Behind the Lines 14

By Philippa Lewis

These are just insignificant sketches, but they remind me of the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques in 1937; by night it was a unique experience – mémorable.

René-André Coulon (1908–1997), Projet de jeux d’eau et de lumière, 1937. Gouache and pastel on black paper, 270 × 410 mm. DMC 2113.
René-André Coulon, Projet de jeux d’eau et de lumiere, 1937. Gouache and pastel on black paper, 270 × 640 mm. DMC 2119.
René-André Coulon (1908–1997), Projet de jeux d’eau et de lumiere, 1937. Gouache and pastel on black paper, 410 × 580 mm. DMC 2112.

You see, one theme of the exposition was light and water: an expression of what could be achieved with the power of modern electricity, we saw ourselves as being in a new age of light. You cannot imagine how much power it took: the facade of every building was lit, the fountains were pumping out thousands of litres of water. They were of every conceivable material and design; I particularly liked René Lalique’s glass fountain, Jet d’Eau, at the entrance of the Centre des Métiers – it was sensationelle. I love glass – I had an interesting time during that period designing glass furniture for Saint-Gobain. We even made radiators from glass, radiavers. You know new materials have always fascinated me, in the 1950s Ionel Schein and I devised a spiral all-plastic house with the engineer Yves Magnant. It was the great success of the Salon des Arts Ménagers in 1956, though nothing much came of it – all before your time.

Anyway, back to ’37. André Granet masterminded the fountains and lighting on the rive gauche, and Roger Expert of those on the rive droite. Of course, both had experience from the famous illuminations and fountains that they did for L’Exposition Coloniale Internationale in 1931, but their work, now six years later, was on an even larger scale. Expert used this new fluorescent lighting as well as the usual gold, blue, green, mauve, red and white light. It created a sensation; everyone was striving for new effects and techniques.

For me, it was the fêtes de lumière along the Seine designed by Eugène Beaudoin and Marcel Lods that were most thrilling. It was a strange job for them. They were really interested in collective housing and prefabrication, but I suppose its appeal was the fact that it was a grand an urban project and very exciting. They were friends with Jean Prouvé, who may have advised them on the engineering. Vision féeriques and orgie de couleurs were their words to describe the scheme.

At 10 o’clock, when night had fallen, crowds would gather and the show would begin. It was described as a sky ballet, fantastic effects high enough to compete with the tour Eiffel and the Trocadéro. Beaudoin and Lods had devised eighteen different scenarios: endlessly moving jets, gushes, sprays of droplets and fine mists of water with dramatic colour changes. Simultaneously, music composed by Stravinsky or Honegger, no less, would fill the air with sound in time with the movements of water and lights. I remember eleven pontoons were moored in the Seine to support the loudspeakers; other pontoons supported submerged fountains that would suddenly flash to the surface and shoot water into the sky. To all this wonder they added smoke and fireworks. Nothing like it had ever been done before, a meeting of the elements. I can’t describe how romantic it was.

Yes, I worked with Robert Malet-Stevens on the Pavillon de l’Hygiene et Pavillon de la Solidarité Nationale. Imagine, there were 380 of us architects, 257 sculptors and 348 artists working on that Exposition. There were exhibits from 50 countries. Formidable. Our pavillon was on the right bank between Portugal and Yachting à Voile, between Passerelle Debilly and the Pont d’Ièna, right at the centre of things.

What I drew here are three views of the illuminations on the Passerelle Debilly. It may not look very clear to you but it is enough to remind me of the dazzling light reflections on the Seine and the whole magical atmosphere (and indeed that time just before the war when France was the epicentre of culture).

I felt proud to be part of it.

– a reminiscence by René-André Coulon