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Gaetana Aulenti was regarded as “…the most important female architect since the beginning of time…,” by Herbert Muschamps, the renowned architecture critic for the New York Times. She is most notably known for designing the interior of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Born in 1927 in the town of Palazzolo dello Stella, close to Trieste, she was one of only two women in a class of 20 to graduate from the Milan Polytechic School of Architecture in 1954. She rebelled against her parents’ wishes to become a “nice society girl” and instead opened her own design practice. She rose to prominence by designing villas for the rich, showrooms for FIAT, pens and watches for Louis Vuitton, and an iconic coffee table on wheels which is in the permanent collection of MOMA. She won commissions alongside the likes of Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves and I.M. Pei.
Aulenti remained an iconoclast throughout her life. An early contributor to the Italian design magazine, CASABELLA, she readily joined with her peers to reject the architecture of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus movement. She did nothing “alla moda” in current fashion, and clung to the contrary, but prescient notion of an architecture rooted in the relationship to the urban environment that blended public, private, cultural and historic spaces with the unique spatial elements of industrial design. She was also a very well respected teacher at the Universities of Milan and Venice.
Passionate about all forms of art, Aulenti designed with a broad stroke, creating sets for opera companies such as La Scala throughout Europe, and museum interiors world -wide. She converted the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, an old exhibition hall in Barcelona, and the main library in San Francisco into museums for art, and planned the interior architecture for the Contemporary Art Gallery at the Pompidou Center. In 1981 she was commissioned to convert the interior of the 1900’s Beaux Arts Gare d’Orsay train station in Paris, her most widely acclaimed project, into a museum that would bridge the gap between the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume.
Situated on the left bank of the Seine across from the Tuileries Gardens, the Musée d’Orsay began its evolution as the Palais d’Orsay (Paris’s State Council Building) on the rue de Lille, in an elegant, aristocratic neighborhood between the Pont Royal and the Pont de la Concorde. The entire section was burned to the ground during the 1871 Paris Commune uprising–the first socialist, working class riots in French history. For the following 30 years the spectacular bone structure of Palais d’Orsay’s ruins stood as a reminder of the horrors of civil war. In 1897 the French government conveyed the land to the Compagnie du Chemin de fer de Paris à Orléans, which planned to build a more centralized terminus for the railroad network of the southwest, in anticipation of the throngs of people expected to descend upon the city for the 1900’s World’s Fair Exposition Universelle. From 1939-1958, the Gare d’Orsay, originally designed by Victor Laloux, served only the suburbs of the city and was completely abandoned by 1960. In 1961, in order to avoid the costs of maintenance, the SNCF put the grand old building up for sale. Nine years later, after no buyers had surfaced, they were granted permission for demolition.
Fortunately, in a very astute maneuver, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, Jacques Duhamel, saved the magnificent structure by placing it on the supplementary list of historic monuments. A few years later, at the behest of Duhamel and then-President Georges Pompidou, the Directorate of the Museums of France decided to turn the station into a museum for works of art created during the years 1848 and 1915 (the Impressionists).
President Valéry Giscard d’Estang followed in their footsteps in 1978 and formally placed the museum on the permanent list of historic places. A competition was held and the victor, ACT Architecture, hired Aulenti to design a plan for the 20,000 square meters of internal space. She had carte blanche to design the furniture, lighting, decorations and fittings. Keeping to her maxim that the focus of a room is its occupants, she created a grand, central welcoming aisle that once contained train tracks under a spectacular vaulted glass ceiling. Laloux’s original industrial design used over 12,000 tons of metal, considerably more than the Eiffel Tower. But the prevailing attitude of provincialism of the times forced him to cover up his bold structural support system. Aulenti augmented the vernacular of Laloux’s urban landscape by highlighting the original support beams, intricate lighting and rough stone wall coverings, enhancing the grandeur one feels when entering the main hall for the first time. President François Mitterand inaugurated the Museum in December of 1986. More than twenty thousand people stood in line on opening day.
In her long and prolific lifetime, Aulenti won numerous architectural prizes, including the coveted Career Prize at the Milan Triennale. “There are many other female architects,” she acknowledged at the time, “but most of them link up with men. I’ve always worked by myself and it’s been quite an education.” The provocative Italian architect died on November 1, 2012. Over 3 million people visit the Musée d’Orsay each year, a testament to her passion for art and design.