France's greatest single period of building took place as the Third Republic prepared its capital for the Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900. The former saw the introduction of the Eiffel Tower; the latter would see an explosion of projects throughout the city, from the classic Gare d'Orsay train station to the ornate Pont Alexandre III bridge to the intricate system of subway trains linking it all together.
At the heart of it all was a pair of modern-day palaces facing each other in the heart of the city, where the Champs-Élysées meets the Seine.
The monstrous Grand Palais combines an imposing classical stone façade with a riot of Art Nouveau ironwork, supporting a splendid glass roof which lights up the area when illuminated at twilight. The glass-enclosed arcade is a massive single space 1100 feet long, flanked by tier upon tier of balconies.
Colossal bronzes of flying horses and chariots, representing themes like "Immortality Vanquishing Time" and "Harmony Routing Discord" stand at the corners.
The building itself was given the subtitle "A Monument Consecrated by the Republic to the Glory of French Art."
The grounds also contain bas-reliefs with titles like The Arts and Sciences Rendering Homage to the New Century.
A chunk of concrete (I can't quite tell if it's some kind of genuine piece or what) memorializes the now-fallen Berlin Wall.
Regrettably, the Grand Palais has proven to be, like our other curiosity the Tour Saint-Jacques, a splendid example of the pace of French renovations. Officially closed to the public in 1993, the building is still enveloped in scaffolding today.
The Grand Palais's "little brother," the still-massive Petit Palais, was built at the same time to house a major display of French art. These days, it serves as the Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, a large collection of objets d'art from throughout history. Arranged around a pretty semicircular courtyard and garden, it is similar in style to its larger brother, with Ionic columns, a grand porch, and a dome echoing the Hôtel des Invalides across the Seine.
Also present are a number of paintings by noted French artists Jean Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Gustave Courbet, as well as the Impressionists, a sort of belated acknowledgement of the importance of the unique French style whose display in a major museum would have been unthinkable just a decade earlier. In fact, a visiting Monsieur Le Président was unsuccessfully restrained by a nervous academicien who felt that the exhibit was dishonoring France's artistic legacy.
In one shady corner, a bronze of a defiant Churchill are a reminder of the period in which France, trying to woo both Britain and Stalin, renamed Tsar Alexander III's avenue for him, but left the nearby bridge unaltered.
Another bronze shows their own prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, looking more like a Nantucket fisherman braving a nor'easter than a head of state.
Built in a rear wing of the Grand Palais for the World's Fair of 1937, the Palais de la Découverte is a museum dedicated to scientific discoveries—which proved to be very popular with school groups—which today is essentially the only part of the Grand Palais open to the public. The "Eureka" rooms are a series of hands-on exhibits that let kiddies and adults alike explore optics, electricity, and rudimentary physics; without question, the highlight is the massive 1,000,000-volt Van de Graaff generator that lets you grab hold and look like Frankenstein's bride. (If that didn't sound risky enough for you, you can always try out the nuclear-physics exhibit, where kids can experiment making various objects radioactive. Seriously.) Portions of its space-age 1937 exhibits are good for a laugh as well, suggesting a future belonging more to Flash Gordon than Neil Armstrong.
The Grand Palais and Petit Palais have been variously described as "the exuberance of an architecture that was just beginning to realize its technological capabilities" and as Paris's most undervalued and neglected monuments.
For such large (and centrally located) buildings, they do a remarkable job of staying out of the way of the rest of Paris; tucked away within the grounds that blend seamlessly into the Jardin des Champs-Élysées, they almost disappear from sight.
I think I wasn't even aware of their existence the first few times we came here.
For us, they're undoubtedly high on our list of things that we will not be able to fully enjoy this trip, but look forward to doing in the future.
The Other Paris