En fonte

Until January 13, 2013, the musée d’Orsay has an exhibit about architect Victor Baltard: Iron and Paintbrush. Baltard (1805 – 1874) trained at the prestigious École des beaux-arts in Paris and he won the Prix de Rome in 1833. The prize funds four years of study at the Villa Médicis in Rome. The artist Ingrès became the director of the Villa half-way through Baltard’s stay and became very fond of the young architect and painter. That link with Ingrès shaped Baltard’s future upon his return to Paris. The older man helped his protegé get a job as the Inspector of Fine Arts, in charge of church interiors. He did extensive work on the interior of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. His most significant church project was the construction of the beautiful Saint-Augustin church where he extensively used a new material – metal. Baltard moved from strength to strength, eventually becoming the head of the city’s architecture department. His new boss was Baron Haussman, a man he’d known since he was a child.


The most famous project Parisian project Baltard is associated with is the reconstruction of Les Halles, the covered market next to Saint Eustache cathedral in the 1st Arrondissement. His design was totally revolutionary – it used mostly metal on a base of brick and stone. Immense cast-iron columns over 30 feet high were designed to support the glass roofs of the 12 buildings in the complex. Elegant triangular brackets strengthened the buildings as well as lending a decorative air. The airy pavilions were so popular with the public that replicas began to crop up across the country and across the world. They were early examples of modular construction – fast and cost-effective to build. Baltard contributed to their popularity by producing a monograph of 35 detailed drawings that functioned as a how-to guide for his admirers. His next, very practical project was new abattoirs on the edge of the city using the same design principals as the covered markets.

Baltard’s next political appointment seems rather illogical for an architect. He was put in charge of the festivals of Paris.  In addition to all of the routine festivals, this glorified party-planner was responsible for a reception for Queen Victoria’s visit to the capitol as well as the christening for the emperor’ son. Apparently, he had a blast creating ephemeral structures that he decorated with lush vegetation and brought to life with cascading fountains and lighting effects. This also let Baltard try new techniques that he then incorporated in more permanent structures.

But when the Second Empire collapsed in 1870, Baltard felt that his work in Paris was finished and he left his employment. He died four years later, but he left some great architecture behind. Unfortunately, 10 of the 12 pavilions of Les Halles were destroyed in the early 70s to make way for a mall, cinema, and metro station. One of the remaining two pavilions was turned into a performance hall in Nogent-sur-Marne, where it bears Baltard’s name, the other was moved to Japan. I loathed the monstrosity they erected in place of Baltard’s beautiful buildings, but it’s been knocked down, too.

Today’s expression, en fonte (ohn fohnt) means cast iron. The Baltard exhibition sounds like a great way to explore the work of a brilliant architect who painted the Paris skyline in cast iron pigments.

Read more about him – Baltard: Architecte de Paris

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About Patricia Gilbert

Patricia Gilbert is a French teacher. She's Canadian, lives in the United States, but dreams of living in France. Follow her on Instagram @Onequalitythefinest and on Twitter @1qualthefinest.
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2 Responses to En fonte

  1. Pingback: Le Poème de âme | One quality, the finest.

  2. Bde says:

    During the 60 s when i was a student in Paris, Les Halles was where many a night out ended 5AM at a busy brraessie over a Cantal cheese sandwich and a glass of Fleury.Thx for the memories!

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