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Central Dome - Expo Paris 1889

Central Dome at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1889
Architect(s) : Bouvard

Our engraving represents the main entrance, the truly monumental door of the Exhibition, which opens in front of the large dome covering the vestibule of the Palais des Expositions diverses.

This construction (door and dome), of which little has been said up to now, is quite magnificent and deserves more than a casual glance.

I don't want to say anything today about the interior decoration, which will only be finished at the last moment. I will only deal with what can be seen from the outside, but this is for the sake of my conscience, as the engraving will always tell us more than a description.

As we can see, Mr. Bouvard, the architect of the Palais des Expositions diverses, has preserved all the main lines of the metal framework of his construction, which he frankly acknowledges, and which he uses as the basis of his decoration, which consists of ceramics and staf, except for the statues, however, because they are considerable enough to require the use of metal.

The one that crowns the building, sixty-five metres above the ground, was executed in embossed zinc, by M. Coutellier, which does not mean that it is not solid, for there is zinc and zinc, and it weighs, including its skeleton in cast steel, more than eight thousand kilograms; it is true that it is nine metres high.
It represents France distributing palms and laurels, according to the plaster of M. Delaplanche.

The dome, which rises between two square pavilions, each flanked by four pylons, is thirty metres in diameter, which is precisely the width of the porch which precedes it and which forms a forepart of the two pavilions with which it is connected, both in construction and in ornamentation. Ten metres above the ground, this magnificent portal, flanked by two pylons, which serve as supports for its decorative pediment and whose base is hidden by two allegorical groups of colossal dimensions, is cut off at the top by an immense corbelled balcony, from which one has a view not only of the garden, i.e. of the Eiffel Tower, which takes up a large part of the perspective, but also of the great thirty-metre-long avenue, which leads to the Galerie des Machines and by extension to this gallery.

Four staircases in the corner pylons give access to this balcony, and also to the two pavilions, which are also intersected by balconies and whose upper parts form two large open salons.

Naturally, the ground floors of these pavilions are also pierced with doors which will not be useless, the eagerness with which the thirty million entrance tickets issued by Crédit Foncier have been subscribed seven times over, proves that so many people will come to the Exhibition that there can never be too many doors.

In order to understand the details of the central dome, placed by Mr. Bouvard at the entrance to the various Exhibitions, it is necessary to know at least the details of its construction.

The main carcass is composed of two frames, two sets of crossbeams up to a certain height. There, these two sets join to form the dome.

Of these two frameworks, only one, the inner one, is entirely visible when one stands under the dome; the other is lost in the accessory parts of the construction; it plays several roles, since not only does it reinforce the first crossbeams to form the dome, but it also constitutes the external entrance, the entrance to the thirty-metre gallery, and supports, on the left and right, the two wide galleries which contain the Gobelins and Sèvres exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the main framework of the dome is the one inside. Let us say straight away that it is of rare elegance and that never before has the metal construction achieved such an artistic effect.

Not fake art, not trompe-l'oeil, as happens with iron pieces hidden under staff, stucco and plaster. Here, at the four main ribs of the dome, we have two coupled crossbars, rising from top to bottom, bare, without concealment or trickery. They are absolutely majestic, as majestic as stone from the beautiful Gothic period.

The iron lies flat. The bolts break the uniformity of the line. They form a double string of coarse grain that runs along each jamb.

On the first floor, these crossbars are joined by a gallery that goes around the dome and which, on the right and left, widens to form, as I said, the Gobelins' exhibition. This gallery is supported by light trusses which depend on the second framework and are simply stopped on the interior framework by a lace-like winch; above this gallery a new set of trusses. This one, of great strength, serves as a support point for the secondary crossbeams. This is where the dome begins. The joining of these secondary crossbeams is a tour de force of lightness. They appear to be simply bolted to the outer purlin of the trusses and to leak underneath the trusses; there is no indication of the considerable effort they must make to resist the thrust.

The dome is very elongated, i.e. the crossbeams bend only insensibly to come together on a grid-like connection piece, which from below does not look very strong, but which must really have great strength.

Above this grid, a slab of blue glass lets in a little light, which highlights the design of the grid.

This is the whole thing, it is an architectural novelty, and a very successful one. But the ornamentation is equal to the construction, and despite the need for symmetry, it has been treated with great variety.

The general tone of the dome is very light: yellow, light brown and gold. These shades are graded from the bottom to the top, in a cleverly studied range that would be perfect if it had not been for the unfortunate idea of placing a huge tricolour cockade at the top of the dome, to which I shall return.

The main crossbars, joined two by two, form a series of niches and caissons up to the top, which contain the main ornamental motifs.

At the base of each pair, there is a niche with Sèvres vases. The same niche is repeated on the first floor. There it is surmounted by a cartouche with the monogram R.F. written on a blue background, in the middle of a crown.
Then a pediment, composed of two allegorical figures leaning over a cartouche on which is symbolized an element or a natural force.
The cartouches represent Air, Electricity, Vapour and Water, and despite the repetition of this motif, there is nothing monotonous about them, thanks to the variety of attitudes and expressions that have been given to the figures above them.
Above these cartouches, a second pediment is separated from the first by a table on which are inscribed, - classified by parts of the world, - the names of the countries participating in the Exhibition. Finally, between two portals, a half-bust symbolises a part of the world.
These enormous figures are not the best thing in the dome, there is especially an America represented by a red-haired woman, with a plumed head and powerful breasts, which is far from the ideal of the genre.

I said that the architect had left, with great frankness, a large part of the metal framework visible.
However, there were some unsightly details in the fitting of the fittings on the crossbeams, which have been covered up by a somewhat garish and busy ornamentation, from which it is necessary to retain, however, some scrolls of a beautiful effect.

Above the first floor gallery the fittings meet in a new curve of extreme grace, which borrows much of its originality from the fact that the point of adjustment has been concealed under a motif. A series of boxed ornaments, very suitable for the framework, surmount these fittings and separate them from a huge fresco that runs all the way around the dome.
This fresco represents the World answering the call of France. Some countries are indicated by a single character, while others have a whole group.

The subject towards which the procession converges forms a well-distributed group that represents France surrounded by accessory characters, the main ones being the Republic and Labour. France is personified by a welcoming young woman, treated in the mawkish, but not graceless, style of the Pre-Raphaelites. She is simply and lightly draped in a tricolour scarf in very happily muted tones. I like less the worker dressed only in a blue cotte and a red belt which, by its mixture of ancient symbol and Faubourgian reality, is out of place next to the procession, whose figures are dressed either entirely in the classical formula or in the modern costume of the country they represent.

This stands out against a brown background whose design is perhaps a little heavy. But the general effect of this fresco is good, one might even say excellent.

Above this fresco there is a second, narrow gallery, probably created for the needs of the service and without any external ornamentation. Only the bottom is occupied by the coats of arms of various countries. This is where the stained glass windows begin.

They are unpretentious and have no other purpose than to filter the light without adding anything to the decoration; however, they complement it very well. The dominant colours are white and yellow with some red highlights. These windows join each other and go around the dome, which, above them, is continued by a green band, well blended into the general colour, and a blue band streaked with gold and strewn with stars.

It is on this sky that the gladiolic rays which escape from the cockade I mentioned, and which has the effect of an immense tricoloured quilt, hanging from the ceiling of the cupola, die. As soon as you look at this cockade, the harmony is broken and you have to look down quickly if you want to remain under the spell of the soft colouring of the whole dome.

It is all the more astonishing that the artist should have made such a mistake, since in the fresco, where the same colour scheme was used on the scarf of France, we do not have the same clash at all, because the shades have been softened.

Perhaps in time the shades of the cockade will also be toned down and the bad effect will disappear. But it would be best to cut to the quick and make this retouching if, as we hope, this superb work is to survive the Exhibition.

Such is the dome, which has reconciled many people to metal architecture and which is a vestibule truly worthy of the thirty-metre gallery to which it leads.

©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition - Paul Le Jeinisel