In Paris, Grand Visions of Old and New

Computer technology allows visitors to examine replicas of Gothic and Renaissance monuments.
Computer technology allows visitors to examine replicas of Gothic and Renaissance monuments. (By Carole Lenfant -- Cite De Larchitecture Et Du Patrimoine)
Sunday, November 11, 2007

If there is one thing the French do better than just about anyone, it's grandeur: the pomp and showmanship so convincing you almost believe that the world revolves (or should revolve) around the enlightened sun of la France.

And of course nothing in France is grander than its monuments -- from sumptuous Renaissance palaces to medieval cathedrals to the Eiffel Tower of the Belle Epoque.

In September, a new museum dedicated to eight centuries of French architecture opened in Paris with lots of French flair, historical importance, high-tech gadgets and a really cool espresso/snack bar.

The Cite de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine ("City of Architecture and Heritage") occupies a wing of the Palais de Chaillot -- a pair of buildings from the '30s that form a four-story semicircle looking out to the Eiffel Tower.

Appropriately, walking into the Cite gives you the feeling that you've entered something important: The slick white towering lobby and the immense windows lead to a terrace and a view of the Eiffel that makes it look close enough to touch.

Actually, the Cite is really two museums: It combines France's old museum of historic monuments, which closed in this spot in the 1990s for renovations, with a new sprawling exhibition on modern architecture. You enter from the ground floor into a grand hall of life-size replicas of entryways, statues and details from such great Romanesque cathedrals as Languedoc and Burgundy. Most of these reproductions were created in the 19th century and were done with such precision (exhibits explain the casting process) that they capture every crack and even initials scratched in the original stone.

Copying monuments is one thing, but the Cite goes further, allowing visitors to virtually explore great monuments -- such as the Sainte-Foy Abbey church in Conques -- inch by inch via large computer screens with joysticks that zoom in and out. Gothic and Renaissance monuments receive the same treatment, and in other galleries there are works of monumental painting -- a replica of the 14th-century interior dome of the Saint-Etienne Cathedral in Cahors, for example -- as well as reproductions of France's stained-glass treasures.

But none of this would be quite grand enough if it weren't for the second floor. To get there you ascend a staircase that instantly transports you from the epoch of Louis XIV to that of Austin Powers I. Walls and ceilings are painted fluorescent red, floors a fluorescent pink, all illuminated by moody halogen lighting.

At the top of the stairs, you enter a vast white gallery that feels like the inside of an iPod. The gallery follows the curve of the building -- with more great windows looking out onto the Eiffel Tower. Large flat screens hang from ceilings flashing images; others are posed on exhibit tables with architectural models. Still more screens speak to you (in French) as you pass.

The modern architecture gallery explains the big concepts in French and English -- such as the use of architecture in cultural venues, arenas, etc. The little details and the multimedia presentations are in French only, which is probably okay, at least for most Americans. Surely some Francophiles will want to know all about Grenoble's Maison de la Culture, designed for the 1968 Winter Olympics by a disciple of Le Corbusier, but they probably already speak French.

Others may find a quick tour of this gallery so overwhelming they'll need to repair to the ground floor and that cafe, which is itself worth the trip. Here at the mod orange and white bar you get your espresso ($2.90) or Mariage Freres tea ($4.35), a sandwich or the plat du jour ($18.90), and park in one of the comfortable orange and white translucent chairs. Thanks to yet another bank of computer screens, you can take a virtual tour of the whole museum without moving, or just have a seat on the terrace and soak up the moment under Paris's most famous structure. -- Robert V. Camuto

* The Cite de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine (Palais de Chaillot, 1 Place Trocadero in Paris's 16th arrondissement) is open every day, although hours vary. Combined admission for permanent and temporary gallery exhibitions is $14.50, free for those younger than 18. Details: 011-33-1-58-515-200, http://www.citechaillot.fr.

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