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Inside the Musee d'Orsay

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Along the left bank of the Seine, the world's most famous museum of impressionistic art had a former life as an old, crumbling train station and hotel. Now, linking the chronological gap between the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris is always a treat to see and experience as a radiant success in adaptive reuse.

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  Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Musee d'Orsay is the spaciousness of its magnificent vaulted interior. The long central nave is punctuated by a series of bronze and stone sculptures, specifically six bronze 'allegorical sculptural groups' of the late 19th century.
    Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Musee d'Orsay is the spaciousness of its magnificent vaulted interior. The long central nave is punctuated by a series of bronze and stone sculptures, specifically six bronze 'allegorical sculptural groups' of the late 19th century.
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  The original train station-hotel was built by architect Victor Laloux just in time for the World Fair in Paris on Bastille Day (July 14) in 1900. Called Gare d'Orsay, the station had 148-yard platforms that became obsolete only forty years later, since they were too short for the longer, modern, electric trains. After falling into disrepair, plans were fortunately made in 1973 to convert it into a museum, with the blessing of President Pompidou.
    The original train station-hotel was built by architect Victor Laloux just in time for the World Fair in Paris on Bastille Day (July 14) in 1900. Called Gare d'Orsay, the station had 148-yard platforms that became obsolete only forty years later, since they were too short for the longer, modern, electric trains. After falling into disrepair, plans were fortunately made in 1973 to convert it into a museum, with the blessing of President Pompidou.
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  The conversion of station to museum was headed by French ACT Architecture (Renaud Bardon, Pierre Colboc and Jean-Paul Philippon) and Italian architect Gae Aulenti, from 1980 to 1986—and created over 200,000 square feet of new floorspace on four floors.
    The conversion of station to museum was headed by French ACT Architecture (Renaud Bardon, Pierre Colboc and Jean-Paul Philippon) and Italian architect Gae Aulenti, from 1980 to 1986—and created over 200,000 square feet of new floorspace on four floors.
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  Using a structural system consisting of cast iron pillars and metal vaulting, Laloux's design was admired for the fact that it was well-integrated and hidden by a stone exterior.
    Using a structural system consisting of cast iron pillars and metal vaulting, Laloux's design was admired for the fact that it was well-integrated and hidden by a stone exterior.
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  About 12,000 tons of metal was used for the construction of this building—more than that which was used in the Eiffel Tower. The art nouveau glass awning was transformed into the museum's entrance.
    About 12,000 tons of metal was used for the construction of this building—more than that which was used in the Eiffel Tower. The art nouveau glass awning was transformed into the museum's entrance.
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  One can clearly see the structural systems at work in this section drawing by Gae Aulenti, impressed on the wall on your way in. The new structures were designed to evoke and improve upon those of the old station.
    One can clearly see the structural systems at work in this section drawing by Gae Aulenti, impressed on the wall on your way in. The new structures were designed to evoke and improve upon those of the old station.
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  For instance, the language of the metal trussing on the exterior of the vault system was carried over to the conspicuous white-painted walkways that bridge the entry foyer space on the third floor.
    For instance, the language of the metal trussing on the exterior of the vault system was carried over to the conspicuous white-painted walkways that bridge the entry foyer space on the third floor.
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  Natural daylighting illuminates most of the galleries. The overlooking mezzanines, generous aisles, and absence of walls in the main hall allows for unobstructed views and expansive intermission areas in the atrium space, much like the waiting areas of train stations.
    Natural daylighting illuminates most of the galleries. The overlooking mezzanines, generous aisles, and absence of walls in the main hall allows for unobstructed views and expansive intermission areas in the atrium space, much like the waiting areas of train stations.
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  Aulenti's team also included lighting consultant Piero Castiglioni and architectural consultant Richard Peduzzi. They attempted to scale down the huge size of the station by implementing a vast array of volumes to break up the interior space.
    Aulenti's team also included lighting consultant Piero Castiglioni and architectural consultant Richard Peduzzi. They attempted to scale down the huge size of the station by implementing a vast array of volumes to break up the interior space.
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  To unify the variety of massing, a homogeneous stone covering is used for both floors and walls (and these diagonal planes, which seem to be on the brink of an in-between wall and ceiling).
    To unify the variety of massing, a homogeneous stone covering is used for both floors and walls (and these diagonal planes, which seem to be on the brink of an in-between wall and ceiling).
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  In addition to the well-known Impressionist works, the museum also boasts a collection of architectural drawings and models. A longitudinal section model of Garnier's 'old' Paris Opera House sits at the very back of the museum, which took over two years to build by Richard Peduzzi, and stands at a massive height of nearly 8 feet.

Photo by Dana Hamm
    In addition to the well-known Impressionist works, the museum also boasts a collection of architectural drawings and models. A longitudinal section model of Garnier's 'old' Paris Opera House sits at the very back of the museum, which took over two years to build by Richard Peduzzi, and stands at a massive height of nearly 8 feet. Photo by Dana Hamm
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  Even larger is the impressive 15 ft x 15 ft site model (at 1/1000 scale) of the 1914 Opera neighborhood in Paris, which you may not even realize is there—unless you take a moment to stop looking around and instead look downwards through glass the panels beneath your feet.

Photo by A.Point, Musee d'Orsay
    Even larger is the impressive 15 ft x 15 ft site model (at 1/1000 scale) of the 1914 Opera neighborhood in Paris, which you may not even realize is there—unless you take a moment to stop looking around and instead look downwards through glass the panels beneath your feet. Photo by A.Point, Musee d'Orsay
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  While lauded for the interior repurposing of existing structures, some criticized the additive volumes to be too monolithic, even 'mussolinian'. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the unifying geometric motifs around the space—especially the play of squares and earth tones in tile, truss, cube volumes, doorways, iron-framed windows, and even down to the metal grates over the ventilation system.
    While lauded for the interior repurposing of existing structures, some criticized the additive volumes to be too monolithic, even 'mussolinian'. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the unifying geometric motifs around the space—especially the play of squares and earth tones in tile, truss, cube volumes, doorways, iron-framed windows, and even down to the metal grates over the ventilation system.

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