Paris 1900 and the Porte Monumentale

There can be few Exhibitions as famous as the one held in Paris in 1900. By the end of the nineteenth century France, and Paris in particular, had become preeminent in the world of Great Exhibitions, this was the cities fifth large-scale exhibition since 1855. The huge efforts made by the city and the success achieved in 1889 led to Paris quickly staking a claim to an Exposition Universelle in 1900. Rumours that Berlin was planning an exhibition for this year may well have prompted Paris to stake such an early claim to the year. Today the exhibition, the largest ever held at the time, is synonymous with turn of the century Paris, with the stylistic extravagances of Art Nouveau, of electricity and of inventions that were to play an important part in the forthcoming century.

The lasting impact of the permanent buildings created for the year, the Gare D’Orsay, Grand Palais, Petit Palais and Pont Alexandre III is apparent to all who visit Paris today. These buildings are still a magnificent part of the city, and being so close to the Trocadero and Eiffel Tower, they are a lasting monument to the impact of Great Exhibitions on the city of Paris. In the Grand and Petit Palais iron and glass are used to create traditional exhibition pavilions with detailing of the most contemporary sinuous plant-like Parisienne interpretation of Art Nouveau. Dismissed by some critics as chaotic and bizarre as if created by a demented pastry chef or an opium smoker – nice period Parisienne insults – they are, to our eyes, magnificent and expressive buildings redolent of the turn of the last century. No trip to the city is complete without a visit to these buildings.

The Gateway to the exhibition that is featured on this large decorative blue and white tile was designed by the architect Rene Binet. La Porte Monumental was built on the Place de la Concorde and could admit 60,000 visitors an hour to the exhibition site. Binet wanted to create something that had never been done before in architecture, he wanted to use the newly available electric lights to build an architecture of colour and light. The structure was covered in thousands of multicoloured lights and must have created quite a startling sight in a world not yet accustomed to electric light.

With a central arched structure and two flanking minarets the gateway was above all ornate and extravagant taking cues from Byzantine, Persian and Venetian motifs and incorporating the fashionable modification of animal forms and ideas extracted from nature so that a vertebrae of a dinosaur, cells of a beehive and other  natural detail could be seen in the form and ornament of the gateway. Binet’s creation did not meet with universal praise, it was undoubtedly strange and many felt it lacked taste, some visitors went as far as to suggest it was the ugliest building at the exhibition. The most controversial feature was the figure of Parisienne by sculptor Paul Moreau-Vauthier that stood at the top of the arch. Disliked by critics for the modern interpretation of the figure intended to represent Paris, with flowing robes and contemporary feel it was simply a step too far for their conservative tastes. It is hard to see why there were so many objections, with the benefit of hindsight the building is certainly bizarre, but exhibition architecture is just that, it is architecture at its most flamboyant and expressive. The temporary nature of exhibition building allows architects and designers to take risks in order to  create visual impact. Binet certainly designed a remarkable entrance to a wonderful Exposition Universelle,  and Parisienne seems quite at home in her modern city.

Inevitably the exhibition was a success for the City of Paris and for France, however it was successful without being hugely so. Despite the fifty million visitors there were financial losses for those who backed the exhibition. More importantly, rather than showing France as a first rate world power it was overshadowed by America, Germany and Japan. This event sees the end of the Parisian love affair with Exposition Universelle, that is until 1925 when an equally important exhibition revived the tradition, an event that is as synonymous with Art Deco as Art Nouveau is with 1900.

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