The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 was meant by its sponsors to be both a
retrospective summation of the material progress of the 19th century and a hopeful
harbinger for the 20th. The 1900 event was the fifth Paris Exposition of the 19th century.
Paris had hosted ever-larger events every 11 years since 1856, and expectations ran high
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for the greatest exposition ever in 1900. The 1889 Exposition Universelle, which had
celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution, was France’s first truly international
fair and had been an unqualified success, both intellectually and economically, despite a
shaky start. The 1900 Fair also had its share of initial uncertainties. The Dreyfus Affair
threatened the Exposition with an international boycott, and the bitter of the winter of
1889–1900 and heavy spring rains further complicated the project, so although the
Exposition officially opened with great ceremony on 14 April, paying customers were not
admitted to the grounds for several more weeks.
The Exposition was laid out on several large precincts within Paris and in the Bois de
Vincennes east of the city (the latter being the site of the Games of the Second
Olympiad). Despite the fact that the Commissioner General of the Exposition, Alfred
Picard, had graduated from the École des Ponts et Chaussées in the 1860, the 1900
Exposition did not have the large, showstopping engineering feats of 1889; French
engineers concentrated their efforts in the construction of the Metro, notable for architect
Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau stations and Victor Laloux’s Gare d’Orsay, which carried
fair visitors from the provinces to the Exposition gates. The buildings and landscape
features of the Exposition were awarded to architects and engineers within the closed
circle of the French academies in the hope that the aesthetic presentation of the Fair
would be in uniform good taste. The result was less than hoped for. Although there was
no single spectacular building, and there were several important permanent constructions
that were very well received, the grounds were more noteworthy for the wide assortment
of temporary constructions that were aesthetically adventurous and even controversial.
The permanent monuments for the capital city were the Pont Alexandre III, which
leapt across the Seine in one graceful arch, and the Grand and Petit Palais. The bridge
continued the line of the newly established Esplanade des Invalides across the river past
the two Palais to the Champs Elysées to the north. The Grand Palais, home to the
contemporary art exhibitions (whose content was completely controlled by the Academie
des BeauxArts), was designed by the team of Henri Deglane, Albert Louvet, and
A.E.T.Thomas. The building hid behind Deglane’s imposing Neoclassical central
pavilion and sweeping colonnades an enormous steel-and-glass atrium, which spanned
the length of the building. Charles Girault’s Petit Palais, perhaps the architectural success
of the Exposition, housed a retrospective fine art exhibit. Girault skillfully handled the
difficult transitions at the odd corners necessitated by the building’s trapezoidal plan and
yet reveled in the free-Baroque classicism then fashionable among the faculty at the
École des Beaux-Arts. The building’s primary motif, a high arched entry that cut into a
low steel dome, was adopted by French-trained architects around the globe in the years
after the Exposition.
The temporary structures of the Exposition did not feature the restraint found in those
structures that were intended to be permanent. Although some of them were interesting in
their adoption of past architectures to modern purposes, others were simply novel. The
Palace of Electricity, the home of the Exposition’s dynamos and generators, terminated
the Champs-de-Mars to the south and presented the viewer with a riot of baroque
architectural elements, none of which were particularly related to one another. The whole
was crowned by an allegorical extravaganza that set Electra in ecstasy atop a chariot,
behind which rose a spiky steel-and-glass sunburst that if scaled down would be at home
in any early-1960s rumpus room. The whole Palace, however, was nothing but a
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backdrop to the real feature of the site, the Chateau d’Eau, an immense waterfall 100 feet
wide that gushed water over its terraces at the rate of 1.5 million gallons an hour. The
whole was lit at night with colored light, the fountains bubbling and water jets dancing in
a spectacle that was said to rival the fountains at Versailles.
The most controversial structure at the Exposition was probably René Binet’s Porte de
Concorde. This strange, oversized gateway sheltered the ticket booths and check stations
under a steel dome, which was supported by three yawning arches encrusted with floral
ornament. Two soaring minarets flanked the structure to further punctuate the work. The
whole was studded with electric lights, so that the building shimmered with colored light
at night. Although the architecture was not lauded for its novelty, true vitriol was
reserved for crowning sculptural ornament, a 20-foot high statue of “The City of Paris,”
represented by a woman in revealing evening dress. Many Parisians were scandalized by
the statue’s lifelike flesh tones and immodest vestments and claimed that the statue more
truly represented the city’s prostitutes than the genteel women of Paris. Whatever the
claims of her sartorial miscalculation, “La Parisienne” was a functional success—her
ample gates welcomed as many as 60,000 guests an hour on the high fête days.
The 1900 Fair is perhaps most important architecturally for its national pavilions and
cultural presentations. Nations of the first rank were given large lots on the Quai des
Nations, where an impressive, if riotous, melange of national styles were presented.
Twenty-three nations constructed their own edifices, and all but one of these were
evocations of particular nation’s architecture. Britain, for example, constructed a Tudorstyle
house, whereas Germany built a very large baroque city hall, and Italy fused the
Duomo at Siena with St. Mark’s at Venice to create a rather unnatural hybrid palazzo.
The one pavilion that did not denote its nation’s architectural traditions was that of the
United States, where American architects designed a Beaux-Arts pavilion. Boasting a
triumphal arch entry-porch and a high steel-andcopper-clad dome, the building resembled
a diluted version of Richard Morris Hunt’s Administration Building at the World’s
Columbian Exposition of 1893. Of all the national pavilions, perhaps that with the most
lasting importance to the history of architecture was Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen’s
Finnish Pavilion. This work, located in the second rank of national pavilions behind the
Quai des Nations, juxtaposed the fortresslike character of its exterior stone walls and high
tower with the softer, more introspective feel of its great hall, which was trimmed and
roofed in native Finnish woods and ornamented with representations of the country’s
native flowers and woodland creatures. A landmark in the National Romantic style, the
pavilion cemented Eliel Saarinen’s international reputation as an architect capable of
powerful yet sensitive work.
The colonial exhibitions at the grounds of the Palais du Trocadero were less culturally
sensitive. Building on the ethnographic displays of the 1889 Exposition, the European
powers were encouraged to celebrate their colonial holdings with simulations of these
exotic locales. Natives of each land were brought to Paris to demonstrate folkways and
perform religious and dance ceremonies for the public within well-crafted evocations of
their homes in what can only be described as a human zoo. Across the river, the grounds
in and around the Champs de Mars again hosted scientific and industrial exhibits. The
Palais des Machines was again pressed into service for the Exhibition, but it was hardly
noticed among the sea of similar iron-and-glass structures in the precinct. The decorative
arts and light manufactures were displayed in pavilions along the Esplanade des
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Invalides. This implied a clear separation from the fine arts, located across the Pont
Alexandre III, and the crafts. As a result, the works of masters such as Emile Gallé, Louis
Comfort Tiffany, and René Lalique were not viewed either in the Grand Palais or in the
national pavilions, but in their own small storefronts. In fact, despite the fact that the Fair
would later be remembered as the event that popularized the Art Nouveau, only the
Austrians and Germans exhibited the new forms in their national presentations.
The twin objectives of the Exposition—the reflection on the past and the
foreshadowing of the future—were fulfilled admirably. The environmental design and art
designed and collected for the event summed up decades of 19th-century academic
eclecticism as practiced in official French art institutions. At the same time, the industrial
and scientific exhibits showcased the industrial design, electrical technology, and military
equipment that would lead to much of the material culture and political crises of the new
twentieth century. Like any world’s fair, the Universal Exposition of 1900 asked its
participants to leave behind the social, economic, and political strife of the outside world
once they crossed into the Exposition grounds. For a few days the visitor was asked to
believe that the ideals of universal brotherhood and economic prosperity were not only
possible, but also imminent. In hindsight, of course, the Exposition proved to be a brief
respite from the realpolitik that would lead Europe into the chaos of the First World War. Within a
few years, the political and social optimism espoused by the Exposition’s promoters soon
proved as illusory as the Potemkin village that was the fairgrounds itself.

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