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9.3.04

Saving Hector Guimard

Hector Guimard, Entrance to the Paris Métro, National Gallery of Art Sculpture GardenThis is something I meant to write about when I first saw this article (L'héritage négligé d'Hector Guimard [The neglected heritage of Hector Guimard], February 27) by Emmanuel de Roux in Le Monde and am just now getting around to doing. As you probably know, Hector Guimard met architect Victor Horta in Brussels in the 1890s and became the leader of his own version of the Art Nouveau style in France (for more information on this style, see Frank Derville's Art Nouveau World Wide and the exhibit Art Nouveau, 1890–1914, from the National Gallery of Art). If you have been to Paris, you have very likely passed through one of the 86 surviving (of 167 completed) delightfully plantlike gateways he designed for the Métro, protected by the French government since 1978. (That at the Porte Dauphine station is the only one to be preserved today without any alteration. Having lived for some time in the Montmartre area, I am particularly fond of the entrance to the Abbesses station, which Guimard designed originally for the Hôtel-de-Ville station, from which location it was later moved. If I ever get homesick for Paris, I can always go see the Guimard Métro entrance now installed in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington.) He also designed several buildings in Paris and elsewhere, as well as furniture and other objects (this site is encumbered with annoying pop-ups but has a comprehensive selection of great images and information). Here is my translation of part of the article:

The Ministry of Culture has refused to classify as protected a small private home constructed by the architect in 1922, which is supposed to be modified with a new addition. A decision which reveals a myopia concerning the architectural patrimony of the early 20th century, both private and public. The little private home constructed by Hector Guimard at 3, square Jasmin, in the 16th arrondissment of Paris, is in the process of being disfigured (as reported in Le Monde on December 24, 2002). "A building permit . . . has been granted . . . on August 2, 2002, for the addition of an extra floor to this private home of ground floor plus two stories, with reconstruction of the floor and modification to the exterior, the urban planning division of the Paris municipal government confirms. Furthermore, a demolition permit . . . authorizing partial demolition of the roof, vertical vents, air shaft vent covers, and parts of floors and walls was granted . . . on August 5, 2002." This plan is presently being carried out to the letter.
The building at 3, square Jasmin, it was decided by the responsible officials, should not be protected because its roof had already been altered, without a proper permit, in 1989. It is important to realize that this is not a matter of weak historical preservation laws in France. If anyone in the government had made the call the other way, there would be no work done at this address, end of story. However, this is not the first Guimard building to be treated this way. As M. de Roux writes, Guimard designed everything for his buildings and considered each one as a total work of art that he meticulously controlled.
However, as Jean-Pierre Lyonnet notes in his precious book Guimard perdu [Lost Guimard, not available in the United States, I think] (from Alternatives), "from 1888 to 1930, the date of his final contribution to architecture, Hector Guimard completed a total of 53 projects. Among these, three were for temporary exhibits and, for that reason, destined for destruction at will; two disappeared because of war; and twenty-one for various reasons, by chance or purely for profit." That's how the famous Castel Henriette (1899, enlarged in 1903) in Sèvres, one of the architect's quintessential works, was razed in 1969. André Malraux [Minister of Culture in the 1960s], who had just protected, with great difficulty, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye in 1965, did not understand the building's value and did not restrain the bulldozers.

The same year saw the disappearance of the Guimardière (1930), the architect's country house in Vaucresson and his final work, constructed from Eternit cement pipes, which served both structural and decorative functions. The Hôtel Nozal (1902–1905), on the Rue du Ranelagh (Paris, 16th arrondissement), suffered the same fate at the beginning of the same decade. The Hôtel Nicolle and Hôtel Roy in Auteuil, the Nozal warehouses in Saint-Denis, the studio in the Avenue Perrichont (Paris, 16th arrondissement) were sacrificed. In 1949, Adeline Guimard, Hector's widow, offered to the French government their private home at 122, Avenue Mozart (Paris, 16th arrondissement). The refusal came immediately, and all the furniture, unique pieces designed by the architect, were sold off. Many of them ended up in American collections.
As you can see, it's quite difficult merely to find images of these lost buildings. In the hope of preserving what's left of Guimard's work from meeting the same fate, author Jean-Pierre Lyonnet and others have formed a group called Le Cercle Guimard. Let us hope that their voice is heard and heeded.