For over 100 years, Paris has had a tradition of controversial, polarising public works projects. It kicked off in the 1880s with the Eiffel Tower, which many Parisians found brutal and ugly. There was a similar reaction to the Centre Pompidou in the 1970s: the blockish experiment of a building, with its primary-colour pipes and escalators clinging to its exterior, was a widely despised addition to the Paris skyline. And then, of course, there was the Louvre pyramid, a glass sculpture constructed in the central courtyard that became the new entrance to the museum, and the greatest public art scandal of the 1980s.
For the most part, these ultra-modern structures have aged well, and become iconic and beloved features of the city (although the pyramid still has its haters). But there’s such a fierce culture of protecting patrimoine in France that the reinvention of these spaces, and the radical contrast they create between historic surroundings and modern architecture and art, is often seen at first as a kind of desecration of sacred space. Considering them with the benefit of hindsight, I’m a big fan of all these radical modernisations (except the hideous Tour Montparnasse, about which I will never change my mind). But there’s nothing quite like the modern touch that floats over the Palais Garnier.
The Palais Garnier has been an active theatre since 1875 and the ornate opera house is filled with the neo-Gothic touches of the period. With its sweeping marble staircases, moody gilt candelabras and palatial foyer, it still looks and feels the way it was represented in Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel, The Phantom of the Opera. Since 1989, the highest-profile operas have been held at the Opéra de la Bastille, which has finer sound thanks to its modern acoustics. But the Palais Garnier is still my favourite theatre in Paris. I recommend catching a ballet there, and keeping an eye on affordable, last-minute tickets.
The Palais Garnier also features a small museum and a charming library, resplendent with its floor-to-ceiling walls of leather-bound books. But it’s the theatre’s ceiling that makes the Garnier so fascinating. On a gilt-rimmed dome, a painting of swirling blues, reds, yellows and greens unfurls above the audience. Flowing figures human and avian extend their limbs in graceful movement, evoking the dances that take place on the stage below. The vivid colours are illuminated by the enormous chandelier in its centre, and the glittering gold frame. Installed in 1964, the Garnier dome is one of the most beguiling works of modernist painter Marc Chagall, who spent much of his working life in Paris.
It’s obvious Chagall’s painting is from a different era to the historic setting over which it presides. The contrast is striking and surprising, perhaps even shocking. The Garnier ceiling is a bold mix of modern and classic, 19th-century architecture and 20th-century art. But nonetheless, the painting is so perfect for the space it feels like it’s always been there. Even the most conservative protectors of cultural tradition can’t get up in arms about that.