(As a Francophile, the Musée d’Orsay is a fitting FRANK building)
We often think about architecture separately from the other arts. However, the former is integral to the latter. What would a Broadway play be without the leveled seating and dramatic, segmental-arch of the stage? Similarly, we often wait in line for a museum to experience the architecture as well as the artworks. The way we move up the ramps of the Guggenheim, travel to different countries and centuries as we walk through the galleries of the MET, enter the pyramid of the Louvre, and interact with the modern art in the new Whitney. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris falls in this category: Its architecture is so integral to the experience of viewing the artwork, and the architecture is so unique that it becomes artwork, itself.
The Musée d’Orsay is an iconic example of a successful adaptive reuse project. The structure was designed by architect Victor Laloux as the Gare d’Orsay, a railroad station and luxury hotel built to support the increase of visitors for Universal Exhibition in Paris (1900). Situated on a prominent site on the Left Bank near the Louvre, the cast iron and glass barrel vaulted train sheds were wrapped in limestone to maintain a harmonious Beaux-Arts style. As new technology developed, the station became obsolete and closed in 1969. The hotel closed soon after in 1973. While there were plans to demolish the building for a modern hotel, the plans were ruled against and the building was designed in 1978.
In 1978, ACT Architecture was commissioned to readapt the train station into a museum. In 1981, Gae Aulenti, an Italian architect, was chosen to redesign the interiors. They renovated the old train tracks and turned the area into the main reception room of the museum. Aulenti also kept the industrial feel of the train station by maintaining the barrel vaults and exposing part of the structural beams, but she also created separate spaces and galleries by adding stone walls. The reviews of the project were mixed, with a French newspaper even stating that the space was, “likened to a funeral hall, to a tomb, to a mausoleum, to an Egyptian burial monument, to a necropolis”. Regardless of these negative comments, upon opening the museum had 20,000 visitors each day.
I too feel that something is lost. The heavy, stone walls hide the delicate, lightness of the cast-iron arches. The scale of the space has also significantly changed; the once large scale train reception area has been divided, reducing the grand, open feel of the room.
Still the reuse of this remarkable space is overall beautiful, and its industrial sensibilities mixed with Aulenti’s the geometric shapes, and smooth, limestone walls is a fitting setting for the artwork inside, which were mostly done between 1848-1914, a period where the artists experienced the industrial revolution and when the Gare D’Orsay itself was built.
Architect of original building: Victor Laloux
Adapative Reuse of structure: ACT Architecture
Redesign of interior: Gae Aulenti
Museum completed: 1986
Location: Paris, France
Martin, Douglas, “Gae Aulenti, Musée d’Orsay Architect, Dies at 84,” The New York Times (November 1, 2012).
“1900-2013: From Station to Renovated Musée d’Orsay,” Google Cultural Institute. Accessed April 2016, https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/u/0/exhibit/from-station-to-the-renovated-mus%C3%A9e-d-orsay/ARK7SK5T?hl=en