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Clandestine encounter: the AJ speaks to guerilla restoration group, the Untergunther

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I’m in Paris, standing in the dark south-east corner of the Panthéon, entranced by the 1850 Wagner clock that presides over a mausoleum, adjacent to the stairs to the crypt. Seized in time, its thin black hands are stopped at ten minutes to twelve.

I’m not a clock enthusiast, but this is no ordinary timepiece. The centre of a media flurry this winter, the Guardian and The Times dedicated full-page coverage to this clock when they discovered it had been secretly restored by the Untergunther – the ‘cultural guerrillas’ I’ve come to Paris to meet.

Infiltrating the dome, the Untergunther inhabited the Panthéon for a year in an improvised clubhouse-atelier that included built-on-site chairs, a library, heating, an internet connection and a hotplate. Under the direction of professional clockmaker Jean-Baptiste Viot, they painstakingly restored the rusted monumental clock, cleaning the components and making new parts. On 24 December 2006, to the shock and awe of the administration, the clock began to chime.

The relationship between UX sects is symbiotic. The collective aim is to maintain and expand their underground world.

‘It rang all through 25 December, while the Panthéon was closed,’ says the pseudonymous Lazar Kunstmann, spokesperson for the Untergunther. ‘On the 26th, the Panthéon opened, and the deputy administrator Pascal Monet wanted it stopped, so he asked a clockmaker to come and sabotage it.’

We’re in the darkest corner of a student hangout, round the corner from the Panthéon. I was instructed to ask for the Untergunther at the bar, and directed to Kunstmann and ‘Lanso’, both in their mid-to-late 30s and dressed entirely in black. Kunstmann is surprisingly affable for a secret restoration agent, while Lanso, head of the Untergunther, is silent and severe under her shorn head of dark red hair. In the above-ground world, Kunstmann is a video editor; Lanso a photographer.

I’ve come to Paris to discuss the Panthéon clock, but mostly to learn about the vast organisation behind this caper, barely hinted at in the international media furore that followed its exposure. Sworn to preserve France’s ignored, invisible or abandoned cultural heritage sites, the nonsensically named Untergunther comprises just a fraction – the restoration wing – of an expansive umbrella group known as the UX, who’ve been acting as the de facto guardians of subterranean Paris for over 25 years.

Kunstmann, who describes himself as ‘first-generation UX’, was just 12 years old when he began exploring the city’s urban fabric with his friends. ‘In Paris in the 1980s, anything underground was very fashionable, especially raves,’ he says, espresso in hand. ‘We were at college in the Latin Quarter, and at the time you could enter the network directly from the basement of your school.

‘We were too young for the parties,’ he adds, ‘and in any case, we weren’t that keen on music. But we were very interested in these abandoned spaces, and by extension became interested in urbanity and architecture. We wanted to seek out these abandoned sites, to clean them and the to find non-festive uses for them. Most importantly, we wanted to connect them – to dig passages and tunnels between them.’

Kunstmann says the UX now counts approximately 120 members, who range in age from 11 to 56. They are divided into a number of subgroups, each specialising in a particular activity, such as cartography, tunnel-drilling, restoration (Untergunther); infiltration (The Mouse House) and events (La Mexicaine de Perforation). Memberships are not fixed, however, and members move fluidly between activities.

The relationship between UX sects is symbiotic. The collective aim is to maintain and expand their underground world. To this end, The Mouse House has a vast collection of keys and alarm-system know-how, while the cartography wing boasts the only comprehensive map of Paris in existence, unifying all disparate underground networks, from the sewers to the metro, underground parking lots to electricity grids. Another group, which counts a rock-driller among its members, uses these maps to dig connecting tunnels, taking care to camouflage the newly made entry points.

UX’s rules of secrecy dictate that Kunstmann can only discuss what has already been discovered, which includes one of the camouflaged entrances. ‘It connects two tunnels, one above the other, and was accidentally uncovered by the telecom’ says Kunstmann. ‘They did not take the discovery very well at all – they were like: “This stuff really exists?”

For members of UX, their clandestine life isn’t a hobby, but a commitment of all free time and significant finances.

‘It was in a school tunnel, where we teach basic techniques to new members of UX,’ he adds. ‘One of their practical tasks was to make a double-sided camouflaged entrance.’ The students installed a sewer grate on the floor of the tunnel, fitting a basin of water to the underside, so that it appeared to be fully functional. Removing the grate, at the push of a button the basin slid out of the way, and the passage was automatically illuminated.

The world first caught wind of UX in 2004 (although we didn’t know it then), when policemen stumbled upon a 400m2 cinema, bar and couscous restaurant in a disused quarry. Located near the Eiffel Tower, 18m below ground, the theatre was kitted out with electricity, security cameras, phone lines and a terrace of seats carved out of rock. When police returned three days later, it had been completely emptied, apart from a note which read: ‘Do not try to find us.’

It’s the stuff of fantasy, and the product of a lifelong obsession. Kunstmann admits that for members of UX, their clandestine life isn’t a hobby, but a commitment of all free time and significant finances. Their budget is funded by each member of the UX (most have day jobs), and Kunstmann and Lanso say their evenings and weekends are currently consumed by a large site undergoing restoration (what and where, they won’t say).

A negative response to their work by the establishment is not uncommon. ‘In the minds of the Panthéon administration, fixing the clock was a personal attack,’ says Kunstmann, ‘because it lifted the rug on their inability to preserve cultural heritage, not to mention a major security problem.’

In the end, the government body in charge of the Panthéon, Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN), pressed charges against the Untergunther in a Paris court for 48,300 euros (£36,000) in damages. The charge was described as ‘absolutely incomprehensible’ by president of the tribunal Eric Meunier, and the case was thrown out on 23 November 2007, sparking UK media coverage.

It’s been over a year since the clock last chimed, but Kunstmann reveals, for the first time in this interview, fresh hope. In the face of the deputy administrator’s call that it be sabotaged, the clockmaker refused (‘I fix clocks, I don’t break them’), but removed a component to disable it. ‘Oddly enough, he selected the part that was broken 40 years before: the escapement,’ says Kunstmann.

The deputy administrator put the part in a cupboard, which The Mouse House located two days later. ‘The escapement is safe with us,’ Kunstmann says. ‘The clock is simply waiting for its chance to run again.’

As darkness falls, Lanso and Kunstmann grow impatient. ‘We have things to do,’ says Kunstmann. ‘Would you be so kind?’

As I go out into the street, the sewer grates have become portals, every alcove a secret door. I’m aware of a city beyond this city, no longer out of reach, impossible to ignore.

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