The Grand Palais

The Grand Palais was created for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, but many visitors had strong opinions about the vast exhibition space when it first debuted. However, the Grand Palais has continued to stand as an active exhibit hall and an icon of French culture and design.

The Grand Palais had a far more dramatic debut than its smaller partner. While the Petit Palais was designed by a single architect, the Grand Palais was designed by three. Charles Girault, the architect of the Petit Palais, oversaw Henri Deglane, Albert Louvet, and A.F.T. Thomas in designing the larger of the two structures (Drexler 455). This meant that three major sections of the building were designed by three different people, which is why many at the time felt as though it was too large and too complicated. The Grand Palais was the first large, prestigious building to be constructed since the Opéra, which was also designed in the Beaux-Arts style (Drexler 263). This might have encouraged high standards for the Grand Palais, since the Opéra was by then an iconic Parisian symbol of the arts. The Grand Palais was much larger than the Petit Palais, with the dimensions of the main space big enough to fit the Eiffel Tower’s base inside. Critics and the general public had very strong opinions about the Grand Palais when it debuted. The building was seen by many as the clunky brother of the charming Petit Palais (Drexler 457). The design variations and the sheer size of the building was in many eyes distasteful. In fact, some saw it as a warped form of the French artistic traditions seen in the Petit Palais (Drexler 455). One critic of the time called it “a more complex and less satisfactory building” than the Petit Palais (Drexler 457). If the Petit Palais met the goal of displaying French superiority in art and design, the Grand Palais subverted these ideals for many. However, a few contemporaries disagreed with the negative reviews. One writer named Jean Lorrain urged his readers to see both buildings on either side of Pont Alexandre III (Jullian 44). He went so far as to say that the public was shunning the Exposition and its spaces like the Grand Palais because of their dislike of the current government (Jullian 44). This review links the Exposition and its success with the politics of the time. For Lorrain, criticizing the Grand Palais, which was meant to be a symbol of French artistry and prestige, was criticizing the French government. The Expositions’ success or failure was an extension of the French government's strength or weakness. Although the Grand Palais inspired many strong opinions when it debuted, the pair of buildings are still considered to be “one of the greatest urbanistic ensembles” of the end of the nineteenth century.
The Grand Palais is still a place for French artistry and culture. It hosts regular exhibits and events, is the regular venue for Chanel's fashion shows, and was included in Paris' bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. Some of the exhibits shown in the space today hark back to its time as a building for the 1900 Exposition Universelle and the types of exhibits shown during the fair. For one day only, a vintage auto show took over the main gallery of the Grand Palais. Inside, rows and rows of cars, organized by model and behind bright red rope, were neatly lined up underneath the massive glass ceilings. The Grand Palais' true scale is not apparent until it can be seen from this main hall. The vast glass panels cast abundant light on the interior. Grand staircases lead to a second level of bannisters that hug the walls and look down onto the ground floor. On the exhibit floor, the vintage cars, wandering guests, and large white balloons all felt like they could have been plucked from another point in time. The entire space echoed the types of exhibits that the Grand Palais might have shown in the Exposition Universelles and throughout the 20th century. The auto show also showed the types of people that these exhibits, and the Grand Palais itself, were designed for. The show goers were almost exclusively male, many dressed expensively. Guests were free to sip champagne while they wandered through the rows of incredibly maintained, and expensive, automobiles. The auto show's final destination was Nice. This exhibit felt timeless, but it also felt rather exclusive, even though the general public was technically allowed in. The Grand Palais is an opulent building that invites this type of exhibit in, but it maintains a rather intimidating facade to outsiders. The rows of metal barricades and looming security guards made entering the space feel like trespassing, but this eventually faded amongst the sunny space and poppy colored cars inside. The Grand Palais intimidates with its grandeur and the types of exhibits shown there, but the interior still evokes the feeling of being in a different, more glamorous moment in time.