10/29/11

Palais Garnier Opera House, Paris France


Charles Garnier designed the Opéra de Paris, completed in 1875 at the height of the Second Empire. Napolean III envisioned a temple to the arts as the pinnacle of a modern movement. Baron Haussmann razed significant portions of Paris to introduce modern avenues, uniform 6-story mixed living units, and grand civic centers. The opera was meant to be a world center for lofty artistic pursuits, which only the upper class could access, and as such was an architectural wonder of the age.

Garnier's travels and intense study of Greek and Roman classics is firstly evidence in the visage of his Théâtre National de l'Opéra. Historic symbols of the higher arts mixed with modern technology of the beaux-arts school, with divergent results. Gaston Leroux described the effect:
In the orchestra stalls, the drugget covering them looked like an angry sea, whose glaucous waves had been suddenly rendered stationary by a secret order from the storm phantom... They made for the left boxes, plowering their way like sailors who leave their ship and try to struggle to the shore. The eight great polished columns stood up in the dusk like so many huge piles supporting the threatening, crumbling, big-bellied cliffs, whose layers were represented by the circular, parallel, waving lines of the balconies of the grand, first and second tiers of boxes. At the top, right on top of the cliff, lost in M. Lenepveu's copper ceiling, figures grinned and grimaced, laughed and jeered... And yet these figures were usually very serious. Their names were Isis, Amphitrite, Hebe, Pandora, Psyche, Thetis, Pomona, Daphne, Clytie, Galatea and Arethusa. Yes, Arethusa herself and Pandora, whom we all know by her box, looked down...

The 30,000 Franc, 6 ton chandelier was unprecedented for its time. It obstructed views and provided a bright central source of light that disturbed many. Then a counter-weight failed in 1896 and it fell and killed one person. But views, safety, and acoustics weren't the main concerns of the design. The rich Baroque decorations and lavish sculpture work of historical artists cemented a Neoclassic style that stretched to the limits the cohesion of modern rationalism and technology with historical values and social oppression.

The circular celing above the chandelier was replaced in 1964 with a crappy painting by Marc Chagall, but otherwise the building has kept its plush, gloomy atmosphere that has become a trademark of what many call Gothic. If architecture is the means of social control and personal artistic revelation, this is certainly one of the greatest works of architecture ever created.

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(1001th post!)

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