Built for the 1937 International Exhibition, the Palais de Tokyo was, from its beginnings and until 1974, the Museum National d'Art Moderne. The various programs that subsequently occupied it had gradually transformed it into a huge black box at odds with the intrinsic qualities of its location. French architects Lacaton & Vassal were responsible for the redesign of the building.
A major project for rehabiliting it as a "Palais du Cinema", undertaken at the beginning of the 1990s, was abandoned in 1997 after many months of building work, by which time the interior had been much demolished. The building was left in that state as an empty, fragile shell until 1999. The Ministry of Culture decided on the "setting up of a site devoted to contemporary creation", with a very reduced budget.
It was defined by the directors as "elaborating the project of a platform for international and french creation, of a place of resources and exchanges, a space for open aesthetic debate, for putting the public closely in touch with contemporary creation". The site was to be open from midday to midnight.
A visit to the location enabled one to discover a building and some surprising spaces, brought to light by the demolition work. The very graceful concrete structure from 1937 appeared naked, with a raw, industrial, modern look.
Behind the monumental facades, the interior of the building resembled a magnificent industrial wasteland: the volumetries are astonishing, the natural light is omnipresent and fulsome, knowingly implemented by the great overhead skylights and wide bays set out on the facades.
"We propose a simple, light response, one sticking close to the word installation and to the extremely limited budget." Architect's words.
To utilize what exists, not to transform it, to make the most of the building's physical and aesthetic qualities. To preserve the enormous freedom of the spaces without partitioning them off, so as to permit the maximum spatial freedom and fluidity. To create porosity : to hear the rain, to see the light and the sunshine come in, see the city, to increase the number of entrances so as to be more open and more welcoming. To consider the space as a place to inhabit. The spot must resemble a town square.
The Place Djemaa-el-Fnaa in Marrakech, which architects have proposed as a reference, seemed to perfectly represent the idea of a place of passage and of meeting, of spatial freedom and usage. It's a vast square, a ground surface without demarcations, without street furniture, without constraints, an open space, empty at night, teeming by day, which indefinitely renews itself and metarmorphoses according to people's movements.
In parallel, the project regulates the works indispensable to the reopening of the place and to its occupation, according to a rigourous hierarchy called for by th budget : structural stability, accessibility and fire safety, comfortable heating and lighting are priorities.
A number of light interventions are undertaken on the outside : staircases and footbridges to improve safety and accessibility. Resting against the building, they manage to attenuate the monumentality of the place, in the spirit of the provisional quality of the installation of a site for contemporary art in the Palais de Tokyo.