New French Museum Embraces Architecture
PARIS, Sept. 17 — President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who is increasingly faulted, even by his own government, for usurping the responsibilities of his top ministers, stepped into the role of culture minister on Monday.
At a low-key ceremony he inaugurated La Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine, (the City of Architecture and Heritage) in Paris, which reopened after a $114 million, decade-long makeover.
"I commit myself fully to this mission, to give back the possibility of boldness to architecture," he said in his speech.
Mr. Sarkozy turned the occasion into a promotion of French architecture throughout the ages, inviting some of the world's top architects to the museum (and to lunch at the Élysée Palace) and winning their endorsements along the way.
President François Mitterrand built the glass pyramid at the Louvre, the Grande Arche de la Défense, the Bastille Opera and the François Mitterrand French National Library; Jacques Chirac created a museum devoted to African, Asian, Oceanic and pre-Columbian art at Quai Branly beside the Eiffel Tower.
But unlike his recent predecessors, who adopted grand architectural projects as their contribution to French culture, Mr. Sarkozy has expressed a determination to make culture more accessible to the masses. Last month he sent a letter to his culture minister, Christine Albanel, with a plan to "democratize" culture, including a proposal to allow free access to major museums and to put more "creative and bold" cultural programs on television. But in a country gripped by uncertainty about its national identity, he also is aware of the importance of culture in projecting an image of the grandeur of France. In that vein Mr. Sarkozy called the new museum the embodiment of "our entire country, the territory of our values, our references, our hopes," adding that it was "the place of our identity."
The new French president was surrounded by 14 prizewinning architects, including the Briton Norman Foster, who designed the Reichstag dome in Berlin and the viaduct at Millau in France; Richard Rogers, one of the builders of the Pompidou Center in Paris; and the Iraqi-British avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid.
The architects did not disappoint their host. Speaking in the Élysée courtyard after lunch with the president, Mr. Foster called Mr. Sarkozy's approach to culture "fantastic," and "very refreshing," adding, "I thought there was a great enthusiasm, a sense of passion, of conviction, a belief in the importance of architecture, the way that it's a litmus test, if you like, a barometer for the values of a nation."
With three galleries and 86,000 square feet of space, the City of Architecture and Heritage bills itself as the largest architectural museum in the world. It is housed in the east wing of the Palais de Chaillot, at the Place du Trocadéro on a hill overlooking the curve of the Seine, with gorgeous views of Paris, including a straight-on view of the Eiffel Tower just across the river.
The museum is a shrine to 12 centuries of France's architecture — with exhibitions that range from the reproduction of a stained-glass window in the gothic cathedral at Chartres to a walk-in replica of an apartment in Le Corbusier's mid-20th century Cité Radieuse in Marseille. It includes a soaring, glass-roofed main gallery housing 350 plaster-cast reproductions of the most important examples of medieval, Gothic and Renaissance church architecture: cathedral facades, gargoyles, pillars, statues, crypts.
In another gallery paintings and frescoes from the 12th to 16th centuries have been faithfully reproduced. A third gallery is devoted to modern architecture, with maquettes from the mid-19th through the 21st centuries, including one of Renzo Piano's 1998 cultural center in the French territory of New Caledonia in the South Pacific.
To both woo and educate the public, the museum has installed interactive multimedia presentations (even the small cafe has interactive computer screens) and an architecture library that eventually will hold 45,000 volumes, the largest such collection in Europe. Children can build their own structures with Legos and other building materials. The goal is to attract half a million visitors a year.
Critics have noted that visitors may not find plaster copies of great French churches and cathedrals particularly appealing, especially in a country so richly endowed with the real thing. But Jean Nouvel, the architect of the Quai Branly museum, called the new museum amazing and noted that "it was very important to unite — in one place — the history of the past with the one that's unfolding today."
Ariane Bernard contributed reporting.