The beginnings of the Palais de l'Industrie were rather complex; entrusted to the architect Jean-Marie Victor Viel (1796 - 1863), the project proved to be long and costly; only the English company York et Cie offered to take charge of the construction, but on condition that they could modify the design. They then commissioned the architect François Alexis Cendrier (1803 - 1893) and the engineer Alexis Barrault (1812 - 1867) to study a new project and to direct the work. The contract was signed in December 1852 and the first stone was laid on 10 February 1853; on 1 May 1854, Cendrier left and Viel took his place, while the engineer Georges Bridel managed the construction workshop and the assembly of the cast iron and irons. This was the first public metal building of this scale in France, and the work of putting the structure in place had to be given to engineers specialised in the use of this material. However, it was the architect Henri Labrouste who first used a cast and wrought iron frame for the Sainte-Geneviève library (1843 - 1850), then Louis Auguste Boileau in Saint Eugène de Paris, in 1853 and for the first time in a church, used iron and cast iron and succeeded in multiplying the perspectives and giving an impression of amplitude by using Gothic forms with inventiveness. Viel's design consists of a rectangular main body flanked by six pavilions containing offices, staircases, etc.; the interior includes a large central hall 48 m wide and 192 m long, surrounded on all sides by a gallery 30 m wide. It is preserved in its main lines, but all the masonry is rejected outside, in order to make it independent of the metal construction, which does not rise at the same rate and does not react in the same way. All the interior supports, floors, roofs, are entirely metal and exposed, of great simplicity; the real feat compared to the Crystal Palace is the central span of 48 m, without any tie rods interrupting the space. Unfortunately, the entrance is from the side, and the visitor cannot enjoy the height and light of the great central vault. And the horizontal thrust of the large glazed roof must be countered by heavy lead buttresses, hidden by the pavilions...
Inaugurated on 15 May 1855, the palace was strongly criticised: "Oh, the heavy mass! Oh, the thick, unstylish and tasteless shell! What elegant profiles it should have presented to show itself in such a place! What lightness of appearance! ". The palace made 30,000 square metres of flowerbeds and plantations disappear in this great Marigny Square where people used to play paume and boules. Octave Mirbeau castigated: "The Palais de l'Industrie, which scandalizes the trees and flowers, in the middle of which it appears, with the grace of an ox treading on a bed of roses, destroys all this ambient gaiety, all this clear and invigorating space through which the triumphal avenue of the Champs-Élysées, unique in the world, opens". It is compared, of course, to the Crystal Palace: "The visitor who arrives with the idea of an open-air palace, a palace of crystal, would be very surprised, in front of this enormous mass, to recognise that the crystal is nothing other than carbonate of lime to which the common people give the name of stone... The Palais de l'Industrie is neither a work of which architecture can be proud, nor a construction of which the art of building should be proud.
The two large painted windows by Maréchal de Metz, which close off the building, produce very large variations in light and coloured rays that are detrimental to the appreciation of works of art, for example fabrics. Finally, the monumental figures tend to reduce the proportions of the nave. The heat was intolerable and, after unsuccessful attempts to install strong canvases outside - because no access to the glass roofs had been provided - they were installed inside, but the Palais remained a real greenhouse... After welcoming more than five million visitors, the Exhibition closed on 31 October, and the prizes were awarded on 15 November (cat. 4 ); until its demolition in 1897, in order to build the Grand and Petit Palais, it hosted all sorts of events, mainly the Salon, but it had become much too large, and many spaces were condemned. The Palais de l'industrie had disappointed Parisians, but it was the first building in France to use metal to cover such a vast space; it set the model for the great metal constructions of the Second Empire, which always combined a stone envelope, even a non-load-bearing one, with a metal structure. What Count Léon de Laborde predicted after the 1851 exhibition: "God forbid an architecture of crystal palaces and chicken cages made exclusively of metal. Let us be convinced that after an initial craze, iron architecture will become the exception, and stone architecture associated with metal, the rule (...) the true architecture of architects will always dominate the expedient architecture of engineers and gardeners... " .
After the Universal Exhibition, the palace was used as a conference centre and was demolished in 1899 to make way for the Grand and Petit Palais.
© Article written by Caroline Mathieu, chief curator at the Musée d'Orsay.