Tourists parade by all day past the doors of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Inside, unbeknownst to them, is a sizable and very worthwhile architecture museum. If you are a curious traveler to Paris, I can only encourage you to push the door of the Palais du Trocadéro and discover what is inside.
The ground floor exhibition has existed for many years, from when this was the Musée des Monuments Français. It is a direct inheritance of the nineteenth century tradition of Prosper Mérimée, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and other pioneers of architectural restauration, a tradition maintained to this day on this site by the École de Chaillot, the French training center for those destined to occupy government-sanctioned positions focused on architectural heritage. The museum is unique in having life-size specimens of architecture in the form of casts made during restoration campaigns, primarily of France’s Gothic and Romanesque heritage. It also has many remarkable models, including one wonderful model showing the structural principles of a Gothic cathedral.
The material on architecture since the Renaissance is scant, but not altogether absent. There is, for example, an extraordinary disassemblable model of an eighteenth-century project for an opera house. In addition, the museum has recently introduced some excellent digital material to strengthen its collection in this area.
The upstairs gallery, which covers the nineteenth century to today, was opened in 2007, after the Institut Français d’Architecture merged with the Heritage Museum to create the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. It is a single vast space with many models of the most remarkable buildings of France’s last two centuries.
It is hard to single out highlights, but one can note, among the many pieces worthy of examination, a beautifully-executed landscape model of Tony Garnier’s Cité Industrielle and a cross-section model of Le Corbusier’s unité d’habitation showing the principle of the interlocking dupex apartments with dual views around a central interior “street.” Overall, the museum is presented in a way that is extremely didactic, making it enjoyable for children and for people who find architectural drawings or other abstract renderings difficult to understand.
The underground level offers an impressive amount of exhibition space and has been used recently for exhibitions on nature in new French urbanism, on the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle-Marx and on the Parisian hôtels particuliers (see my post on the subject), among other things.
In addition to exhibitions, the Cité de l’Architecture has an active program of events. There are conferences, movies, publications, and educational programs for children, as well as a web site with some excellent on-line resources, such as a repository of “portraits of architects” and other on-line exhibitions. The team clearly works hard to spread interest in and knowledge of architecture beyond the core audience of those who are professional involved with it.
I cannot finish this short overview without mentioning the café, a nice meeting place with a comfortable atmosphere and huge windows with an unbeatable view of the Eiffel Tower. Adjacent to the café is one of the handful of places in Paris where one can find a broad selection of high-quality books on architecture.
There are not that many cities with architecture museums – for example New York has none. The Cité de l’Architecture does honor to France’s architectural tradition and underscores the importance society attaches to architecture. Although it is not on the traditional lists of “must-visit” places in Paris, anyone with an interest in architecture would be amiss in foregoing this institution.