla" movement known as the Untergunther, whose purpose is to restore France's cultural heritage, were cleared last Friday of breaking into the 18th-century monument.

For a year from September 2005, under the nose of the Pantheon's unsuspecting security officials, a group of intrepid "illegal restorers" set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building's famous dome.

Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s. Only when their clandestine revamp of the elaborate timepiece had been completed did they reveal themselves.

"When we had finished the repairs, we had a big debate on whether we should let the Pantheon's officials know or not," said Lazar Klausmann, a spokesperson for the Untergunther. "We decided to tell them in the end so that they would know to wind the clock up so it would still work."

"The Pantheon's administrator thought it was a hoax at first, but when we showed him the clock, and then took him up to our workshop, he had to take a deep breath and sit down," Klausmann said.

The Center of National Monuments, embarrassed by the way the group entered the building so easily, did not take to the news kindly, taking legal action and replacing the administrator.

Getting into the building was the easiest part, Klausmann said. The squad allowed themselves to be locked into the Pantheon one night, and then identified a side entrance near some stairs leading up to their future hiding place.

"Opening a lock is the easiest thing for a clockmaker," Klausmann said.

From then on, they sneaked in day or night under the unsuspecting noses of the Pantheon's officials.

"I've been working here for years," said a ticket officer at the Pantheon who wished to remain anonymous. "I know every corner of the building. And I never noticed anything."

The hardest part of the scheme was carrying up the planks used to make chairs and tables to furnish the Untergunther's cosy workshop, which has sweeping views over Paris. The group managed to connect the hideaway to the electricity grid and install a computer connected to the net.

Klausmann and his crew are connoisseurs of the Parisian underworld. Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organized rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine. They have tried to track them down ever since.

But the UX, the name of Untergunther's parent organization, is a finely tuned organization. It has around 150 members and is divided into separate groups, which specialize in different activities ranging from getting into buildings after dark to setting up cultural events. Untergunther is the restoration cell of the network.

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