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A Parisian Marvel: The Grand Palais Éphémère Blends History and Modernity.
In the heart of Paris, where history meets the contemporary, the Champs de Mars has borne witness to the rise and fall of countless temporary structures. This sprawling green expanse, stretching from the neo-Classical style École Militaire, where luminaries such as Napoleon honed their skills, to the iconic Eiffel Tower, has been a canvas for extraordinary, short-lived cities brought to life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These cities featured pavilions, palaces, houses, monuments, fountains, bridges, paths, and grand esplanades, turning the Champs de Mars into a living, breathing exhibition of architectural prowess. Some of these “temporary” constructions, such as the Eiffel Tower itself, defied expectations and became permanent landmarks.
The Grand Palais Éphémère, a temporary structure erected at the southern end of the Champs de Mars, rekindles this longstanding tradition. Constructed in 2021, it was conceived as a short-term substitute for the Grand Palais, which was undergoing extensive renovation. The latter, a grandiose Beaux-Arts masterpiece, originally graced the banks of the Seine River during the 1900 Universal Exposition.
The Grand Palais Éphémère, designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and his team at Wilmotte & Associates, is shaped like a cross and stands as a striking fusion of history and modernity. Supported by 44 wooden arches composed of rigid triangular trusses, its rounded vaults are encased in a clear, durable skin made from ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) and PVC vinyl fabric, offering over 100,000 square feet of column-free, uninterrupted space that can adapt to various events.
The building’s curved form is a nod to the design elements of its historic neighbors, including the Grand Palais’s barreled ceilings, the École Militaire’s curved roofline, and the Eiffel Tower’s latticed supporting arches. Despite its simplicity, it exudes a resolutely modern sensibility, stripped down to its pure structure and cladding. Nestled in the Champs de Mars, the Grand Palais Éphémère’s crossed naves measure approximately 490 and 460 feet in length, with a vaulted roof that reaches 65 feet while preserving views of the taller École Militaire. Notably, the structure incorporates the site’s famed statue of Marshal Joseph Joffre, a World War I French Army commander, standing just inside the glass-fronted south facade.
Creating this architectural marvel was no small feat. The design and construction process had to adhere to an incredibly tight nine-month timeline. Prefabricated wood frame segments expedited the skeleton’s assembly, allowing the Grand Palais Éphémère to become a reality in record time.
Addressing the challenge of a high-water table under the edifice, workers drove thin piles for additional support, ensuring stability without disturbing the site. To prevent the structure from feeling like a drafty, echo-filled circus tent, multiple materials were layered into the inner skin, including mineral fiber insulation, plasterboard, and fabric. A system of warm and cool air vents, controlled from a remote technical room, enhances comfort, while sustainability is prioritized with sustainably harvested wood, embedded solar panels, and mineral-based plastics.
Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the 75-year-old architect behind this modern marvel, is renowned for his adept fusion of history and modernity. His diverse portfolio includes the 1910 Hotel Lutetia in Paris’s Sixth Arrondissement, where vibrant new elements harmonize with painstakingly restored historic features. Another standout project, Station F near the Francois Mitterrand Library, transformed a vaulted concrete warehouse into a unique start-up campus, showcasing Wilmotte’s talent for combining old and new.
Wilmotte’s previous work on the Wall of Peace, an installation composed of stainless-steel columns and glass panels engraved with the word “peace” in 49 languages on the same site as the Grand Palais Éphémère, provides a hint of the temporary structure’s potential longevity. While intended to stand for six months, it graced the site for two decades before the Grand Palais Éphémère took its place.
Though originally designed to be ephemeral, this architectural gem may have a future as permanent as some of its historical neighbors. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, once skeptical, is now championing the idea of retaining the Grand Palais Éphémère beyond the 2024 Olympics. This flexible marvel, with its myriad possibilities, has already captured the hearts of many, igniting conversations across France about similar projects. Jean-Michel Wilmotte, a master of diversity in design and architecture, remains open to these prospects, ready to create something new that challenges the boundaries of contemporary and historical elements. In his own words, “I never do the same thing twice. I’m always trying to do something new. To understand something new.” The Grand Palais Éphémère, poised at the intersection of history and modernity, embodies this ethos beautifully.