“Masterpiece!/? A discredited notion? Far from it. Drawing on emotion and reason, the hallowing of works of art is generating as much knowledge, savoir faire and skill as ever. The supreme link between artist and public, the masterpiece remains, as ever, the driving force for art in all its diversity.”
Roland Huesca, Dance historian
Auguste Perret (1874-1954), one of the most important architects of the 20th Century, played a major role in defining an aesthetic of reinforced concrete. The son of a stonecutter in the Paris Commune, with his two brothers, Gustave and Claude, he created an innovative enterprise combining an architectural office and a construction business. Perret was a passionate reader of Viollet-le-Duc and a brilliant pupil of Julien Guadet at the Paris École des beaux-arts. With the apartment building on the rue Franklin in 1903 and the 1913 Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, he began to affirm his role as an exceptional builder – a pioneer of reinforced concrete – and a genuine architectural theoretician. In 1923, following in the vein of his industrial warehouses, he created the église of Notre Dame du Raincy, a model of economy of materials.
His projects in the 1930s respond to a unique cultural challenge: the creation of a new classical order comparable to the orders of antiquity but derived from modern construction techniques. His order of reinforced concrete, first developed in 1937 for the Palais d’Iéna, found a vast field of application after World War II in the reconstruction of the city of Le Havre. The city’s inscription on the World Heritage List in 2005 brought public attention to Auguste Perret’s work. But his creative path remains largely unknown.
The exhibition « Auguste Perret : Huit Chefs d’oeuvre !/? » (“Auguste Perret: EightMasterpieces!/?”) is designed to counteract that deficit by offering a privileged access to the major works of this intellectual builder, a friend of artists Antoine Bourdelle and Maurice Denis and of the poet Paul Valéry. Its ambition is to share with a broader public the intimacy of a creative approach that counts among the most complex and rigorous ever generated by the field of architecture. Out of a cultural commitment to the Palais d’Iéna, headquarters of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council (ESEC), Fondazione Prada has, since 2011, launched and organized projects in which architecture, fashion and art have a central role. Out of a cultural commitment to the Palais d’Iéna, headquarters of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council (ESEC), Fondazione Prada has, since 2011, launched and organized projects in which architecture, fashion and art have a central role. The desire to understand this concrete palace is the inspiration for an exhibition in this former Museum of Public Works that its architect considered to be “a shed fit for any purpose.”
Via a selection of original documents and thanks to contemporary contributions, this exhibition is an invitation to explore the wealth of the significance of reinforced concrete architecture and more generally seeks to question its modern heritage in all its complexities.
The exhibition is made up of sections that bring together different modes of existence of the architectural object. In two main parts, it is organised lengthwise in the hypostyle room.
On one side a metal enclosure referencing modern museum spaces is home to a range of documentary material:
A. A selection of original drawings, mainly from the 20th-century Architecture Archives’ Perret collection at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine in Paris, provides the projects’ design background.
B. A collection of photographs produced by the Studio Chevojon, whose intimate working relationship with the Perret agency lasted fifty years, expresses the materiality of the building.
C. A group of structural models from the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine, the Musée des arts et métiers and the Le Havre municipal archives, display the buildings’ structural geometry.
On the other side a stepped wooden structure offers present-day responses to the Perret oeuvre:
D. Photographic albums by Gilbert Fastenaekens describe Perret’s architecture and its current uses
E. A film by Louise Lemoine and Ila Bêka shows users using the buildings
F. Objects and materials having a special connection with the buildings in the exhibition conjure up their everyday character and their duration
G. Projects carried out with architecture students explore the potential of Perret’s architecture today
Down the middle of the room a line of tables presents the biographical background to the buildings concerned:
H. A mixed bag of letters, photos, albums, personal possessions, books, magazines and stereoscopic images immerses the visitor in the intimacy of Perret’s life
These different strata of the architectural reality are complemented by furniture designed by Perret and various works by his artist friends.