Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Le Grand Palais

The Grand Palais is a grandiloquent structure combining engineering ingenuity with the decorative excess of the Belle Époque constructed for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 on the site formerly occupied by the Palais de l’Industrie (built for the 1855 exhibition). It was used to display exhibitions of both fine and applied arts during the fair and retained for a variety of uses thereafter. This may be the reason that an enormous amount of expense and energy appears to have been devoted to the provision of vast flamboyant sculptures and elaborate external decoration. Essentially it’s an iron and glass building that has been covered with classically decorated stonework up to the roof level to create an impression of monumental mass. The true glory is the interior where an immense glazed nave runs north and south of an enormous glazed central dome. These features are at present displayed to perfection thanks to many years of painstaking restoration, the final stages of which were concluded in 2007. The sheer scale of the nave and the visual rhythms created by the glazing bars are exhilarating. The painted and decoratively formed structural ironwork is equally impressive, enclosing the generous space with minimum effort. Further information on the restoration project can be found by following this link.

A team of architects was employed on the original building. Henri Deglane designed the main building and frontage, Louis Louvet designed the mid-section and Albert Thomas designed the back of the building on the Rue d’Antin (now Avenue Franklin D Roosevelt). Despite the efforts of a co-ordinating architect, Charles Girault (who also designed the Petit Palais opposite), there is an obvious lack of unity between the component parts. The nave has had a chequered history. In addition to hosting trade exhibitions and events, it served as a medical centre in the First World War and a truck depot in the Second World War. It sustained war damage from fire and explosives and the glazing was replaced with a solid roof. In 1993 the nave was closed to the public when a section of the roof fell to the ground and a programme of restoration was prepared. Over the following 12 years the entire foundations (formed of oak pilings) were replaced and the glazing was reinstated. Every element of the building was renewed and the nave reopened for business in late 2005.

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