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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
image The Public Realm Expansion of the Public Realm
The Paris Opéra
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Expansion of the Public Realm
The Paris Opéra
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Many other institutions are built as part of an enormous expansion of the institutional realm, and as part of a desire to recreate the European city in America.

And beyond this, these institutional buildings, as well as a series of government buildings, were designed stylistically to recreate what was built in Europe, to rival the great buildings of Europe.

So in order to understand this, we need to look at one of these great buildings in Europe, one of the buildings that American architects and American patrons saw when they either went and traveled in Europe, as many Americans did, or when they studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as many American architects did, and that was the Opéra in Paris. The Opéra was one of the great nineteenth-century construction projects in Paris, and it was the type of building that Americans saw and wanted to recreate in their cities, especially in New York.

This is a great sculptural, three-dimensional structure. It has end wings that project out, and it has this huge sort of cushioned domed roof that rises up. Your eye is never still when it looks at this building. And this building was visible down a great boulevard, so it was very important within the fabric of the city.

Not only is the massing of the building very three-dimensional and sculptural, but the building is filled with sculpture. But this is not sculpture just for the sake of having ornament on the building; it is allegorical sculpture. Many different sculptors worked with the architect to create this ornament on the building, and it says something about the use of the building.

So, for example, this is a statue of Music, and you have an allegorical figure of Music holding a lyre and surrounded by other figures playing pipes or playing a viol, so this is symbolic of what's going on within the Opéra. There are also busts of composers; there are smaller symbols of music and of drama and of art, all over the building.

When you go inside this building, typical of a Beaux-Arts–inspired building, you are carefully channeled through the space. The interior is laid out in an extraordinarily dramatic way so that you move from space to space and you are moved through the space by the architects so that you are taken where somebody else thinks you should go.

You move through the space not really with a great deal of free will, because you're being channeled very carefully from dramatic space to dramatic space.

So you enter the Opéra through a relatively small vestibule, and then you burst out into this spectacular stair hall, and you are carefully channeled up the stairs, through a whole series of public promenades. And although this is the opera house, it really was all about seeing and being seen. And the public areas take up more space than the actual opera house does.

And so you're carefully channeled through these lushly designed spaces that are filled with artwork. And again it's allegorical artwork.

There are painted ceilings and mosaic ceilings with allegories about the arts and about the grandeur of France, in this case. And besides the allegorical detail and the careful planning of the design, one of the key elements that is involved with the creation of a successful building like the Opéra, which is going to be imported into America, is this idea that artists and craftsmen would work together to create a great unified building.

Now of course the architect was at the top there choosing what the allegories would be, hiring the architects and the craftspeople that would be involved, but the unity of architect and sculptor and mural painters and mosaicists and metal workers and stone workers and furniture designers all coming together would create the great unified building.


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