Universal and International Exhibition of Paris 1900

The balance sheet of a century

April 15, 1900-November 12, 1900

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Ponsin Light Palace

Ponsin Light Palace at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1900

Architect(s) : Ponsin

It is said that the Khalifa Haroun-al-Rechid had an extraordinary pavilion in his gardens, on the banks of the Tigris, whose windows were illuminated at night by eighty chandeliers; the result was a splendid illumination whose radiance could be seen throughout the city of Baghdad.

I cannot see the luminous Palace, which shines its capricious architecture into the lake of the Champ de Mars, without thinking of the wonder of the oriental tale. It is not that the design of this building is very harmonious, nor its decoration of a very pure taste, but it has a fantastic aspect which confounds the imagination. Its shape is reminiscent of the kiosks with curved roofs and bells that are reproduced on screens; as for the transparent and fragile material used in its construction, it reminds one of the spun sugar of some gigantic piece of confectionery.

Nothing is more difficult than to describe this monument: it is a bizarre assembly of decorative motifs from all over the world, Louis XVI rocaille, Chinese clochetons, Arab arches, melted in coloured glass. If the Palais Ponsin is of an extraordinary effect the day, it is even more surprising the evening; that it is seen of outside or interior, it appears completely luminous without that nowhere a single point of fire is visible there. Twelve thousand electric lamps, skilfully placed, provide a focus of incandescence equally spread throughout the building. The steps, risers and banisters of the two staircases leading to the Palace become phosphorescent; the columns seem, like the famous columns of the temple of Tyre, to be carved from precious stones endowed with nocturnal radiance; the walls are illuminated; the roofs unfold flamboyant outlines in the darkness; finally, at the summit of the monument, on a globe of fire which seems to revolve in the air, stands the Goddess of Light brandishing two dazzling torches.

The Luminous Palace should not be considered as a mere amusement for the eyes; it deserves to be studied as an extremely curious specimen of the latest perfection in the art of glassmaking. Conceived and designed by Mr. Ponsin, who died before seeing it built, this monument was constructed by the famous Société des Manufactures de Glaces de Saint-Gobain, which was joined by the Verrerie de Saint-Denis for the manufacture of blown glass pieces.

Glass is the only element in the construction and decoration of the Palace. This apparently fragile and rigid material has been shaped in a thousand ways; it has been cast in massive blocks; it has been modelled like stucco; it has been cut like marble; it has been made alternately opaque and transparent; sometimes it shines with the most brilliant colours and sometimes, reflecting images, it deceives the eye with astonishing games of perspective. The roof tiles, the pillars and the balustrades are made of glass; the halls are paved with glass; the walls are made of three thousand six hundred pieces of moulded glass; the dome is made of printed glass plates. In jewel cases, glass imitates the rarest gems; it is even woven into sumptuous draperies and carpets.

The Luminous Palace not only shows glass used in the most unexpected ways, but also introduces the layman to the secret of the metamorphoses of this wonderful material. In the caves beneath the building, a furnace has been installed and skilled workers blow the glass before the eyes of the visitors; while on the first floor, jewellers cut it and give it the fire of a diamond.

Blasé by the countless discoveries of the 19th century, we have little appreciation of the industrial inventions that make our daily lives easy and pleasant. We regard as very simple manufacturing processes which for a long time were considered as astonishing secrets. The Saint-Gobain Exhibition will awaken our admiration for one of the most beautiful and useful materials created by human industry.

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