The French President's Cultural Legacy
Francois Mitterrand's 'Great Works' project paved the way for Paris to become a laboratory of contemporary urban architecture
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Finally, Mitterrand had time on his side. During his first term, he and his team laid the foundations for most of the buildings, including the restoration of the Louvre Palace; the Great Arch at la Defense; the Bastille Opera; the Arab Cultural Institute; la Villette Park, Science Museum, and Music Center; and the Orsay Museum.Skip to next paragraph
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Plans for the latter three projects had already been under way during the former administration, and projects for the site at la Defense were being discussed when Georges Pompidou was president; but Mitterrand launched the international competitions and chose the winning projects. Except for Chinese-American I.M. Pei (who designed the Louvre restoration), all architects were chosen through international competitions.
Biasini had decided that Pei was the only architect able to work on the Louvre. Once he persuaded Mitterrand, Biasini got around the law requiring that architects be chosen in competitions when the architect's fee is to exceed $180,000 for a public building: He made Pei an associate of the Louvre's in-house architectural firm.
Pei's pyramid for the Louvre entrance is an example of how public opinion has changed over the years. At the time of its construction, the glass and metal structure was the subject of tremendous controversy. Today, it is almost universally praised.
The competition for the National Library was won by a young French architect, Dominique Perrault, and his project proved highly controversial. The main objection, Mr. Latarjet says, came from the intelligentsia, who were incensed that Mitterrand would build a library to be used by both the public and academics at the same time.
The controversy also concerned storage conditions for the books, which were originally to be stocked in the four 240-foot-high glass towers, where temperature and exposure to light were difficult to regulate. After protests by librarians and scholars all over the world, the decision was made that only one-third of the 12-million-book collection would occupy the top 11 floors in each tower. The rest would be kept on lower floors or underground.
The library is expected to open to the public in 1997, but only after a computer catalog system is designed and installed, and the books moved from their current home in a 17th-century building. The library can hold 12,000 people at a time, and has room for more than 25 million books. ''It's like a mother buying her child an outfit that's too big.'' Biasini says. ''We have enough storage space for a century.''
Now, the challenge for the next government will be finding the $200 million a year to operate the library, and completing a vast urban project on the Left Bank of the Seine. The plans for this area include 100 new apartment buildings, the same number of office buildings, parks, a school, and shops.
Unfortunately, Perrault's library is a good five years ahead of the rest of the project. The building, already mastodonic, rises from what today looks like an urban wasteland.
The same problem afflicts the enormous $580-million Ministry of Finance across the river. It is the biggest conglomerate of office buildings in Europe, and dwarfs the area around it that is still in need of development.
There is no question that Mitterrand has realized his Grands Travaux. The success of his public buildings can be measured by the crowds -- 5.6 million at La Villette, and more than 6 million at the Louvre in 1994. The money spent will always be a subject of polemic. But Mitterrand will have forever put his mark on the Parisian landscape.