At the Jardin des Plantes / THE LIGHTS OF PARIS

I was recently in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s botanical gardens. The garden, originally dedicated to medicinal plants, dates back to the 17th century and was successively enlarged and expanded in its purpose. Among other things, today there is located the city’s Museum of Natural History (together with beautiful old greenhouses), with its own building for the paleontology collection and an impressive skeleton display of extinct but also living animal species. I’ve never seen so many neatly arranged bones exhibited on one spot! My host, the French illustrator Anna Lubinski, pointed out to me that the bone collection is visited by many students of the visual arts (preferably from the field of animation), studying bone structure.

The Art Nouveau iron girder style in which the interior of the Museum of Palaeontology is furnished was striking (first picture at the top of this post). I found it particularly lively and imaginative (and “rich” in the best sense of word) and searched for the architect. And behold, it’s Ferdinand Dutert, the architect of the famous ‘Galerie des Machines’, the machine hall that caused a sensation at the World Fair 1889 in Paris (this was also the world exhibition where the Eiffel Tower was opened, and not – how mistakenly assumed by many – the even more famous World Fair of 1900, I’ll get to that soon :). On the 1889 exhibition, in this hall the products of mechanical engineering of all countries were displayed, and its construction astounded people with the unusually wide span of its iron beams. Such huge arches, without additional supports creating a wide space like that, had never been seen before! It was the subject of discussion in all architecture journals and essays internationally.

And it proved itself for a long time. During the time of the World Fair 1900, the setting of my picture book THE LIGHTS OF PARIS – ÉMILE AT THE WORLD FAIR (Gerstenberg publishing house), it was still in use. Like everything from times before, however, it no longer corresponded to the picky taste of the times around 1900, in it’s comparatively rather simple forms, and was therefore expanded and redesigned (the Eiffel Tower was also considered to be ‚revised‘ for the World Exhibition 1900 – among other things, it was planned to cover it with stucco (!) – but ultimately those plans were dropped). In the case of Dutert’s machine hall this meant additional arch openings on the longitudinal ‘back’ side of the hall and a great deal of refitting to the interior. The Champ de Mars – the area attached to the oposite longitudinal side of the hall (facing towards the Eiffel Tower) – was planned to be lined with large exhibition palaces annexed to Dutert’s machine hall. A gargantuan grotto-like niche, opening to a fountain basin – the so-called ‚Château d’Eau’ (‚Water Castle‘) – was placed in the middle of that side of the hall, thus looking down Champ de Mars. It was held in an eclectic mix of styles (though the overall attempt was to recall a baroque structure), inspired by different architectural periods of the past, crowned by a star composed of many pieces of glass and set before a wall of iron ornaments that was also equipped with thousands of light bulbs. At a certain time on the exhibition days, the light was turned on at this palace, and fountains and buildings shone in the glow of electric light, which was a groundbreaking novelty at that time. In the fountain basin in front of the grotto simultaneously the water features were set off, and the basin, partially lined with pieces of colored glass and mirrors, reflected the light. The sight must have been spectacular!

Precisely this moment of turning the switch is a crucial moment in THE LIGHTS OF PARIS. Here Émile, my main character, is looking for his father who’s working in the Palace of Electricity, the central power station of the 1900 World Fair (from which all attractions were supplied with electricity). But the light stays off and of course Émile has to get to the bottom of that – and gets on the track of a dangerous conspiracy (don’t worry, at the end of the story you see all the lights going on and get the fantastic sight of the brightly lit water castle, so much is to be revealed here ;). The water castle was built, in front of the ‚Palace of Electricity‘ in reality, too (which in turn was built into Dutert’s old machine hall), by the architects Eugène Hénard and Edmond Paulin. Hénard already had assisted Dutert with the construction of the original Galerie des Machines at the 1889 World’s Fair. Paulin designed the exterior of the ‚Water Castle‘ and thus helped to enrich the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 with an attraction that will probably never be forgotten: his use of a neo-baroque style for the palace was very clever, a partly grotesque, partly incredibly sophisticated blend of styles that adorned the fantastic structure. In pictures 2-4 above I focus on the location of Dutert’s old machine hall on the site the World Fair 1900 – as illustrated in my book THE LIGHTS OF PARIS, which represents the accurate position on the 1900 fair. The ‚Water Castle‘ of Hénard and Paulin with its fountain can be seen right in the middle in front of it.

The story of Émile at the 1900 World’s Fair has a happy ending! Take a look :): THE LIGHTS OF PARIS.