Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Building of the Week: The Palais Garnier, Paris

The Palais Garnier as it is today

From its founding in 1669 by King Louis XIV, The Paris Opéra has called several different venues its home. Prior to 1821, three of the ten opera houses in which The Paris Opéra found a home had been destroyed by fire. In 1821, the Opéra opened a new opera house called Salle Le Peletier which remained in operation until 1873. The Salle Le Peletier had seen innumerable artistic triumphs as well as a host of important visitors including Queen Victoria in 1855. However, by 1858, Emperor Napoleon III—as part of his Second Empire reconstruction of Paris—had seen the need to build a larger home for the Opéra. Napoleon III envisioned a grander version of the Salle Le Peletier with soaring domes and magnificent architecture.

The Grand Foyer
The emperor enlisted the Baron Haussmann to oversee the construction. A contest was open to architects who wished to submit their designs for the new opera house. In 1861, the competition was won by architect Charles Garnier for whom the building is now named.

Construction was slated to begin in 1862. The Empress Eugénie is rumored to have asked Garnier if he considered his creation to be in Greek or Roman style. His response was, “It is in the Napoleon III style, Madame!” And, so it was. Napoleon selected the land upon which the Opéra was to be built—a section in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. The land, however, was not terribly cooperative owing to its swampiness and the presence of a subterranean lake. Water was pumped from the location for eight months, but the lake would not abate. Garnier was forced to amend the designs for the foundation to be built over the lake. And, so it remains today.
The Grand Staircase
The presence of the lake under the Opéra was one of the chief inspirations for the 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux. The other was the famous failing of a chandelier’s counterweight which caused the fixture to plummet to the floor, crushing one person to death. Of course, this figures prominently into Leroux’s story, and perhaps, more famously, into the musical version of the same name by Andrew Lloyd-Webber

But, before chandeliers could crush anyone, or, even, before a singer could belt out a note, the Opéra had to be finished. The construction was stalled by numerous setbacks—not the least of which was the Franco-Prussian War and the resulting collapse of The Second Empire. For awhile, the Opéra feared that the skeleton of their new home would have to be demolished due to lack of funds and a distinct political disinterest in finishing the building.

In 1873, circumstance forced the completion of the new opera house when a fire rampaged through the Salle Le Peletier—raging for twenty-seven hours and completely destroying the home of the Paris Opéra. The Palais Garnier was completed in 1874, giving the Opéra a permanent new home and the people of France a reason to celebrate.
The Theater
A rich confection in the Beaux Arts style, the Palais Garnier is a magnificent combination of multi-colored marble, bronze, gilding, glass, columns and statuary. With its majestic central staircase, magnificently frescoed vaults and color scheme of red and gold, it truly is a palace of the arts. The centerpiece of the monumental theater is an enormous crystal chandelier which weighs over six tons—this time, properly weighted and firmly held to the domed ceiling.

The dome of the theater itself was repainted in 1964 by Marc Chagall in a modern style and color palette which proved to be controversial. While some felt that Chagall’s fresco was a fitting addition to a building which was, in essence, a temple to the arts, others believed that Chagall’s work was out of place and inappropriate to the Beaux Arts style and velvety architecture of the Palais Garnier. Forty-seven years later, Chagall’s work remains, and while quite accepted, still raises some eyebrows.
Chagall's Dome
The façade of the Palais Garnier features a variety of sculptures including busts of famous composers, two gilded figural groups of Charles Gumery (of “Harmony” and “Poetry”) and a central sculptural group by Aimé Millet which is called, “Apollo, Poetry and Music.” The architectural rhythm of the façade is repeated in the interior grand foyer—substituting lavish colored marble for the cool exterior stone. Hung with mirrors and chandeliers, the foyer is quite operatic in and of itself.

Aside from Chagall’s painting and some technological changes, the Palais Garnier remains much as it was in 1874 and gives one a sense of the epic scheme that Napoleon III had for Paris. Though the Second Empire did not survive, Garnier’s creation of “Napoleon III style” has remained relatively untouched and has served as a source of inspiration for generations of artists of all media. 

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