The Elusive Faces of Modernity: Jacques Greber and the Planning of the 1937 Paris World Fair

Article excerpt


The occasion of the first commission that Jacques Greber received to plan the new city centre of Ottawa--the 1937 Paris International Exposition--was the scene of the first encounter between the proponents of the New Architecture and the tenets of the "Retour a l'Ordre." The last in the long tradition of French "Universelles," with their common eighteenth-century Illuminist legacy, the exposition Greber planned was the first to open its doors widely to the most radical modern arts. This article argues that Greber based the exposition on a double refusal: On the one hand; the refusal to introduce a unique controlling style, as had been the case in all previous French fairs, and on the other the refusal to represent modernity in any single-minded form. This pluralist approach announced in France the end of modernity understood as an issue of style altogether.


Cadre privilegie de l'invitation que Jacques Greber architecte en chef L'Exposition Internationale de 1937, recut de la part du gouvernement canadien pour mener a bien les plans de la nouvelle Ottawa, l'Exposition de Paris fut aussi le lieu de la premiere rencontre des representants de la Nouvelle arhitecture et des adeptes du [much less than] retour a l'ordre [much greater than] Grace a Greber, cette exposition fut egalement la premiere dans la lignee des Expositions universelles en France a ouvrir largement ses portes a l'avant garde artistique. Cet article demontre que ce qui distingua l'exposition de '37 en premier lieu fut le double refus que lui imposa Greber : celui d'inventer un nouveau style, et celui de concevoir une modernite a sens unique. Un tel relativisme de conception annoncait en France la fin du modernisme compris en tant que simple exercice style.

The 1937 Paris World Fair was the occasion of the first encounter between the proponents of the New Architecture and the tenets of the "Retour a l'Ordre" (figure 1). Modernist choices of the exposition were represented in the eloquent architectural sequence of the Champ de Mars axis. The backbone of the exposition was, in fact, the locus of a triple encounter. At the north end of the axis, perched on top of the Chaillot hill, rose Jacques Carlu's Trocadero Palace, [1] designed in his "modernized" neoclassical style. [2] Carlu's palace was sufficiently monumental to arouse the enthusiasm of Albert Speer, [3] yet was at the same time sufficiently well proportioned and elegant to blend effortlessly into the majestic context of this unique Parisian site. At the south end of this imposing axis, temporarily concealing Gabriel's seventeenth-century Ecole Militaire, stood Robert Mallet-Stevens's Palace of Light, closing the sequence with a gently curved facade emulating the Trocadero's (figure 2). Both glowed with wh ite surfaces. The single but significant difference in their whiteness was that the first beamed with light reflected from marble columns, while the second shone with its white-washed stucco surface sprinkled with crystal beads. Indeed, Mallet-Stevens's Palais de la Lumiere and the Trocadero Palace did not speak the same modern language. [4] Far from being fortuitous, this unlikely encounter between modernized classicism and established International Style was carefully planned by the very leadership of the exposition, that is, by its chief architect, Jacques-Henri Greber. [5] He was quite explicit in his rejection of a unique, controlling style, as he claimed that the fair's architecture "in essence has to be derived from a logical and rational program ... that is ... abandon any 'style d'exposition'. Permanent buildings, on the other hand, should refer to a classical style [in terms of] their proportion, volumes, and main elements, even though no detail should be evidence of pastiche or even any reminiscenc e."

The mutual rapprochement and collusion of the two stylistic realms--each claiming the right to speak for modernity--had an intriguing background. …