Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hidden in Plain Sight

This small limestone pavilion, of truly exceptional beauty, was built in the mid-18th century at the entrance to the Maison royale de Saint-Louis, known simply as Saint-Cyr, the vast convent school that stood a bare stone's throw from Versailles. Louis XIV established St-Cyr in 1684 as a pension to educate impoverished aristocratic girls at the behest of Madame de Maintenon, his pious morganatic wife, and the imposing complex was the work of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the Sun King's ubiquitous First Architect.

Louis XV, true to form, held not the slightest interest in Saint-Cyr; though he was its patron and paid its bills and galloped past its gates on hunts literally hundreds of times over the decades, he never once bothered to visit the school and refused to enroll any of his daughters there. Nonetheless, he did commission the Pavillon des Archives; and though records have been lost, the pavilion's outstanding quality and distinctive style indicates that it was quite probably designed by his First Architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel—the greatest French architect of the mid-eighteenth century and author of the Petit Trianon and the Place de la Concorde.

In 1808, Napoléon, also true to form, transformed St-Cyr into a military academy. Heavily damaged in World War II, the complex was restored by order of Charles De Gaulle and still today houses a military academy. Fortunately, the Archives Pavilion survived virtually unscathed from these attacks, though its interiors suffered at the hands of ruthless, fluorescent-lit postwar functionalism.

There is profound truth in the real-estate agent's mantra of "Location, location, location." Though it is a perfect jewel—the apex of the pavillon de plaisance form and the distillation of French neoclassicism—nevertheless the pavilion remains virtually unknown and has rarely been published in the architectural literature, and even then as a footnote. Had it been erected within Versailles' walls rather than in St-Cyr's shadow, the pavilion would today be mentioned in the same breath as Gabriel's masterwork, the Petit Trianon; instead it stands overlooked and anonymous, mere yards from the main road linking the towns of St-Cyr and Versailles.

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