“Paris sous verre”

Pavillon de l'Arsénal

Windows, walls, doors, floors, ceilings: glass is everywhere and yet, almost by definition, we tend to look right through it. This explains in part the fascination of “Paris sous verre—la ville et ses reflets” (Paris under glass, the city and its reflections), presented at the Pavillon de l’Arsénal, the city’s center for urbanism and architecture. By focusing eye and mind on the use of glass in the architecture of Paris and its environs, this seemingly modest affair of documentary photographs and large-format light-boxes, plus a few scale models and technical demonstrations, succeeded in putting the everyday environment in, as it were, a new light.

The exercise was not limited to a history of practical applications, for as artists, poets, and philosophers have demonstrated over the centuries, glass functions as matter and metaphor, transmitting, transforming, and obscuring both light and vision. From the stained-glass windows of Abbot Suger’s twelfth-century Basilica of Saint-Denis north of Paris to the glass-brick walls of a recent municipal parking garage in the industrial suburb that now surrounds the venerable Gothic church, some 170 structures traced a kind of Promethean quest—not for fire, but for light. Its contemporary coda is the use of tinted, textured, mirrored, silk-screened, and otherwise treated glass to filter light or block it altogether.

As the panoply of glass windows presented in a section entitled “Domestic Light” made apparent, this seemingly eternal architectural element was practically nonexistent before the fifteenth century (wall openings were traditionally covered with parchment, oiled paper, or cloth) and in any event considered a luxury until the twentieth century. But as the other three sections brought out even more clearly, through their focus on often spectacular “envelopes,” transparent facades and coverings in civil architecture, it is hardly the material itself that accounts for the evolution of its use. Department stores, showrooms, office buildings, apartment houses, train stations, airports, factories, schools, and libraries, not to mention the grandiose greenhouses and exhibition pavilions of France’s colonial era, all attest to the succession of innovations and attitudes (new building technologies on the one hand, a welter of social, political, economic, and architectural ambitions on the other) that have shaped Paris’ modernity.

With little pretense of neutrality, the show’s organizers, historian Bernard Marrey and architect-engineer Jacques Ferrier, injected their own critical views into the presentation. They distinguished, for example, between the utopian visions of a few pioneers (Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier) and the brave new worlds mass-produced by uninspired copyists. The abuses of real-estate speculators (referred to here as “patrimonial loan sharks”) and the indifference of architects and planners to local concerns, as well as current procedures for public building commissions—a subject of growing controversy in France—were all evoked, providing a counterpoint to the success stories on display.

This casebook approach, which is the stock and trade of the Pavillon de l’Arsénal, provided a kind of living pedagogy for a subject that is anything but academic. In this instance, the 170 “cases” were unfortunately grouped in four catch-all categories that were more effective in permitting the display panels and vitrines to be aligned under the four sides of the late-nineteenth-century building’s own imposing glass skylight than in providing an analytical framework. Indeed, more coherent connections might have been made between the use of glass within buildings and the larger functions of building types, from, for example, the “earthly paradises” of medieval churches to their industrial-era equivalents (glass-roofed train stations, exhibition halls, greenhouses, and the consumers’ paradise of early department stores), to the skyscrapers of the international and multinational styles. Or again, instead of tracing the window per se in domestic architecture, it might have been more interesting to consider the inherent trade-off between “exposure” and privacy.

But these conceptual limitations were almost incidental. Architecture is after all a supremely site-specific art, and the luxury of this city-specific exhibit was that the buildings were waiting outside. If museums have become the churches of art, this space is a vital train station for architecture, a point of transit from the mind to urban space.

Miriam Rosen