Architecture: Mechanical power and the glory: Jonathan Glancey looks back at the crucible of Modern design in the shadow of the Eiffel tower
Wednesday 13 July 1994
The Palais des Machines helped to stir 20th-century architects' passion for machine-like buildings. In haunting fin-de-siecle photographs, one sees not only great modern railway stations, factories and turbine halls in the making, but also the influences that led, through Behrens and Gropius, to Foster and Rogers today.
A revelatory book, Palais des Machines by Stuart Durant (Phaidon, pounds 19.99), explores this Brobdingnagian, yet largely forgotten, sibling of Gustave Eiffel's famous tower. The destruction of the building was a significant loss, but probably inevitable, given that no one knew what to do with it once the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889 closed its doors.
Eighty-five years after its destruction, we can only gaze in wonderment at a building that encouraged the leap into all things Modern at the close of the 19th century. As Durant points out, the influence of the Palais des Machines and the Paris Universal Exhibition were not purely architectural. It was here, for example, that Claude Debussy was spellbound by the pentatonic scale of the Sultan of Solo's gamelan orchestra: Western music was about to somersault into the abstract.
The Palais des Machines was engineered on a truly heroic scale. It was 1,380 feet long, 363 feet wide and covered an area of 500,000 square feet. The trusses that supported it were inspired by those of the train shed at St Pancras, London (designed by the engineers Barlow and Ordish), but they were as third as large again. They reached the ground inside the vast hall as if balancing on tip-toe. This building was big, but not brutal. In fact, its structure had a remarkably balletic grace. Largely prefabricated, it took just six months to build (with an average of 215 men on site) and cost a very reasonable pounds 260,000.
During the exhibition it was crammed with industrial machinery, much of it looking curiously archaic in this spectacular setting lit by electric light. Here was emphatic proof that France was among the industrial nations. The country had lost great tracts of its new industry after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Lorraine, Alsace and the city of Strasbourg all passed into German hands. The Palais des Machines was a symbol of the industrial strength France had developed since then.
Long after the Palais des Machines was demolished, architectural historians, Nikolaus Pevsner and Henry-Russell Hitchcock among them, saw it as a precursor of the Modern Movement. Assuming it was first and foremost a work of bravura structural engineering (which it was), they gave credit for its design to Victor Contamin (1840-93), engineer of the Paris Universal Exhibition, and all but dismissed Dutert. They thought Dutert was responsible solely for the late-flowering Gothic and Beaux-Arts frills that enlivened the structure. They were wrong. The design was very much Dutert's; it marks a bridging of the disciplines of architect and engineer, of art and science.
Looking through Stuart Durant's book, how one longs to have visited this all but forgotten industrial cathedral. We can, however, still enjoy the Eiffel tower and should thus be grateful for large mercis.
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