The story of Paris's controversial "Christmas tree"

The "Tree" installation before its untimely demise. Image: Getty.

On 16 October, a large, 24m tall green sculpture was erected in Paris's Place Vendôme. The sculpture's title was "Tree", but its similarity to another, less seasonal object was immediately noted by the city's residents.

By the next morning, #Vendome was trending on Twitter, and was swiftly followed by the less subtle #buttplug and #pluggate over the next couple of days. Around the world, headlines lambasted the imposter sculpture for its Yuletide pretensions: "Giant Butt Plug In Paris Is Supposed To Be A Christmas Tree But Clearly Isn't"; "Sex toy-like Christmas tree 'humiliates' Parisians". 

But the sculpture wasn't actually meant to be a Christmas tree; was only scheduled to stand in the city for just over a week; and, despite its admittedly sex-toy-esque shape, was intended to be abstract. Here's what actually happened. 

1. It's not a Christmas tree.

Paul McCarthy, the sculpture's designer, told Le Monde that he only realised after designing the piece that his sculpture resembled a Christmas tree. He also said it wasn't designed to look like a sex toy: "People can be offended if they want to think of it as a plug, but for me it is more of an abstraction" (though to be fair, the resemblence is, er, striking). 

The association with the Christian holiday may well have come from the tree's detractors, as opposed to its creator. Far right, anti-gay marriage group Printemps Francais tweeted “Place Vendôme disfigured! Paris humiliated!” when the sculpture was erected last Thursday, and later complained that the sculpture was a "waste of tax money".

While the tree was approved by city authorities as part of the International Contemporary Art Fair, it wasn't a city-funded Christmas installation (it was scheduled to be dismantled on 26 October, after all). Framing it as such, however, probably helped those campaigning against the sculpture to raise heckles across the city. 

Paris' most-loved annual Christmas trees are arugably in front of Notre Dame:

Image: Getty.

And inside the Galeries Lafayette shopping centre:

Image: ErasmusofParis at Wikimedia Commons.

As yet, there seem to be no plans to replace either with a giant inflatable this year. 

2. The fact it was controversial wasn't an accident.

McCarthy's known for his playful, tongue-in-cheek sculptures. Here's a cheerful Snow White-inspired sculpture he erected in Rotterdam: 

Image: F. Eveleens at Wikimedia Commons.   

However, he probably wasn't expecting such a strong reaction against his Paris sculpture. While he was installing "Tree", a woman punched McCarthy three times in the face, screaming that he wasn't French and that the sculpture did not belong there. Criticisms on Twitter and in the press have continued in a similar vein since.

Those who were offended can take heart, though, because...    

3. It's already gone. 

On Sunday, vandals severed the sculpture's supports in what Fleur Pellerin, France's Minister of Culture, has since called "an attack on creative freedom". It collapsed into a sad, bright-green puddle:

Image: Getty.

Anne Hidalgo, Paris' mayor, took to Twitter to defend McCarthy and his work: 

(The tweet roughly translates as: "Paris will not yield ot the threats of those who, by attacking an artist and his work, attack artistic freedom") 

McCarthy, however has decided not to re-erect the sculpture. In a statement, he said the piece had invoked a "violent reaction" instead of the intended "discussion about how objects exist as language with layers of meaning". 

4. It's sparked a debate about what's acceptable in public spaces.

Beyond Paris, McCarthy may have succeeded in provoking the calm, punch-free discussion he had hoped for. In this piece at CityLab, Kriston Capps points out that while the reaction against the sculpture in Paris was strong, "Tree would be unthinkable in any square in any city in the U.S.—period".

Meanwhile, Ellen Jones at The Independent noted that those hoping to erect controversial public statues should take heart: "If they'll build a giant butt plug in the middle of Paris's grandest arrondissement, then surely anything's possible."


Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.

There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).