Les Sites de Paris: le Grand Palais
Le Grand Palais de Paris is the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world since the Crystal Palace in suburban London burned down. This glorious glass-shelled turtle is welcoming visitors again after a twelve year closure for restoration.
Together with le Petit Palais, le Grand Palais was built for the World’s Fair, held in Paris in 1900. Like la tour Eiffel, le Grand Palais et le Petit Palais were intended to be temporary structures, but once erected there was little willingness to raze them. These structures coincide with that burst of construction in Paris at the end of le XIX ème and beginning of le XX ème siecles that also saw the opening of le Métro and Gare de Lyon; a building spree not seen in Paris since the Haussmann years between 1852 and 1870 and not seen since. Pont Alexandre III was built across la Seine during the construction of les deux Palais to faciltate access.
The three architects who designed le Palais, Henri Deglane, Albert Thomas and Albert Louvet, made use of the modern materials available during the burgeoning iron-and-glass era. Their collaborative design featured a delicate glass roof stretching over an atrium 600 feet long. Inside, spanning two stories, iron beams twisted and reached up to support a vaulted roof. Rectangular glass slats created an enormous skylight that allowed sunlight to showcase paintings (exhibition spaces at the time relied on natural light to illuminate their artworks). Externally, the façade is trimmed with sculptures and colorful mosaics in homage to important epochs of art. The two eastern corners of the building are punctuated with bronze quadrigae statues—horse-drawn chariots—sculpted by Georges Récipon. They rear in midair atop their pedestals, frozen in triumphant poses.
The architects faced many challenges. Because the existing avenues that framed the building site were not parallel, the design had to fit within an irregular plot; a neighborhood re-design encouraged an aesthetic coherence. Across the street le Petit Palais was going up under the aegis of Charles Girault, a fourth architect who oversaw le Grand Palais designs. Récipon was creating sculptures for the new Pont Alexandre III, which would reach between quays on the Right and Left banks. Together with their counterparts atop le Grand Palais, the sculptures created a harmonious dialogue.
Le Grand Palais, containing 6,000 square yards of empty space and little more, was used for myriad cultural expositions and occasions, from automobile salons to salons for the “art of housework.” It was coveted for its voluminous capacity—the first aeronautic salons were held here, filling the atrium with blimps and hot air balloons. For the 1900 World’s Fair, the venue showcased works of sculpture, but in its more eccentric uses, le Grand Palais hosted agricultural and botanical fairs, and even horse jumping competitions. During World War I it was used as a military hospital, and in World War II, the Germans used it as a parking lot for trucks.
As early as 1910, le Grand Palais was structurally threatened. Flood waters from la Seine put the foundation at risk. Minor renovations were made in the early 1940s. For decades, Parisians, flocked there for popular annual salons. But, by the 1960s, Parisians began to think of le Grand Palais as a dinosaur.
The architect (and Socialist) Le Corbusier thought the building was an eyesore, and tried to convince André Malraux, then minister of culture, to tear it down. Rather than condemn it to a Les Halles-like fate, where the iron pavilions were demolished and sold for scrap metal, Malraux took a gamble that breathed new life into le Grand Palais. Le Corbusier wanted to not only to tear le Grand Palais down, he wanted to tear all of Paris down and replace it with his Bauhaus-school architecture. Le Corbusier got as far as convincing the government to build his housing designs for public housing in Marseilles. These soulless "stacked ice cube tray" designs became the model France used for public housing in the suburbs that exploded in rioting at the end of octobre 2005. How fortunate we are that Le Corbusier didn't get his way with Paris!
In 1962, Malraux created les Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, in the western extension of le Grand Palais, to house art exhibitions. There, in 1966, he organized the largest exposition ever for a living artist, “Hommage à Picasso.” The gamble paid off—the exhibition was an immense success, attracting hundreds of thousands of people.
After the triumph of the Picasso show, the government came to understand the financial power of le Grand Palais and began to exploit it. Huge crowds came to chic events like Yann Kersalé’s light show in 1987, when lights pulsated rhythmically through the glass roof at night, which evoked a beating heart of the city; the highly popular International Fair of Contemporary Art, or FIAC, was held at le Grand Palais for many years, to name a few. Since the 1960s, any event considered major in the city took place at le Grand Palais. Popular art exhibits there today can draw as many as 800,000 visitors.
With uses it was put to by Malraux, the reputation of le Grand Palais as an architectural jewel began improving. “After being shunned as the last gasp of historicist Beaux-Arts architecture that would hide its steel construction behind a facade, it now becomes more and more clear what a masterpiece it is.”
But on le 22 novembre 1993, the fortunes of le Grand Palais turned. During an exhibition, an iron rivet suddenly popped off a beam and plummeted 148 feet to the floor. No one was injured, but everyone was worried.
Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon declared that the building presented “grave risks,” and immediately closed le Grand Palais and the adjoining Galeries Nationales. At the time, the closure was estimated to last twenty-four months. A show of painters closed early and twenty other shows scheduled for 1994 were cancelled. No one imagined that le Grand Palais would remain closed for twelve years.
Given the desirable location of the real estate - anchoring one of the world’s most expensive streets, le Champs-Élysées, the government spent eight years carefully examining its options. After nearly a century, the foundation of le Grand Palais was sinking: the ground at the site, situated just off la Seine, was silty and soft. Originally, le Grand Palais had been secured by 3,400 subterranean oak pylons. Over time, the water table dropped, exposing the wood to open air, which weakened the foundation. To restore it would cost many millions.
In a press release in mars 1999, the minister of culture announced the immediate reopening of the adjoining galleries but the main atrium of le Grand Palais would remain closed to the public for renovations. Over $60 million was set aside for the urgent structural renovations needed; and in 2000, le Grand Palais was classified an historic monument to keep it safe from demolition.
Two stages of renovations were decided upon. The first stage, to last three years and cost at least an estimated $65 million, would reinforce the interior structure. The second stage, to last another three years and cost at least $25 million, would restore the façades. During this six-year period, the southern wing and the main atrium would remain closed to the public.
Mind-boggling renovations began in 2001. Alain-Charles Perrot, chief architect for the renovations, raised the entire iron roof a mere seven millimeters in order to replace the glass and stabilize the foundation. Workers re-anchored the building to the bedrock forty feet underground, using nearly 2,000 pylons. Clouded, dirty panes of glass were replaced rather than cleaned. One hundred and seventy-two thousand square feet of exact-reproduction laminated glass panes were fitted into the canopy. Workers replaced torqued iron beams and girders, and changed over 15,000 iron rivets. The original paint color was uncovered, and matched with a fresh coat of vert réséda, a pale celadon. The renovations were painstaking. Workers were sentimental; they said they fell in love with le Palais, and it had become a part of them.
With the first stage of renovations now complete, the second stage is underway, and the mosaics and sculptures are being restored. No date of completion has been fixed beyond the estimate of “late 2007.” Until then, the façade will remain under wraps. In total, renovating le Grand Palais has cost over 101 million euros (about $121 million)—well over the original figures.
Visitors are once again able to admire this magnificent structure. Le Grand Palais reopened in septembre 2005 as part of the French National Heritage Weekend. During the re-opening, in the restored nave were shown two huge celestial and terrestial globes made by Coronelli and commissioned by Louis XIV, le roi du soleil, the Sun King.
The re-opening display now over, le Grand Palais has returned to welcoming cultural events. The International Contemporary Art Fair ran from le 5 à le 10 octobre 2005, followed by Haute Couture shows of the fashion houses Dior, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. Antique Fairs and car shows are also scheduled.
Restoration of le Petit Palais was completed in décembre 2005.
Steel framework: 8,500 tonnes (9,370 U.S. tons), compared with 8,000 tonnes (8,818 U.S. tons) for la tour Eiffel.
Glass area: 15,000 m²
Roof: 5,200 m² zinc-galvanized iron roofing
Lost Masterpieces: Architecture 3s: Joseph Paxton, Crystal Palace; Ferdinand Dutert, Palais des Machines; Mckim, Mead and White, Pennsylvania Station