Model museum on a grand scale in Paris


A new architecture centre in Paris shows that the issues which concern us here are being addressed in other countries too, says Emma Cullinan

We are not alone. Judging by the exhibits in the contemporary section of a new architecture museum in Paris, then housing, the effect of buildings on society and the fear of towers is shared by our French neighbours.

It's natural that humans should be concerned about such things the world over but most architecture exhibitions would have you believe that architecture is about iconic, monumental buildings that are standalone sculptures set against the backdrop of whatever town they are in. A place apart.

"Here there is no monument, just projects, but sometimes a project is a monument," says Francis Rambert, director of the L'Institute Francais d'Architecture, one of three curators of this collection. "Architecture is not seen in terms of separation but in terms of relation."

If you didn't know that this exhibition was an exercise in comparing and contrasting between eras and styles, and a look at how architecture fits into its surroundings, society and culture, then you might wonder why some buildings with questionable aesthetic value are on display. But that is the point of this collection - gathered under the tenets of "density, urbanity and mobility" and divided into two parts: the art of building; and architecture in relation to society.

The trouble is, that if you had just walked in here off the street - which happens to be the impressive Trocadero roundabout that gazes across to the nearby Eiffel Tower - you may not appreciate the messages behind the exhibits.

The only explanations are in French - so bring a dictionary or ask for a guide (there are tours on certain days of the week, e-mail

The contemporary architecture floor runs from 1851 - starting with the Crystal Palace - up until 2001. "We do not stop at the Modern movement," says Rambert, implying that this wasn't the be all and end all of contemporary architecture. "After that there were interesting projects too."

While most of the projects here are French, the Crystal Palace was chosen because it marked a turning point in construction and design. "For us it was the grandfather of the Pompidou Centre with its pre-fab, flexibility (in use) and transparency," says Rambert.

While this heralds the start of the 'art of building' theme, the model beside it takes us into town planning by showing Paris before and after Baron Haussmann ran vast boulevards through petit-street medieval neighbourhoods and implanted grand structures at key squares and roundabouts (such as the Opera) and cleared houses away from others, such as Notre Dame.

Appointed by Napoleon, who had studied how cities can be transformed through design, Haussmann referred to himself as the "artiste démolisseur (demolisher)" but opponents, including Victor Hugo, were inclined to drop the artiste part of the description. They just saw destruction.

The benefits were seen as the easier flow of air through wider streets and parks, and the reduction of disease associated with cramped streets, and the creation of axes with grand buildings looking at each other across the city.

"In France, we are known for our axes," points out Rambert. There was another benefit for battling Napoleon - the wide boulevards were easier to march troops down.

This exhibition is not just about urban planning but architecture in relation to rural surroundings too, sportingly displayed by two ski resorts.

These are the Alpine bowl of Flaine, clad in concrete boxes by architect Marcel Brueur, and the fantasy-land, timber-shingled buildings of Avoriaz by architects Jean-Jacques Orzoni, Jean-Marc Roques and Jacques Labro. Both have very different responses to the landscape, with Breuer sticking to his brutalist style and somewhat taming his Alpen site while the Avoriaz team perhaps identified with the pine trees that grow at altitude, yet they also created an other-worldly town.

Both resorts are at the same time ugly and beautiful and are very different from each other.

Other compare-and-contrast exercises here include that between three court buildings: a sleek black box that carries the ghosts of classicism and Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth house, by Jean Nouvel in Nimes; a characterful, witty, humanistic timber building by Richard Rogers in Bordeaux and a justice building in Grasse, near Cannes in France, by Christian de Portzamparc which has a serene hotel lobby/art gallery-like interior and is topped with a circular copper roof. "They show that justice can have very different faces," says Rambert.

As with all museums now, there is interaction to be had here, but this is not only in the form of prompting computer screens to light up with specific information you seek - or running films of architects drawing and speaking about the projects on show - you can also enter a full-scale apartment from Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation (in Marseille). Its place as the turning point in housing design can be underscored by walking through its front door into an open-plan living kitchen area (sound familiar?) with a balcony.

UPSTAIRS is a front room and two thin rear bedrooms that follow Le Corbusier's Modular man measurements, with a sliding door between. Such flexible spaces and open-plan living/kitchen areas are common now - and you can see how they influenced such schemes as the Alexander Road flats in London by Neave Brownin 1969 - so it is interesting to experience this early, 1952, prototype.

It is a small space and, as Rambert points out signalling the model of a 2006 Paris apartment scheme by Jean Nouvel with generous abodes, "the first criteria of a good apartment is a big apartment".

Seventy per cent of the models were commissioned for this exhibition, including the Unité d'Habitation flat which was built by students, but on the floor below there are incredible full-scale plaster models of parts of France's heritage buildings, running from early Romanesque structures (from the middle ages) to the 18th century. Complete doorways are here - from the cathedrals of Amiens and Chartres among others - down to elements such as capitals, piers and statues. But they've steered clear of more funerial elements, such as tombs.

The pieces were cast from the originals and look very life-like, so it is common to see people drawing from them. These could be students from the conservation and heritage school that is now based here, along with the architectural institute and its archive and a library. There are also temporary exhibition spaces and places where children can learn about architecture, often by building models of their own. The remit is to bring architecture to all. "Architecture, one of our major art forms, is still little known by our fellow citizens," said Christian Albanel, France's minister of culture and communication on opening this centre in September, and this centre aims to change that. The president of the centre, Francois de Mazieres, says: "To the best of our knowledge, no other museum or architecture centre throughout the world offers, within a single venue, as many possibilities for raising awareness of architecture."

The heritage models have been here for a while, in a building that was first built for a world fair in 1878 and remodelled for another world fair in 1937. The centre knows that people will come to see the heritage models, as they have done for decades, but they hope that they can be enticed into the contemporary exhibition space too. They say they recognise that the relationship between buildings which were erected before and after Modernism is fraught but Rambert reckons that debate is over. "The idea is not to ask whether there is any difference between old and new. That is an old fashioned way of understanding the course of architecture. It is not about style. The main question is 'is it architecture or not?'"

  • Cite de l'architecture and du patrimonie, 1 Place du Trocadero, Paris
  • Francis Rambert will be giving the AAI annual Tegral Critics Lecture, in Trinity next Thursday, 8th November, at 7.30pm.