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Palace of Congresses and Social Economy - Expo Paris 1900

Palace of Congresses and Social Economy at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1900
Architect(s) : M. Mewès

This double designation means that the building constructed by Mr. Mewès, on the Cours-le-Reine, and on the banks of the Seine, must serve two very different purposes. This palace, since it is a palace, is being built to house first of all everything that has to do with the modern science of social economy; at the same time, it will provide premises for congresses of all kinds that will meet on the occasion of our great Exhibition. These congresses require rooms with platforms for speakers and lecturers, and rows of seats for a more or less numerous public; the rooms must lend themselves to simultaneous service, the congresses already announced reaching a considerable number, which will increase still further: hence the need to offer several rooms at once to those interested. The museum requires a fairly spacious location, as the objects on display will be mainly maps, graphs or diagrams, of large size, so that these documents can be easily read. At the same time, showcases or libraries will receive printed matter, volumes and brochures relating to this important subject.

According to the general classification, the social economy comprises group XVI and classes 101 to 110, under the following headings "Apprenticeship; Protection of working-class children; Remuneration of work; Profit-sharing; Large and small-scale industry; Cooperative production and credit associations; Professional unions; Large and small-scale cultivation; Agricultural unions; Agricultural credits; Safety of workshops; Regulation of work; Workers' dwellings; Consumer cooperative societies; Institutions for the intellectual and moral development of the workers; Provident institutions; Public or private initiative for the welfare of citizens".

As for the congresses, they embrace, in their diversity, the whole of human knowledge, including, of course, the social economy, already named, and this is the only point of correlation which links the two elements of the programme. It was therefore necessary to combine the requirements of easy access and circulation, which a museum demands, with the spacing and tranquillity that must accompany rooms intended for conferences and debates. The architect of the Palais des Congrès has divided his building into two floors: on the ground floor (the level of the upper platform), the museum; on the first floor, the conference rooms. The entrance to the Cours-la-Reine will be through three doors in the 6-metre wide glass bays and through two other doors at the base of the overhangs on either side of the central motif.

On each side, there are three other windows designed to pour streams of light into the interior. The whole building is made up of windows, on the Seine, on the quay, and on the side façades, where there are new doors. It should not be forgotten that the evacuation of the conference rooms will sometimes take place simultaneously; hence this luxury in the number of exits.

On the ground floor, a 12-metre wide gallery runs around the building, which is 100 metres long and 35.5 metres wide. 50 in its width. This gallery leaves a free space in the middle, about 8 metres wide, occupied by a large vestibule which leads, at each end, to two straight staircases, rising to the upper floor, with intermediate landings. The gallery will be intersected, if necessary, by light partitions, forming a spine, on which the documents to be exhibited will be placed.

On the first floor, the staircases lead to landings that open onto the "Galerie des Congressistes", the Salle des Pas-Perdus, which covers the entire façade on the Seine, i.e. 100 metres long and 12 metres wide. The gallery communicates directly with two conference rooms for an audience of one hundred and fifty people, two rooms for two hundred and fifty people and a large room for eight hundred people. In addition, the architect has provided space for committee rooms, washbasins, W_C, etc. and, finally, for stairs leading to the upper terrace.

Given such a complex programme, and above all such a wide range of uses, it was difficult to imagine an architecture that personified the building's functions, as the supporters of the rationalist school demand. They want, not without justice, that one guesses, from the exterior appearance of a building, the broad outlines of its interior distribution, and that the architectural choice accuses and symbolizes the destination. However, the programme imposed on the architect must be able to be synthesised: in this case this was hardly the case.

The architect, Mr. Mewès, did his best with a difficult project. Of all the architects called upon to assist in the execution of the work of the Exhibition, it is certainly he who was entrusted with the most thankless task. With a self-sacrifice that cannot be praised too highly, he sacrificed everything to practicalities. The accesses to his building are wide and easy; the lighting enters the waves through immense skylights which transform the building into an enormous lantern. As for the ornamentation, he was careful not to go overboard, adding redundant columns and decorations to the few full spaces that remained at his disposal.

A museum of social economy, by virtue of its title, cannot present itself with a profusion of unseasonable finery. A cornice, very accentuated, with brackets; cartouches and garlands, especially garlands, are the background to the off-works plastered on the bare walls. The garland is the attribute of festivals; we have borrowed this symbol, with so many others, from the Greek and Roman arts; if other symbols have aged, the garland of foliage and flowers has kept its meaning; it is still from this graceful combination that we borrow the decoration of temporary monuments, such as the triumphal arches raised on days of jubilation. The hangings and resting-places which the believing populations put up at the Fêtes-Dieu have popularised these verdant trains, staked with brilliant colours; and yet our fundamentally French arts of the Middle Ages did not use the garland which reappeared only in the sculpture of the Renaissance.

The two pylons framing the central motif offer a larger surface, which M. Mewès has decorated with a pyramid motif, flanked by two figures. This arrangement is not without grace, but its meaning is not very clear.

The construction of the Congress Palace is entirely made of wood. On the framework were fixed plates of a new product called fibrocortchoïna, an unusual term which seems to derive from an Auvergne etymology. It is a kind of board, made of reeds cut to equal lengths and embedded in plaster; the operation is done in a mould which gives a regular thickness to this product.
A lath was added to the large frames, and the fibrocortchoin was nailed on with tinned nails to prevent rusting and subsequent staining; this product is, so to speak, incombustible. Moreover, all the wood used in the Exhibition's work is fireproof. This is a prudent measure in many cases, but in this case it seems to be an extra precaution; the Palais des Congrès will not give shelter to any fireplace, and will receive exclusively external lighting, as it will close at night.

©Exposition de Paris 1900