Last week I also visited the Musee de l’Architecture & du Patrimoine (essentially the history of French architecture and Heritage). It’s at the Cite Chaillot, the building right where you pop out – meerkat like – at the Metro Trocadero. I was meeting my French teacher early afternoon in the café there for a lesson so I spent the morning looking through the museum. It was an unexpected treasure; there is an extensive display of actual size reproductions of pieces of historic French buildings and monuments, original models of monuments, and reproductions of significant frescoes and stained glass windows dating from 1200 to 1600. The reproductions are incredibly real, it’s almost better than the real thing because you can see and appreciate the detail of the carved stone up close. There is also a great section on modern and contemporary architecture which had fabulous scale models of important buildings, bridges and the like.
There is always something at these museums that stands out as a personal favourite – whether it’s something funny or fabulous – a gem. This time it was the display of models and drawings of the Arc de Triomphe which made me smile at the thought of the challenges for the project manager. The display material described the project une construction chaotique and explained that the long history of works was marked by successive clashes in the project while under the direction and control of a number of different architects during its 30-year project timetable. I’ve learned that Napoleon I ordered the construction of a triumphal arch in 1806 in honour of the success of his grand French Army at Austerlitz. An architect, Monsieur Chalgrin, was appointed as chief of works, although several other architects were involved as well. Chalgrin proposed the location and soon the right spot for the arch was agreed at Place d’Etoile – and it has indeed turned out to be a magnificent spot. Right from early on there was disagreement amongst the architects over the design and whether columns should be included in the design, and eventually 2 years after first commissioning the project, and the foundations being laid, the no-columns version went ahead – amongst other reasons it was less expensive. Unfortunately Monsieur Chalgrin died in 1811 and another architect, (Goust, one of Chalgrin’s pupils) took over, although Napoleon had lost interest as “project sponsor” over this time. Then in 1813 Napoleon’s great French Army was defeated at Waterloo, he abdicated and was exiled to Saint Helena and the ardour for the project was completely extinguished. It was canned until 1823 when it was resurrected under the control of yet another architect, Monsieur Huyot. The debate on the design was relitigated all over again, with Huyot submitting a new design (with columns) but this was rejected in favour of retaining the previous design and he was taken off the project. Eventually, after a few more hiccups, the project was finished in 1830 and opened in 1836. The Arc was officially consecrated in 1840 on the anniversary of the Battle of Austerliz when Napoleon’s remains (he died in 1821 on St Helena) were brought back to Paris for interment at Les Invalides and the hearse carrying his coffin passed under the Arc de Triomphe.
So (Rachel) next time you have a building project to manage, complete with hair tearing moments, be glad it’s not a triumphal arch being constructed in stone at the behest of a war waging Emperor.