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Remodelling of a museum of Asian art in Paris traces the development of ancient civilizations, focusing on their evolutions and mutual influences through geographical juxtapositions and the emergence of trade routes.

The Musee Guimet, on the north corner of the Place d'lena in the 16th arrondissement, is France's national museum of Asian art. It is dedicated to the memory of Emile Guimet, a nineteenth-century industrialist from Lyons, who during his lifetime travelled widely in the Far East and was a passionate collector of Asian art. His own museum in Lyons, set up in 1878, traced the history of Eastern religions through sculptural iconography -- fine Khmer stone sculptures and other riches garnered from expeditions to Tibet, central Asia, China and Cambodia.

In 1889 Guimet's collection was transferred to Paris, into Charles Terrier's neo-Greek building. In 1928, the museum was declared a national institution. Closed for four years for renovation and reorganization by Henri and Bruno Gaudin, the museum reopened in January this year to great acclaim. Rather in the manner of museums of the past (though without their didacticism and insistence on empire), the Guimet has a clear educational purpose. Its brochure states that its objective is to emphasize the importance of art and Asian cultures to development of civilization, and to make public knowledge of these cultures more profound. At the root of the declaration is the suggestion that the museum would like its role to be an interpretative one, to act as ambassador for the peoples of Asia. This accords with Guimet's original intention. He defined the museum's purpose as 'propager la connaissance des civilisations de I'Orient'.

The sentiments have had their effect on the Gaudins' design. In it, visitor circulation routes through the building are fused with circuits that suggest links and mutual influences between cultures, established through geographical juxtaposition and those trade routes so redolent of romance, such as the Silk Route that historically connected lands between India and China. The visit begins with the civilization of ancient India, with Maurya and Sunga terracottas, Mathura and Amaravati sculpture and medieval bronzes. From here, you are led to Indianized southeast Asia and by degrees to the museum's central exhibition of Guimet's Khmer sculptures.

Guimet's treasures form the nucleus of the new museum s collection which includes works previously in storage and never before shown. Its collection of Far Eastern porcelain is one of the two most important in the west (the other belongs to the Percival David Foundation in London). A recent donation, the Riboud gallery (set apart on the first floor in the rotunda and adjoining spaces) shows the extraordinary richness of applied arts in India between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the beauty and diversity of antique textiles from the various Indian provinces: Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bengal and Coromandel.

The building's plan, conforming to the confines of its corner site, is roughly triangular in plan and built around the central double-height courtyard. A tall drum, dramatizing the corner and appearing the fixed point from which space flows, contains the entrance at its base, and a gallery of Chinese screens in the fourth floor rotunda. From it you can step onto a circular terrace with views over the city and directly south to the Eiffel Tower.

In between, the architects have restored the building to its original splendour while discreetly opening it up vertically and horizontally. In adding or subtracting, their touch has been light. By cutting plainly detailed and strategically placed openings through walls they have created carefully composed vistas through the building, establishing visual as well as physical liaisons between one department and another. Vertical openings work in the same way, shedding luminance through the building and more obscurely suggesting cultural links. For example, from first floor galleries where the spread of Buddhism is the main unifying theme, you gaze down onto the Indianized world that occupies the ground floor. Niches cut into wall planes and containing smaller objects animate surfaces, as does luminance shed from peripheral light slots over bas reliefs. While being part of a coherent whole, each object given space has been accorded its own dignity and value.

Two slender staircases, to right and left of the circular entrance hall and replacing the original ones, take you up through the building, curving gracefully at each landing around a thin distorted fissure. The heart (and says Henri Gaudin, the 'lungs') of the museum is the double-height courtyard that rises to a glass roof and draws light down to the ground floor. Above the glass roof, on the second floor, galleries devoted to Chinese, Korean and Japanese works, surround an open illuminating void. With a large auditorium, cafe and galleries for temporary exhibitions in the basement (the rez-de-jardin), the museum is capable of entertaining cultural events; the well equipped library on the ground floor and the old circular library, now restored above, supply the needs of research.


Henri and Bruno Gaudin, Paris
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Title Annotation:Musee Guimet, national museum of Asian art reopens
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 1, 2001

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