Paris is rich with museums, especially if you look beyond the “big 3”, and one I’ve recently had the opportunity to visit is the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Although the museum’s name translates to the “city of architecture and heritage”, it’s not just a history of buildings, rather it tells the story of France and its people through architectural design. Located near the Trocadero in the Palais de Chaillot (the curved building on the northeast side of the square), the Cité de l’Architecture is a treasure trove hidden in plain sight. It’s literally situated in one of the most visible spots in the city just steps from the Eiffel Tower, yet not many visitors know about it, let alone venture inside. This worked out to our advantage, making the museum the perfect rainy day escape.
Inside you’ll journey through 900 years of buildings from the Middle Ages to present day spread across 3 separate galleries – the Gallery of Casts, the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Architecture and the Gallery of Wall Paintings and Stained Glass. The first gallery houses some 350 full-size casts of mainly religious structures from around France, dating back to the 12th through 18th century. Walking around these true-to-life copies of cathedral doorways, chapels, status, arches and pillars, which are complimented by historical documents, photos and models, gave us a small glimpse into how grandiose these building projects really were for their time. Among the towering structures are also hands-on activities that spotlights the evolution of the building process, including an interactive game that allows users to oversee the restoration of Notre Dame. This bright and airy gallery was a pleasure to wander through, especially since it was quite and empty, sans a few people sketching throughout.
By contrast, the next gallery upstairs focuses “modern” architecture beginning with the 1850s, showcasing the innovations brought about by the industrial revolution and the impact of Baron Haussmann’s urban planning, which has defined the character of Paris as we know it today. The role of social changes also takes center stage. For example, the introduction of paid holidays in 1936 brought about leisure activities such as skiing and beachgoing and the need for related structures, as well as the rise of middle class housing and educational and cultural venues. The gallery also features a life-size reproduction of a Corbusier apartment from the 1940/50s to explore, highlighting the concept of urban density and the importance of green space. After making our way through this floor of the museum, it’s clear that there was a definitive moment in time when architecture was no longer solely fueled by religious or political reasons, rather its new purpose was to serve the community.
Access to the last gallery was limited during our visit due to construction, however it provides the “icing on the cake” so to speak, housing 300-plus copies of paintings, stained glass and other wall art from around France.