Auguste Perret: Eight Masterpieces !/?
Through February 19, 2014
The exhibition, Auguste Perret: Eight Masterpieces !/?, is really about dualities: the subject of the exhibition, the architect Perret (1874-1954), an architectural innovator in reinforced concrete, and the exhibition’s designer Rem Koolhaas/OMA; and the historical perspective of Perret by the “scientific” curator, Joseph Abram, and the forward-looking interpretations by “artistic” curator, Koolhaas. This interplay is symbolized by the exclamation point/question mark at the end of the exhibition title.
The exhibition is set in Perret’s crown jewel, the Palais d’Iéna (1937), originally a museum of public works for 1937 Paris Exposition and now home of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (ESEC), a political assembly. The building showcases Perret’s new classical order, “the order of reinforced concrete.” An isosceles triangle with a rotunda housing an amphitheater at its peak, it extends to two long hypostyle halls linked by a curved gallery and flowing stairwell. The exhibition is in one of the long halls with historical materials on Perret’s eight key buildings on the far side—main labels, original architectural drawings, and vintage photographs from the Chevojon studio.
The central dividing aisle contains vitrines with architectural models and artifacts—letters, albums, objects, books, magazines from museum and libraries, and a rear-lit digital stereopticon. On the interior wall are artists’ and student interpretations inspired by Perret ranging from a film of the 1903 Franklin apartment building called 25Bis made by Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine (who also made Koolhaas Life about the housekeeper at Maison à Bordeaux) to projects focused on single buildings elements—column, room, floor, frame, arch, facade—by students at the national schools of architecture in Versailles and Nancy.
Objects from the eight “masterpieces” including molds from screen walls, glass blocks, fabric swatches from the Mobilier National (1934), an 1849 concrete boat exhibited in the original museum, and a piano from Salle Cortot (1928) which will be played at concerts throughout the run of the show. (I visited the Salle Cortot at the École Normale de Musique for a lunchtime concert. Shoehorned into a narrow space, Perret makes clever use of a difficult site. Cortot recalled that Perret said, “’I will make you a hall that will sound like a violin.’ He was right. But, surpassing our expectations, that violin happens to be a Stradivarius.”)
Perret’s buildings feel almost poured, they seem to be stretching, groaning to rise up. They required much less material to build than masonry structures, and what Perret learned from the industrial hangars he constructed early on, enables a thin shell of lightweight spans with slender, tapered columns, lofty ceilings, and the often patterned fenestration. Perret and his brothers had a combined architecture and construction firm, so were able to test and build concrete forms for their designs as well as for other practitioners.
Perret is an interesting bridge. Corbusier, who was 13 years younger, worked for Perret for a year, and although he broke away from his mentor stylistically (there’s an account of their different versions of window design, Perret e Le Corbusier: Confronti by Giovanni Fanelli, 1990), he too, made notable buildings in reinforced concrete like Villa Savoye, Ronchamp, and Chandigarh.
The Palais has been the setting for past Koolhaas/OMA projects for Prada: fashion shows, cultural events, and pop-up exhibitions, and now this show. The exhibition elements we see have been recycled from previous incarnations at the Palais. The cages on the wall supporting the historical section came from the 2012 24 Hour Museum by artist and filmmaker Francesco Vezzoli, and the staircases and platforms featuring student and artist works are from Prada catwalks. Koolhaas says that this space is easy to slot in the exhibition elements because the Palais was originally intended as a museum; it’s a ready-made grid that becomes a vessel for his ideas, and this exhibition should be seen as part of the entire series at this special venue. Since the building is not open to the public, August Perret: Eight Masterpieces !/? is a rare opportunity to see the space and these dualities come together.