I’d so been looking forward to the opening of this museum ever since I spotted its renovation on an earlier trip to Paris. I’m firstly going to cover the building itself, before talking about the exhibits.
The Bourse de Commerce – the former commodities exchange – is a Roman-style incongruity situated in the heart of Paris between the Louvre and Les Halles, with a history closely entwined with that of the French royal family. Its five-year restoration has preserved the feel of the monument to a remarkable degree.
While using his vocabulary of gray tones bathed in zenithal lighting, architect Tadao Ando has proved his talent for inserting ambitious architecture into an existing envelope. He has put a concrete cylinder inside the building, lowering its rotunda so that one can see clearly in the round. Visible from every angle, the glass vault is encircled by a restored and freshly-cleaned panorama depicting global trades.
All around, repurposed 19th century shop windows from the Voillereau company, between the twenty-four arcades of the inner façade, host installations. A 284-seat modular auditorium in the basement is used for lectures, performances and dance shows. A total of ten exhibition spaces enable a permanent rotation of exhibits. The complex is overlooked by a restaurant with a view of the Paris rooftops, designed by the Bouroullec brothers and run by Michel Bras. We had wanted to dine there but couldn’t get a table but, no matter, we ate instead at the recently opened Le Cheval Blanc.
The site’s story began when Jean II de Clermont-Nesle built a mansion that was later given by French King Louis IX (ruled 1226-1270) to his mother, Blanche of Castile. It bore a series of names that changed with the various owners’ noble titles: Hôtel de Nesle, Hôtel d’Orléans, Hôtel de Bohême and Hôtel de Soissons. In 1498, part of the property was taken over by the Augustinian nuns and used as a convent for “reformed girls” in Paris.
In 1572, having decided to leave the Tuileries Palace, Catherine de Medici bought the Hôtel d’Albret to build a palace with a park, integrating the adjacent properties, and asked the nuns to carry out their work nearby on Rue Saint-Denis. This project occupied architect Jean Bullant (1515-1578) for the last six years of his life. The architect built a tower with 147 steps, accessible from the queen’s residence, which her Florentine astrologer Cosimo Ruggieri could climb to look at the stars.
The Queen’s Tower
This icon, now connected to the Bourse de Commerce, has miraculously survived the capital’s various vicissitudes. In 1748, the column was one of the first-ever heritage monuments to be saved when the writer Louis Petit de Bachaumont bought it to save it from destruction, before giving it to the provost of Paris. It was classified in 1862 (for its part, the Bourse de Commerce had to wait until the threat of collapse in 1975, a few years after the shocking destruction of the Baltard pavilions.)
The Grain Exchange
In 1741, after the building’s last occupant suffered bankruptcy, the “Queen’s mansion” was demolished to build a grain exchange, accessible from the quays of the Seine. Its purpose was to stock flour for a city with over half a million inhabitants often afflicted by famine. Its construction in the 1760s was overseen by Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières (1721-1789), who designed a circular building on a pentagonal plot. As architect of the Monuments Historiques, Pierre-Antoine Gatier points out, this direct reference to Roman architecture was in line with a commonly admired style.
The open courtyard was subsequently covered by a wooden dome by carpenter André-Jacob Roubo, who was inspired by the work of French architect Philibert Delorme to build a tangled mass of thousands of beams, with no pillars. In his Travels in France, Arthur Young (1741-1820) said he was dazzled by this:
…..immense rotunda; by far the most beautiful thing I have seen in Paris—so light you would think it had been hung there by fairies.
After it burned down, it was replaced in 1811 by a cast-iron structure covered with tin-plated copper which took five years to complete by architect François Bélanger. In addition to Bélanger’s drawings in the National Archives, researchers have been able to study a collection of 240 sheets in the Wallfraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, whose delicate restoration François Pinault has assumed.
In 1873, the grain exchange was closed and the architect Henri Blondel (1821-1897) commissioned to transform the structure into a commodities exchange, which opened in 1889 during the Universal Exhibition. Blondel had the building demolished, leaving only the inner circular arcade and an 18th century double helix staircase, surmounted by the metal dome, over which he placed a glass roof. This was the version the new occupants decided to restore, with a new roof in slate, replacing the copper.
In his letters from Paris during the Consulate, the British journalist Francis William Blagdon (1778-1819) describes the “noble simplicity” of this exchange, with “granaries supported by Tuscan order pillars.” He particularly admired the “dome 120 feet in diameter [nearly 40 metres], with a center 44 feet [some 15 metres] above the ground,” which he compared with the Pantheon in Rome. The author tells us that its construction was:
….considered so dangerous that the entrepreneur could not find anyone brave enough to remove the supports, and had to do this himself. The workmen were amazed at its stability once the supports had gone.
Many futures markets functioned at the Commodities Exchange from its inception but the collapse of wheat prices in 1929 led to market reform in 1935. It wasn’t until after WWII that futures trading in commodities recommenced.
With the computerisation of futures markets, all market activity concluded in 1998 with the exchange continuing as an electronic market within Euronext. Consequently, in 2013 the building became a sort of chamber of commerce acting as an advocate for business in Paris.
In 2016, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, offered François Pinault a 50-year lease on the Bourse de Commerce for a lump sum of €15 million, plus yearly fees. Shortly after, the Paris City Council approved the project to transform the building into an exhibition space for contemporary art, including pieces from his private collection of more than 3,500 works.
The Bourse’s initial opening date had been set for summer 2020, before it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in France. Instead, it opened in mid-May 2021. The inaugural exhibition was called “Ouverture,” referring to the introductory piece which is sung at the beginning of an opera. The exhibit presented the works of several international artists including Urs Fischer, Kerry James Marshall, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans and Cindy Sherman.