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Glasshouse with glorious past has a bright future

Emily Commander examines the long history of Le Grand Palais, the huge exhibition hall near Av. des Champs-Elysées

One of the highlights of the final stage of the 2017 Tour de France was a sprint through the inside of Paris’s Grand Palais. The idea of sending a high speed dash through Europe’s largest glasshouse is perhaps not as novel as it first seems, for the Grand Palais has been playing host to major international events throughout its 117-year history. A building that has in its time coped with extensive corrosion caused by acid runoff from horse shows was unlikely to baulk at the thought of accommodating 167 cyclists in a hurry.

As with London’s Crystal Palace, the Grand Palais was originally conceived as the centrepiece to an international exhibition, in this case the World Fair, hosted by Paris in 1900. Building work only began in 1897, and progressed at breath-taking speed. In order to be ready for its grand opening on 1 May 1900, there were 1,500 workers labouring on the site of the future Palais at the start of that year alone.

The fact that the project came in on schedule is all the more remarkable given that it was overseen by four separate architects. Henri Deglane was responsible for the main section; Albert Louvet for the middle section, including the salon d’honneur; Albert Thomas for the west wing; and Charles Girault for the little Palais, and for overall coordination.

Upon its completion, the Grand Palais was dedicated “by the Republic, to the glory of French art”. At its inauguration it boasted statues, friezes, mosaics and paintings by about 40 major artists of the day, setting the scene for its lifelong investment in contemporary art. It was at the 1905 salon d’automne at the Grand Palais, for example, that the works of Matisse and Derain caused the scandal that lead to their adoption of the term Fauvism, a label derived from the French word for wild beasts.

When it was requisitioned as an enormous military hospital in the First World War, it was to local artists that the Grand Palais instinctively turned for help, employing them to decorate the rooms and to design prosthetic limbs. More recently, in 2011, Anish Kapoor was commissioned by the Palais to create Leviathan as a temporary exhibit.

The Grand Palais is also proud of its history of supporting innovation. In 1926 it hosted the salon des arts ménagers for the first time, at which the fabled cocotte minute, or pressure cooker, had its debut as the Auto-Thermos.

Inevitably for a building conceived as a monument to national pride, the Grand Palais has faced less glorious moments in its history. During the Second World War, the Nazis flew their flag over it as a symbol of their occupation, using it first as an enormous truck depot and then as a venue for two major propaganda exhibitions. In a gesture rich with symbolism the Parisian Resistance used it as their headquarters in the liberation of the city, firing from one of its windows on an advancing German column on 23 August 1944, and thereby provoking a retaliatory tank attack and a fire which damaged the roof.

Its first century of hard work took its toll on the Grand Palais and, once it had been classified as a historic monument in 2000, over a decade of work to restore its structural integrity began. The cyclists’ glorious sprint of July 2017 offered a glimpse of the grand future the Grand Palais envisages for itself once it has
been fully restored.

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