The “Grand Palais Éphémère” ready to open at the end of February: site visit with its designer, architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte

Have you noticed this new building that has been growing on the Champ-de-Mars since September? Designed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the Grand Palais Éphémère should open its doors in a few weeks to host its first exhibition. It will take the place of the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, which is getting a facelift until 2024. We went to visit it, accompanied by the architect himself and the project manager, Louis Lafargue.

Reconstruction of the Grand Palais Éphémère on the Champ-de-Mars, once completed. & Nbsp;  (WILMOTTE & ASSOCIATES ARCHITECTS)

The silvery hair partly covered by a construction helmet, dressed in a long black coat and thick leather shoes, Jean-Michel Wilmotte does not hide his amazement when he looks at the massive structure taking shape before his eyes. Built to replace the Grand Palais, the building has the same dimensions as its big brother with a nave of 10,000 m2, ready to host cultural and sporting events for the next four years.

Equipped with a construction helmet and a yellow vest, we reach the heart of the construction site. Built entirely of spruce wood, the building consists of cross vaults, the largest of which is 145 m long and 140 m wide. While it does not go unnoticed from the street, the building does not stand out against the landscape. Jean-Michel Wilmotte has made it a point of honor not to overshadow either the Ecole Militaire or the Eiffel Tower. “The building is 16 m high, while the Ecole Militaire is 35. We have respected the altimetry to create an open, breathable space between the two buildings. The arches of the Grand Palais Éphémère coincide with those of the Eiffel Tower, they are in the same alignment. We really wanted the building to fit into the Champ-de-Mars“, explains the architect, placed in the center of the nave whose ends open on each monument.”It’s like a cushion placed in the vegetation“continues Louis Lafargue, a smile on his face.

Main facade of the Grand Palais Éphémère, Monday January 11, 2021. & nbsp;  (LOUIS LAFARGUE)

The location of the Grand Palais Éphémère has been determined by the City of Paris. The choice of a cross-shaped building was essential for the architect, like the conservation of the statue of Marshal Joffre in the reception hall. It is the building that has adapted to its location steeped in history, and not the other way around. “The Champ-de-Mars is a place that makes sense. We are also exactly at the place where Robert Mallet-Stevens had designed the Palace of the Electricity Fairy for the International Exhibition of 1937. When we put the anchors on the ground we found traces of this period“.

Within the Grand Palais Éphémère, it is a veritable anthill regulated to the millimeter. “This site is like a clock. When a truck arrives, we know where it is going, we know where it stops. Everything is done with great rigor“. Cranes and vehicles pass in all directions to erect the building.”It also looks like a ballet“, blows us Jean-Michel Wilmotte while watching the workers in action. It must be said that the building is built in record time. The wooden structure is already practically finished while the first plinths were installed in September only. A project. which also represented a challenge for the architect: “10,000m2 so solid in less than a year, it’s exceptional. We have really developed a very advanced structure also in terms of insulation and soundproofing“, he says, pointing to the blue fabric covering the wood, made up of several layers of materials necessary for the good acoustics of the place.

Interior of the Grand Palais Éphémère, with its crossed vault and the blue fabric of its walls.  (FRANCEINFO)

Wood as a signature. “If we had made it in steel it would have been very heavy and very complicated to develop, answers the architect. Even more important ground anchors would have been needed. The wood allows us to prepare the site outside Paris and to bring the building in spare parts, then assembled on site.“.

The project is also ecological. The membrane which covers the wooden skeleton is made of EFTE, a transparent and insulating material, completely recyclable and renewable. “We had already used it to make the Nice stadium“explains Louis Lafargue. For the structure, the Wilmotte agency chose a national company, the Alsatian Mathis, for the wooden frame. “The structural engineer explained to me that the European forest grows fast enough for the quantity of wood used for the frame to be renewed in 1 minute 30. This illustrates the fact that wood is a renewable resource, if it is is used in a reasonable amount “, says Louis Lafargue. “Perfect ! We can already build a second one then! “, adds Jean-Michel Wilmotte, laughing.

The City of Paris is keen to safeguard its plant reserves. We didn’t go too deep to preserve the roots, we didn’t touch a single tree in Champ-de-Mars “, indicates the architect in front of the place where bushes and rosebushes are about to be planted.

After his departure, not much of the Grand Palais Éphémère will remain except the concrete anchors cast in the ground. An essential detail for some residents of the neighborhood, who do not endorse the project. “But even those who contested the construction never attacked the architecture “, specifies Jean-Michel Wilmotte. “They greatly appreciated the effort to make a high quality ephemeral building“.

EFTE membrane which covers the wooden structure of the Grand Palais Éphémère on the Champ-de-Mars. & Nbsp;  (FRANCEINFO)

This new building will have a role to play at the time of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Like other Parisian buildings, it will host several events including those of judo and wrestling. Until then, several events, initially planned at the Grand Palais, will take place on the Champ-de-Mars, such as the Saut Hermès show jumping competition, the FIAC or the Tour Auto Optic 2000. The range is wide. “The Grand Palais Éphémère is made of a free-standing structure. It was important for us to have a totally clear space for events that will not be able to accept having intermediate posts“, explains the architect. A decision which according to him does not diminish in any way the stability of the building designed to be both durable and removable.

And once the Olympic Games are over, what will happen to the work? “Some municipalities have purchased part of the construction that they will reuse to make a hall, a sports building. The building can be decomposed. Everything will stay in France“, concludes Jean-Michel Wilmotte.

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