A Quick History Lesson - Musée d'Orsay

The Musée d’Orsay is easily one of my favorite museums in Paris.  The collection of 19th century art is amazing, but what really draws me to the museum is the architecture. 

The Musée d’Orsay started out as the Gare d’Orsay, a train station built by Victor Laloux  in time for the World's Fair in 1900.  Laloux also designed the adjacent hotel.  One of the challenges of the site was its proximity to the Louvre and the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur.  Laloux disguised the modern metallic structure of the train station with the façade of the hotel, which successfully blended with its elegant surroundings. The interior of the station utilized all the modern marvels of the time and featured exposed metal trusses and large expanses of glass.

Photo: Courtesy of Musée d'Orsay

The station closed in 1939 and served several different purposes in the following years.  It was used as a mail center for sending packages to POWs in World War II, and the same POWs were welcomed there after the Liberation.  The station was then used as a movie set for several movies including Orson Welles’ The Trial.  By the early 1970s, the station was abandoned and the hotel’s doors were closed.  The station was almost torn down to make room for a modern hotel complex, but a resurgence in interest in 19th century architecture saved the structure.

The conversion of the abandoned train station into a museum was one of the “grands projets” commissioned during François Mitterand’s presidency. The “grand projets” were meant to rival the grandeur of the monuments built during the rule of the French kings and the Napoleons. 

Italian architect Gae Aulenti transformed the abandoned train station into the new home for the collection of late 19th century French art previously housed in the Louvre and other state collections.  The museum would reunite the art and architecture of a time when Paris was at it’s height of urban and cultural splendor.

Aulenti was faced with a challenge in the adaptive reuse of the train station.  The spatial organization of a train station and that of a museum are diametrically different. Train stations are designed to move passengers from Point A to Point B in the quickest way possible.  Museums are designed for perambulation, introspection and appreciation. 

One area presented a particular architectural challenge, the 140m long central hall that rises 35m to a vault made of a combination of glass & steel and paneled stucco.  Aulenti employed the Architecture Parlante method in her re-design of the station.  Architecture Parlante is the idea that buildings can explain their own function or identity.  Aulenti’s strategy in the central hall restored the old trains in architectural form.  Twin rows of massive Egypto-industrial stone structures sit in the exact locations and are the same scale as the trains that used to pull through the rail station.  Train “doors” access the museum’s avante garde & academic painting collections

The terraced concourse that runs the length of the great hall resembles a train platform.  Ramps span the main hall and connect various spaces and levels of the exhibit areas housed in the former hotel.  The café on the upper level of the Museum is in the same location as the dining room in the former hotel.

Aaaaannd that’s your history lesson for the day! 

“...architecture delivers place’s memory to the present, and transmits it to the future.” - Tadao Ando