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Parisians quarrel over crumbling cultural palace

A LEAKY glass roof, bolts falling from the framework, and foundations sinking into the ground: the Grand Palais, formerly one of the most visited exhibition halls in Paris, is in "a perilous condition", according to an official report leaked to the newspaper Le Figaro.

The Palais, built with the Eiffel Tower for the Paris Exhibition of 1900, lies a stone's throw from the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysees. At the beginning of the century it distinguished itself by exhibiting artists who were excluded from the principal Paris museums: Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso.

Like its sister building across the river, the Grand Palais was the subject of a furious controversy during its construction. Parisians thought it ugly and out of keeping with the beautiful architecture of the city.

This controversy remains today, as to what to do with the disintegrating building. The main nave was closed six years ago, when a bolt from the roof fell on to a Jean-Paul Gaultier designed snuff box, part of a design exhibition. Some want it knocked down, others fight to restore it to its former glory.

Serge Louveau, former head of the Louvre and author of the leaked report, falls into the latter category. He estimates that it will cost about pounds 100m to repair the Grand Palais.

The most urgent work is needed on the south section, which has sunk 15cm into the ground since its construction. "To stop this worrying development, we have to pump concrete under the supports of the Palais as soon as possible", Mr Louveau said. This may not be all that soon. The French Culture Minister, Catherine Trautmann, notorious for her slow response to problems, has had the Louveau report in her possession for two months.

Furthermore the 400 million francs that would allow the initial work to proceed has been blocked by the Finance Ministry. This will delay the start of any repair work for at least six months.

Mr Louveau's report makes damning judgements on the misuse of the building and its lack of management.

At present the administration, controlled by the Culture Ministry, consists of two caretakers and two workmen. Mr Louveau suggests an independent managerial structure, which would be responsible for, among other things, maintenance and safety of the building. He would also like to see a better co-ordination of those groups allowed to lease the buildings around the main nave.

The renovated Grand Palais that he envisages would be a warm and inviting cultural centre. If the building doesn't crumble in the meantime.