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Auguste Perret: The maverick grand old man of French architecture

An exhibition which focuses on Augueste Perret’s personal and artistic development in an effort to dispel a cold and dry reputation

The son of an exiled Communard stonemason, Auguste Perret (1874-1954) never completed his diploma at the École des Beaux-Arts, but by the time of his death had risen to become one of the grand old men of French architecture − a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1943, president of the Conseil de l’Ordre des Architectes in 1945, an RIBA Royal Gold Medallist in 1948, an AIA medallist in 1952, and so on.

Despite the maverick, entrepreneurial aspects of his ascension, which resulted from the family-run Perret Frères’ pioneering development of reinforced-concrete construction, the portrait that has generally been painted of him up till now is of a rather cold technocrat, and his buildings can seem dry and severe to the uninitiated.

This exhibition, which is currently being displayed in Paris’s Palais d’Iéna − a Perret masterpiece − aims to change all that. Its chief curator, Joseph Abram (a long-time Perret scholar and the man who got Le Havre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has chosen to put the emphasis on Perret’s personal and artistic development through an analysis of ‘eight masterpieces?/!’: the Rue Franklin apartment building of 1903-04, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (1906-13), Notre-Dame du Raincy (1922-23), the Salle Cortot (1928-29), the Garde-Meuble du Mobilier National (1934-36), the aforementioned Palais d’Iéna (1936-46), the town hall of Le Havre (1952-58) and the church of St Joseph du Havre (1951-57).

Displayed in the Palais’s salle hypostyle, a long, classicising column-filled hall, the exhibition is organised in three parts. The most substantial of these deals directly with the eight buildings in question. Running down one side of the room are wall displays featuring over 100 drawings produced by Perret’s office, as well as archive photos by Studio Chevojon (which worked with Perret for almost 50 years) illustrating both the construction history of
the buildings in question and other, related projects. Complementing these two-dimensional documents are large-format models.

Many of the items selected are truly splendid: a coloured rendering of a Greek-Ionic portico realised by Perret for Julien Guadet’s atelier at the École des Beaux-Arts; the original model of the Le Havre town hall; an enormous, beautifully detailed section of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées; a perspective rendering of Perret’s unbuilt scheme for the Chaillot hill; or a large-scale elevation of one of the columns of his new order − a sixth addition to the Classical canon that would be adapted to the requirements of reinforced concrete − to name a few. Equally splendid are examples of Perret’s sober yet luxurious furniture, aptly placed in front of the section on the Garde-Meuble (now the Mobilier National).

So far so conventional. The middle strip of the exhibition gets more personal. It is here, in display cases arranged thematically, that Perret’s education, artistic and intellectual development, family life, friendships and reputation are considered via a wide array of highly evocative documents and objects.

We find some of the textbooks and manuals that formed part of Perret’s library, personal effects such as his snuff box, pince-nez and Academician’s sword, numerous family photographs (many showing the Perret brothers larking about), stereoscopic images taken by the brothers that give an insight into how they viewed the world, and countless letters.

While you expect correspondence between Perret and Le Corbusier (who, as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, undertook a 14-month internship with Perret in 1908-09), you are perhaps less prepared for letters from the likes of Louis Aragon, AndréGide or Jean Dubuffet (the latter wrote beautifully of the pleasure he experienced living in a Perret-designed house). The artistic milieu in which Perret moved is also evoked by portraits and busts of him, as well as by Antoine Bourdelle’s study for the facade frieze of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

The third section of the exhibition takes all this a stage further via contemporary reactions to Perret’s oeuvre as well as a series of objets rapportés. Among the former are Louise Lemoine and Ila Bêka’s portrait of life at 25 bis, rue Franklin (largely filmed from the point of view of the building’s Italian concierge) and student projects from the Versailles School of Architecture, while the latter are a series of talismans, or objets à réaction poétique, conjuring up the genius loci of each of the eight buildings: a Pleyel piano as favoured by Alfred Cortot, Falconnier glass bricks from the rue Franklin, a Ballets Russes poster, and even the 1849 Lambot rowing boat, considered by Perret and his contemporaries as the first realisation in reinforced concrete.



The only downside to this gem of an exhibition is the mise en scène, realised by OMA, which recycles leftover sets they designed for the event ‘24h Museum’ − held last year at the Palais d’Iéna by the Fondazione Prada, which is also the main sponsor of the Perret exhibition − as well as tribune seating they conceived for one of Prada’s Miu Miu fashion shows at the Palais. Not only does the result look makeshift and cheap, it renders the splendid volume of the salle hypostyle totally unreadable.

And they’ve even managed to mess up Perret’s extraordinary escalier d’honneur: a dizzying display of the technical possibilities of reinforced concrete, it derives much of its effect from being set against glazed concrete latticework, which OMA have hidden behind black curtains serving as a backdrop to a monumental photograph of Perret’s disembodied head, producing an effect startlingly reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz.

No doubt this is meant to be read as some kind of ironic questioning of the concept of a canon of ‘masterpieces’ − as suggested by the show’s title with its exclamation and question marks − not to mention of the masters themselves, but Perret’s work proves more than robust enough to stand up to this kind of treatment. And the portrait that emerges of him, as well as being warm, touching and brilliant, sets him both in his own time and in the pantheon of posterity.

Auguste Perret: huit chefs d’oeuvre!/?

Venue: Palais d’Iéna

City: Paris

Dates: until 19 February

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