Friday, 19 June 2015

La Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine: the architecture museum of Paris

I've just returned from Paris where I have been attending a radiology conference, straddled by a few days of vacation. I became aware of this museum from a poster in the Paris metro. When I looked it up in the Time Out Guide to Paris, they didn't seem to rate it highly, but mentioned the fact that it contained a reconstruction of an apartment from Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation in Marseille. Having been slightly disappointed by the big Corb exhibition at the Pompidou Centre which I had visited a few days previously, I thought this might be worth seeing. And it certainly was.

The Cité is located in the Palais du Chailliot, the building with the curved collonades on the Trocadéro, the hill that looks out over the Eiffel Tower. On the entrance level, is an enormous cast court with full scale plaster casts of the masterpieces for French religious and civil architecture, arranged chronologically from the Romanesque and Gothic middle ages, through to the nineteenth century. It has much in common with the cast courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but dedicated exclusively to French architecture. 

It's like a full scale illustrated history of French architecture prior to the modern period. Because the displays are of portions of buildings (sometimes very large ones indeed), you get to look at things in more detail than you might on a visit to the actual location. The museum was almsost empty when we visited on a Friday afternoon in summer, and I suspect it never gets crowded.

I was particularly intrigued by the cast from the 12th century abbey church of St Gilles du Gard, with its mixture of classical Roman  and romanesque elements

I left this section somewhat more interested than before in romanesque architecture, and wanting to visit other parts of France.

The next level up is the modern architecure section. It contains mainly models and displays of modern architecture, but for me the highlight is the full scale reconstructed apartment from Courbusier's famous apartment block in Marseille. 

If the Pompidou Centre exhibition left me feeling somewhat ambivalent about Corb, walking through this small duplex apartment gave me a renewed appreciation of his work. It's beautifully proportioned and exquisitely designed, and a joy to explore.

There are clever features like, for example, this arrangement for storing pots and pans, which combines the adnantages of hanging them up with the protection from grease afforded by a cupboard door. It's something I'll certainly consider if I re-do my own kitchen.

Many years ago while visiting a friend who was studying in Paris, I had the opportunity to visit another Corbusier apartment, a student flat in the Swiss Pavillion   at the Cite Universitaire, and I remember being similarly impressed then. 

Le Corbusier has been criticised for many things, particularly his ideas on town planning (for example, he wanted to replace Paris with giant skyscrapers), and he got a lot of things wrong, but when he got it right, he was pretty good. Even if his scale of measurement, the Modulor, is based on someone 183 cm in height (all the visitors I encountered were shorter, except one, who told me he was 192 cm).

The top floor is devoted to mural paintings and stained glass, with copies of the finest examples from all over France. Pretty impressive too, but we were getting a little tired by then, and probably didn't do it justice.

If you're interested in architecture and architectural history, I think you'll really enjoy this museum, and you should try to visit if you're in Paris. If you're mainly interested in interior design rather than architecture as such, I think it's still worth visiting just to see the Corbusier apartment. The architecture from this period has had a bad press, partly due to the way it was implemented. It was new, and not everything new will work out the first time round. The materials were not as developed as they are today. But the Corb apartment is an illustration of how, when everything came together properly, it could be wonderful. 

La Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine
1, place du Trocadéro et du 11 novembre , 75116 Paris
Closed Mondays, and 1 May, 1 Jan, 25 Dec
Opening hours 1100 - 1900 (and until 2100 on Thursdays)

Related content:

A good artcicle by Stephane Kirkland covering other aspects of the Cité: 

Le Corbusier: mesures de l'homme (the measures of man) at the Centre Pompidou. My review 

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