Four years of significant work was necessary to rediscover its architecture and enhance the visitor experience
Chatillon Architectes, in association with Snøhetta and Agence NC, Nathalie Crinière, carried out the renovation of the Carnavalet Museum – History of Paris which reopened its doors on May 29, 2021. Four years of significant work were necessary to magnify the building, rediscover its architecture, bring it up to standard, and improve its accessibility and the visitor experience, with a single goal: "to reinvent everything, without changing anything".
The challenge of the project was to meet a number of objectives while preserving the history and spirit of the museum. This involved rediscovering certain volumes, reopening windows, bringing the building up to standard, making it accessible, creating a new tour layout, and giving a contemporary touch throughout with new fittings, but without altering anything. The 3,800 exhibited works, out of the 625,000 in the collection, now find their place in a coherent and, for the first time, chronological tour, using all the spaces in the museum through more than 180 display cases created by Agence NC, Nathalie Crinière.
The Carnavalet Museum - History of Paris is devoted to the history of the capital. It opened its doors in 1880, driven by the municipal authorities, at the time of the great urban development projects directed by Baron Haussmann. The composite architecture of the museum is composed of two mansions, Carnavalet and Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, which are complemented by the remains of buildings demolished in the 19th century and reconstructed in the gardens, and supplementary constructions that link the whole together, dating from the early 20th century.
Over time, with successive additions and redevelopments, the museum had been affected by a rather confusing tour layout and an unsuitable operation for 21st-century use. The work, which began in June 2017, then followed two key words: preserve and create.
“The Carnavalet Museum is not a monument, it is a small city, or rather an ecosystem with its stratifications, its fauna of sculpture, and its flora of painting… We tiptoe around it, without uprooting anything, without moving anything, with the delicacy of a botanist. The challenge was to rethink everything without changing anything”, explains François Chatillon, architect and founder of Chatillon Architectes.
A more accessible museum with a redesigned tour layout
“The renovation places the visitor at the heart of the project. The reception area, comfort of the visit, access to the gardens have been particularly studied. New spaces to circulate are now adapted to the building”, adds Valérie Guillaume, Director of the Carnavalet Museum – History of Paris.
Chatillon Architectes was selected for this project primarily for its vision centered on respecting the existing building, the challenge being to restore and restructure the museum without disturbing the charm of a place highly admired by the Parisians. The studio sees each project as an opportunity, guided by knowledge, to identify the value of the existing and the expectations of our time, and to bring the two into a correlation.
The museum rediscovers its original entrance, located at 23, rue de Sévigné, opening access to the oldest building in the museum: the Lignéris mansion. As soon as they arrive, visitors enjoy a reception area that has been redesigned and adapted to the growing number of visitors. From now on, the circulation is more fluid, pleasant and respectful of the site. The floor of the reception area was chosen to create a flow with the outside, evoking the old stables. Large bay windows keep, once again, a connection with the outside.
This was a major challenge, especially given the differences in floor heights, but Chatillon Architectes succeeded in making the site almost entirely accessible by creating five elevators and two wheelchair lifts. Ramps were also installed in the circulation galleries, floors and gardens.
Developed with Agence NC, Nathalie Crinière, the permanent scenography of the Carnavalet Museum has been designed based on its collections. To accommodate visitors, a collection of furniture with a sober design was defined to create a common thread. The dark brown tone was used for the furniture but also with the other contemporary fittings of the museum, such as the new stairs. Around one hundred rooms, all different, make up the 3900 m2 tour and the furniture shape has been designed to suit the architecture.
New rooms have appeared on the first floor to introduce the city of Paris and the creation of the Carnavalet Museum, as well as in the basement, previously inaccessible to the public, where the archaeological collections now benefit from a new exceptional setting allowing them to be reinstated in the chronological order of the permanent exhibition. In these cellars, visitors can now discover, for example, the new presentation of the Neolithic pirogue for which Agence NC, Nathalie Crinière, has created a showcase equipped with a custom-made miniclimate system that perfectly matches the shape of the vault. On the upper floor of the Carnavalet mansion, the removal of a recent ceiling has increased the height of the Period rooms in order to integrate the magnificent decor of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, previously presented on the first floor, without natural light.
New spaces now house the educational workshops, while a reception area, open to privatization, has appeared: the Orangery. The Pavillon des Drapiers and the Pavillon of Victory are now freely accessible from the rue des Francs-Bourgeois, which will soon house a restaurant.
A magnified architecture
Several facades, roofs, and a large part of the exterior woodwork were restored. Chatillon Architectes created new storage spaces on site complying with preventive preservation standards for all the works of art in the collection, and brought the entire building up to technical standards (electricity, safety of the works, fire safety, etc.). The rooms dedicated to temporary exhibitions have also been restored and brought up to current international standards in order to accommodate large-scale exhibitions.
The decision was made to reopen a maximum number of windows previously blocked out, in order to bring in natural light and to rediscover the views of the courtyards and gardens of the two private mansions, while enhancing their original architecture.
“To the various accumulated strata of its own history brought to light by a careful renovation [...] we have added, with humbleness but without renunciation, that of our time by means of three "totem" stairways designed with Snøhetta, which fluidify the tour and give powerful landmarks for the visit pathway”, continues François Chatillon.
The removal of certain installations, including mezzanines and concrete stairways, has made it possible to recover, in some places, the original volumes and to restore coherence to the site.
A new modern era
Chatillon Architectes, Snøhetta and Agence NC, Nathalie Crinière for the permanent scenography have managed to work together, respecting the history of the place and the spirit of the museum, to magnify the existing and offer more fluid and comfortable circulation. The History of Paris now unfolds according to a chronological order, through spaces that are contemporary in their requirements but authentic in their spirit.
“This intervention illustrates a “contemporary approach” that we stand for - as opposed to an architecture of rupture - it is one of historical continuity, and continuity of life,” concludes François Chatillon.