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Interview with the architects
Interview with Richard Duplat, Chief Architect of Historical Monuments
What state was the Hôtel Biron in when you arrived?
The diagnosis of the building established in 2010 highlighted certain problems that had actually plagued the monument for a long time. What visitors noticed most at the time was the state of the parquet floors, which had been roughly patched over for decades. This was the most obvious defect, but the rest of the building was in an equally unsatisfactory condition: the woodwork, facings, etc. We were dealing with an aging museum in a monument whose condition no longer did justice to its true value.
What were the surprises in store with this project?
There were plenty of surprises! First of all, the monument had clearly undergone refurbishments during the 20th century that had never been clearly and historically recorded. Secondly, wood and fabric trim had been used to cover over a great many flaws that the “upholsterers” had not seen fit to mention. Finally, makeshift sanitary facilities had caused water infiltration in the old structures. Not to mention the operational problems...
Furthermore, the wooden interior partition walls had become exposed and begun to rot. As they weakened, the stone cross walls became overburdened by their load and by the structural imbalance. Large, worrying cracks were hidden over almost all the Hôtel. Probably since Rodin’s day, no restoration work had been done to the mansion.
It would definitely have been risky to wait any longer. As it turned out, all the surprises we had were due to the building’s hidden weaknesses: because of the exhibitions, we hadn’t been able to carry out the investigations required by the construction work. Just imagine operating on a patient without having done the preliminary medical examinations! Seeing the project through was often like performing a balancing act: dealing with the monument’s essential repairs while trying to keep to schedule and budget.
How was the building improved by the renovation?
First of all, the structural coherence of the building had to be reestablished. The load-bearing capacity of the floors had to be increased without adding to their thickness or modifying the architecture and the proportions of the interior volumes. Secondly, accessibility to the building and its approaches was improved, and an elevator was installed to enable all today’s visitors to access Rodin’s works. The flooring was completely renovated and the panel parquets were repaired, preserving the original material as far as possible. In rooms with overpainted areas on the ceilings – more precisely, on the decorative plaster work on cornices and roses – the overpainting was removed to allow us to restore the delicacy of the original decoration. Meanwhile, attic space was cleared in the roof structure and converted into extra offices, and the watertightness of the roof was ensured. The restrooms and entresols for the use of museum staff were fully overhauled.
Finally, the various woodwork elements were all restored (preserving some of the old double windows as reminders of this particular amenity). The original hardware was preserved or supplemented. The interior spaces were all renovated to allow the museography team to go ahead with the painting and layout of the new setting in which Rodin’s works are now showcased.
To conclude, it should be stressed that, despite the State’s intention to restore this exceptional monument, the project would not have been so successful without the determination of Mme Chevillot, the museum director, whose tenacity and conviction were invaluable throughout the renovation process. And thanks to the enthusiasm of the museum departments, the project was able to advance at a steady pace.
Interview with the renovation architect Dominique Brard – Studio de l’Ile.
What was your approach to the design of the museum furniture?
The previous furniture was a veritable hotchpotch with no real authenticity: bases and display cases from Rodin’s lifetime, modern imitations, pieces of furniture reflecting trends in museum design from a number of different periods... The new furniture was designed to set off the sculptures while remaining as discreet as possible.
We decided to combine streamlined contemporary furniture with sculptor’s stands from Rodin’s studio (part of the museum’s collections). To resonate with the stands, the furniture pieces were designed as open elements through which the viewer’s gaze could pass to admire the works. These pieces, made of solid oak, match the oak parquet floors, the wood trim and the colors of the rooms. Some rooms feature a specific layout and antique furniture that vary the visitors’ experience and keep their attention alive.
The display cases were designed to be as discreet as possible – simple glued glass structures without metal frames, using top quality glass.
What was the concept behind the lighting design?
The lighting was an essential part of the reflection on the new Musée Rodin. It is fundamental to the design of the new visitor experience, and essential for viewing the sculptures and playing with the volumes. Part of the magic of the Hôtel Biron stems from the natural light that enters through the large windows, accentuated by the reflections from the antique mirrors and the magnificent view of the garden – a vast open-air museum where Rodin’s works are constantly revealed by the changing light of day. Together with Stéphanie Daniel, we created an original artificial lighting system designed to interfere as little as possible with natural daylight and to compensate for its lack on cloudy days, at night and according to seasonal variations. This innovative and efficient lighting, based on LED technology with variable color temperature, is controlled by a computer system and programmed to adjust the intensity and/or color temperature according to the natural light, room by room, work by work (according to whether it’s a marble or a bronze), projector by projector. This is one of the very first times this form of lighting has been used in a museum.
Visitors to the renovated Musée Rodin will doubtless be struck by the new colors of the walls. Why did you get rid of the white walls in the exhibition rooms, and how did you choose the new colors?
To show the sculptures to best advantage, we abandoned the white cube of the 1980s: marble sculptures tended to fade from view against a white background, while bronzes appeared to be backlit and the contrast with the antique wood trim was too strong.
So one of our goals was to obtain a satisfactory interaction with all the sculpture materials (terracotta, bronze, plaster, marble). We opted for medium density colors, to reveal both the light-colored sculptures (marbles and plasters) and the darker ones (bronzes). These hues, which are colored but not too dense, give the plasters and bronzes a spatial relationship that enhances their visibility. The choice of paints was also based on a range of colors inspired by layers found in the walls during archaeological excavations. Finally, we took the exposure of the rooms into account, as colors can vary and are more or less dense according to light.
The expertise of the color consultants from Farrow & Ball helped me and the teams at the Musée Rodin to finalize our choice of colors. Color tests were then conducted during the partial opening of the Hôtel Biron.
The differences of color and density between the walls in the painted rooms and those in the rooms with wood trim were attenuated by the choice of color. Subtle changes of color mark the passage from one section to another and the architectural specificity of certain rooms, with a limited number of hues to avoid too stark a contrast between one room and the next. Two main colors were used: on the ground floor, a taupe gray called “Biron Gray” (developed specially for the museum with Farrow & Ball), which blends with the waxed oak trim; and on the first floor, a gray-green that corresponds to the color most often found when the walls were excavated.
These various approaches helped us create greater coherence and showcase the essence of the Musée Rodin: sculpture.