When it was decided to convert the Orsay railway station into a new museum encompassing various forms of art produced from 1848 to 1914, architecture was naturally included in the project as if it had always been a museum piece and could easily be displayed, when in fact it was, and still is, seldom represented in existing museums.
The museum building, itself an emanation of 19th-century aesthetics and techniques, lends itself to an evocation of the construction work demanded by life in a modern city, the diversity of the materials used and industry's contribution to the development of new building programmes. Architecture was allocated permanent exhibition areas in the museum. It was impossible to illustrate the great changes wrought by Napoleon III and the prefect Haussmann which turned Paris into a modern capital. The emphasis was therefore put on one of the emblematic buildings of the Second Empire which was finished during the Third Republic: the new Paris Opera house, designed by Charles Garnier and built from 1863 to 1875. A whole generation of artists, painters, sculptors, decorators and ornamentists worked on the opera house, which had a lasting influence on European architecture.Dance as well as the original stone group, models of sculptures and decorative elements on loan from the opera's architectural agency, a sketch of the ceiling of the auditorium by J.E. Lenepveu, a model of the stage made for the Universal Exhibition in 1900 (on loan from the Opera's museum and library).
Less systematic purchases have brought the Museum some remarkable drawings by French or foreign artists: The Industrial Pavilion by Berthelin (1979), the New Opera House by Crépinet (1983), Monument to the Glory of the French Revolution by Lheureux (1981), a project for the Irving House by Niedecken, an architect who worked with Franck Lloyd Wright, (1985), along with complete files of considerable documentary interest such as Gosset's work on the St Clothilde Basilica, Rheims and The Rheims Theatre (1985) or Alfred Vaudoyer's projects for the Street of Nations at the Universal Exhibition of 1878 (1986).
The number of architectural contests and public and private commissions rocketed in response to rapid urban and social change. The building fever which gripped the period is evident in the profusion of projects for theatres and opera houses (La Gaîté by Alphonse Cusin, Model for the Theatre de la Porte Saint-Martin, Alphonse-Nicolas Crépinet's projects for the New Opera House, and Ernest Lheureux and Henri Schmit's for the Comic Opera House), railway stations, markets (Plan for a Cattle Market by Charles Garnier), churches (drawings by Jean-Baptiste Lassus, Léon Ginain, Alphonse Gosset), places of learning (schools and universities; Project for the Reconstruction of the Sorbonne by Alphonse Defrasse), memorials (Jean-Camille Formigé, Henri Nénot), libraries, department stores, and factories.Château de Neudeck in Silesia), Stephen Sauvestre ("Tourne-Bride" Villa at Lamorlaye) or Guillaume Tronchet (Domaine de la Chapelle-en-Serval).
Functioning like architectural laboratories, the great world fairs set the pace for the great nations. The first was held in London in 1851 and Paris hosted a fair almost every eleven years after 1855. They gave architects an opportunity to demonstrate their technical and decorative skills. The sky was the limit! Max Bertelin's drawings for the Industrial Pavilion in 1855, now in the Eiffel collection, were joined in 1991 and in 1992 by Jean-Camille Formigé's admirable sketches of the Pavilion of the Arts erected on the Champs de Mars in 1889 and his projects for the exhibition of 1900. There are also drawings connected with his work on Paris City Hall and others revealing his interest in funerary architecture – he built France's first crematorium, in Père-Lachaise cemetery.
Architects usually handled the entire interior decoration of a building as well as its structure. Charles Lameire's designs, midway between architecture and painting, give a glimpse of the little-known world of monumental decoration, from the Trocadero palace to Notre Dame de Fourvière, Lyons, through a set of five hundred items given to the museum by the artist's grandson, Gilles Lameire, in 1987. The work of the draughtsman and decorator François-Antoine Zoegger is well represented thanks to the generosity of his grand daughter Mrs Geneviève Barrez. Zoegger worked with Viollet-le-Duc at Pierrefonds, on the Sainte Chapelle and the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand before setting up a studio in Vienna when he was asked to decorate and furnish Nathaniel de Rothschild's palace.Fantastic landscape)...
François Garas tried to translate ideas, sensations and musical rhythm into architectural structures. This curious, mysterious architect presented utopian projects at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, from 1894 to 1914: Artists' Interiors, Temples for Future Religions dedicated to Beethoven, Wagner, Life, Death and Thought. Cultivating a veritable cult of Beauty, Art and the Absolute he kept deliberately on the fringe of architectural practice and lost his way in the infinity of his creations, retiring completely in 1914. The museum has been able to buy a set of one hundred and thirty-two drawings, several pastels, one painting, engravings and documents, as well as astonishing projects for industrial palaces, one of which is dedicated to the first aeroplanes.
The Art Nouveau movement appeared in the last third of the century as a gust of liberating, unprecedented ideas, which sought to break with “the malady of the past”. Its major achievements spanned the period from 1895 to about 1905. From the 1890s France was a hothouse of brilliant, original creation, with Emile Gallé and Hector Guimard, who are superbly represented in the museum thanks to two outstanding gifts. In May 1986, Emile Gallé's grandson Jean Bourgogne and his wife gave the museum a set of drawings, photographs and manuscripts (over one thousand five hundred documents, mostly unpublished).