There are places where, these days more than ever, it would be nice just to be Mozart. To have the kind of genius that could do justice to a Gabriel or a Rodin. Places where – it must be said – we could cast out the atrocities and insipid affectations of this century. Yes, now’s the time to win forgiveness for the 20th century….
Atrocities like bluntly decapitating a chapel that was already flat enough. Insipid affectations like what happened to a once magnificent garden that lost its planimetry and geometry, only to sink into the clichéd inanity of a suburban rose garden with aspirations to transform thinker and burghers into figures of resident landscape gardeners! Ambition and dignity are back on the agenda: these imply a clear position in the face of the demand this competition constitutes. The Musée Rodin means the Hôtel Biron and its garden. The Musée Rodin also means all the rest, and you would not be worthy of this commission as an architect if you didn’t have an overall theme and strategy in mind.
Ah, the Hôtel Biron! What a small masterpiece of harmony! People absolutely must enter through the main door. Better still, we must let, we must actively invite passersby to come and have a look without being forced to buy a ticket. What a great incitement to people walking past to come in and visit, once they get a clear sight of the magic of the place… Then, there’s the interior… First, we need to restore the conditions for reading the place as a historic monument, with Versailles flooring throughout – exit the crazy parquet. White and gold for the wainscoting on the ground floor and Trianon grey for the wainscoting upstairs: classical, in other words, perfectly classic and conventional. While we’re at it, let’s fix up the roof and eliminate the transitions between the different parts put in place to cover the attic spaces… Let’s clarify, let’s purify this masterpiece.
As for Rodin, how can we set him up here? Directly. Not with fake 18th-century pedestals. Not with the half-hearted frames you see in middle-class households courtesy of the local framer! No! Minimalist pedestals. Hard. Dark. Darker than bronze. More matt. Parallelepipedal. Frames backed by fine, edgy, metal plates that stand away from the wall. The lights? Ditto: small, dark, compact, technical parallelepipeds with integrated lightbulbs and adaptors. Standing away from the ceiling and precisely positioned. The signs, too, will be rectangular engraved plates, dark and standing away from the wall. No visible mounting devices. In short, the interval between these objects should be clear and unambiguous. Let them permit an unimpaired reading of the place, let them offer Rodin’s work conditions conducive to a complete reading of it as a contrast with the wainscoting and window sashes.
The same museographical hardware and the same spirit will be applied to all the spaces: basements, temporary expos, lobby, shop…
Basements? The vaults are superb, the stereotomy interesting. Our contributions here will be just as clear as in the upper floors: there’ll be a dark metal floor and sharply defined openings in the walls – the cut edges marked by a metal lining the same colour as the floor – and this will allow us to create a circuit from room to room.
The garden will stay much the same as it is now, but needs to be given more clarity and dignity. And yes, we will cut down a few trees – this place should not start out with the usual demagogy that consists in refusing to move a tree so as to satisfy the local greenie brigade! Its image is international. Not only should the vegetation be protected, it should be maintained! And the design should be simple enough to allow for maintenance, budget-wise. Let’s put the time spent on the roses towards mowing the lawn and pruning a few essential shrubs. The parterre should be level. The background views should be shaped based on our recommended depth and visual ‘appropriation’ of the trees nextdoor. At the entrance, we need to transform the walls and historic courtyard. We need lower walls that open up a few precisely defined views but still stop passersby from getting into the garden… without paying. On all sides, the geometry of the grounds and of the pruned shrubbery will easily incorporate a few sculptures, and should showcase the major works, which will remain in exactly the same places: “The Thinker”, “The Burghers of Calais” and “The Gates of Hell”.
As for the rest, some might think we’re at last getting to the point… But I say no, we can’t think about the ‘rest’ until we’ve confirmed the existence of the above. The rest doesn’t sit well at all anymore and this is what justifies the urgency of this consultation. To solve this pathetic situation, we need to keep an open mind and focus on making the most of the Hôtel Biron and its garden. Hence the option of working on the periphery, the Hôtel being the centre, the jewel, we’re preparing people to read. Obviously we’re forced to deal with the 19th century which, although it may no longer need restoring, was never really represented here at its most characteristic: the neogothic remains a bit neo-neo. It’s vital that we translate the contribution of the 20th century. Dedicated now to a new purpose: the Musée Rodin. A Museum of sculpture. So let there be bronze and white marble, after the event, for the home of classicism. We propose to recreate unity by integrating or making moulded elements in ‘bronze’ (in reality, copper or anodised green aluminium casting), which will be laid over the existing structure. And from the rue de Varenne you will also see a miraculous recovery: the resurrection of the Chapel. This will be a marker of the Museum from the boulevard des Invalides, as well.
Let’s give the Chapel a high roof, close to its original volumetry but playing on backlighting, on lightness and letting in the light. Girders, cables, blinds, all ultralight and using the latest technology – a discreet technology that can only be spotted in the quality of the assembly and the precision.
The Chapel will remain the space for temporary exhibitions. A contradictory space, because it will be overloaded in terms of how the program functions, but will also offer multiple possibilities when it comes to contemporary sculpture. And, well, we might as well come right out with it: in a place of this historic calibre, there’s always going to be a contradiction some time or other between optimum functionality, based on a reductive functionalist approach, and the genius loci (in Michel Butor’s sense of the term). What we’re proposing is something that works – and works well, as far as we and our consultants are concerned – but that isn’t a mathematically exact formula for perfect functioning.
In actual fact, it works better than that, because for it to be functioning means people will want to move around, to go and look, even if there are a few too many metres or steps!
The reception area is located along the eastern wall on the rue de Varenne side, restoring balance to the courtyard and allowing us to recreate the symmetry of the interior entrance curve by moulding the existing part. The ticket office will sit inside the reception area – as will the shop, even though this will have two faces, like Janus. One will be inside the lobby, the other on the street. The stand (lined, in the middle) will prevent ticket-buyers from moving into the reception lobby and force them to go back through the main door instead. In the lobby, the shelves will be made longer, stretched.
Opposite, in the recreated Chapel, a type of modified-scaffolding apparatus will allow works to be placed inside the space. This could also be an opportunity for visitors to catch a glimpse of Paris and the Invalides. A second, hanging, apparatus will allow the volume to be neutralised for exhibitions of small works.
The administration will mainly be located along the common wall on the eastern side. This option is radical: it redefines this boundary. We’ll line the whole wall with a moulded grille following its exact profile, just as a trellis would have done in a few of the classical gardens of the 7th arrondissement…
Behind this grille of windows with blinds, there’ll be offices and storerooms on a single level accessible to forklifts… And the ghostly presence of sculptures behind the grille (except for the ones protected from the light in airconditioned rooms). An awning will cover the garden, stretching right to the back of the property.
We think this siting of the buildings is the most appropriate to confer status on the Hôtel Biron, and the most effective way to create the unity of the place by strongly emphasising its borders.