Architecture At War:The 1937 Paris International Exposition


Dominating the new Trocadéro’s majestic esplanade, the Soviet and German pavilions faced each other in a commanding gesture across the central axis of the Paris “International Exposition of the Arts and Technology in Modern Life” — the last French World’s Expo in the twentieth century. The Soviet pavilion’s power came to its fullest expression when observed against the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadéro; the German pavilion was best seen in the context of the classicizing palace.  Designed by Boris Iofan , Odessa born architect of Jewish descent, the Soviet pavilion emulated the Eiffel Tower’s bold vertical ascent; the German pavilion, by Albert Speer , inscribed itself provocatively in the new, modernized classicist landscape of Paris . The two designers were, respectively, Stalin and Hitler’s favorite architects.  Representing opposed social systems, the pavilions formed a triumphal gate framing the Eiffel Tower in compliance with the site-plan the Exhibition’s chief architect Jacques Gréber  conceived in 1934 .  Jacques Carlu , the chief architect of Paris, had suggested the profile of the ‘gate’ in a 1935 winning competition entry . The new style of the Trocadéro (after the 1937 remodeling of Jean-Antoine-Gabriel Davioud’s 1878 palace) echoed the French “rappel à l’ordre” of the 1930s — a stripped classicism Albert Speer likened to his own “National Socialist architecture.”






The German pavilion at night acquired the appearance of a giant luminescent topaz, its gilded mosaics lining the folds between pillars and reflecting concealed light sources. The use of mosaics exacerbated the pavilion’s photonegative quality: reflected light transformed the swastika-patterned ceramics of the folds into the apparent sources of its light.  As contemporaries noted, “at night, bowls and sources of indirect light lit the tower so that, with its mosaics, the tower appeared to be a chiseled crystal and a source of light in its own right .”

The pavilion brimmed with artifice.  Even the enormous Zeppelin engine—a majestic specimen of industrial sophistication, raised on a pedestal under the chandeliers – gave the ambiguous appearance of a gigantic black crystal set in a quasi-Biedermeier salon, indeed “Hitler’s Salon” .   It seems that this alliance of retro-provincialism with state-of the-art technology formed the core of aesthetic choices.  Even a piano, the indispensable symbol of bourgeois achievement, reigned among  objects and nick-knack window castings lining the walls .



An almost complete absence of photography as an art of display struck the contemporary observer already accustomed to flashy photomontages.  Instead, immense ‘naturalistic’ oil paintings matching the retro style of the chandeliers that cast their vacillating light over a futuristic Mercedes-Benz racing car. Only small photographs surrounded the car, in addition to those that illustrated the Zeiss factory.  Besides sleek machinery, precision instruments, electric and industrial innovations, the pavilion housed several displays of television circuits, including a video-telephone for visitors’ use.  All these cutting-edge phenomena—Germany’s visible “will to modernity”—showed under dim warm light.   Embodying paradoxes and anachronisms, the pavilion seemed suspended between conservatism and modernity, reality and its simulation.

In Speer’s memoir, Inside the Third Reich, he explained his theory:

‘Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he would philosophize […] Naturally, a new national consciousness could not be awakened by architecture alone. But when after a long spell of inertia a sense of national grandeur was born anew, the monuments of men’s ancestors were the most impressive exhortations. Today, for example, Mussolini could point to the buildings of the Roman Empire as symbolising the heroic spirit of Rome. Thus he could fire his nation with the idea of a modern empire. Our architectural works should also speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now.’


Unlike the Germans who brought their own crews, the Soviets built their Pavilion exclusively with French workers.

As the German Pavilion’s designer wrote in his memoirs, he allegedly came across the Soviet project accidentally, choosing a rigid tower to counter the energy of the Soviet’s frontal, sweeping “aggression;”  Iofan’s decision to enclose his pavilion in marble came after he learned the Germans would use expensive Bavarian granite .  Another contest was over whose pavilion would be taller.  At one point, the Germans demanded that their pavilion be moved two meters closer to Stalin’s, thus reinforcing the notorious ‘clash’ between the two.  In response, the Soviets requested that their own Pavilion be moved forward by the same length.   This near comic competition was virtually endless.  Initially, the French government had offered a subsidy of 750,000 Francs for each pavilion, about twenty-five percent more than that allotted other pavilions, national and foreign.  As costs soared with the weight of the two enormous structures to be built over a tunnel, France agreed to increase their countries subsidy by half a million Francs which was the total sum French pavilions such as George-Henri Pingusson’s “Union des Artistes Modernes” (UAM) or Le Corbusier’s “Temps Nouveaux,” were to receive from the Exhibition administration.  Immediately, the Germans requested the same amount.  As the work proceeded, however, the Soviets realized they would need yet another increase.  At this point, Edmond Labbé, the Exhibition’s Commissioner General, refused to comply, assuming Speer would request the same hike in this endless cycle of demands .  Invisible to the fair’s visitors, these chess moves of Germany and USSR , ironically emblematic of the soon to start secret diplomacy, leading to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-aggression act two years later.


Published in: on January 24, 2017 at 1:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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