Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A Flight Back in Time

For professional reasons I found myself last week at the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget in the northern suburbs of Paris, and although my brief was to concentrate on state of the art technology, I did manage to find some time to investigate the distinctive, historic architecture of the airport. It was my first visit to the site, but I can safely say that it is it is well worth the short trip from the capital for anybody who is interested in designs of the 1920s and 30s.

For over fifty years, Le Bourget was the principal airport of Paris. It was a place that saw the birth of aviation and the stationing of airborne troops during the 1914-18 war. The first passenger flights began around 1919, linking Paris to London, Brussels and Amsterdam, with around 6000 taking such flights in 1920. It was also the site of aviation advances and exploits, and was the place that Charles Lindbergh landed his ‘Spirit of Saint Louis’ in 1927, becoming the first man to cross the Atlantic single-handed. Over 150,000 people were present to see him arrive, and a delicate and graceful statue marking this event can still be found on site today.

As passenger numbers increased and to meet the needs of the large numbers of visitors expected for the 1937 Universal Exhibition, a new airport structure was required. The architect Georges Labro won the competition and designed a subtle, yet powerful 233m long building. The structure was a success, and with 21,000 flights and 138,000 passengers in 1939, Le Bourget became Europe’s second largest airport. But then war broke out.

Requisitioned and transformed by German troops, it was later almost entirely destroyed by allied bombardments during the liberation of Paris. However, being the only airport in Paris at the time, rapid reconstruction was needed once the war had finished, and it was Georges Labro who took on the job again, rebuilding the structure in almost its exact previous form. Passenger traffic eventually reached 600,000 travellers a year, but after the Orly, then Roissy airports were built, Le Bourget gradually slipped back into provincial obscurity.


The old and the new; an Airbus A380 flies over Le Bourget.

Despite the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace taking up residence in the airport structures in the 1970s, we should not make the mistake of thinking that the entire site has become a museum. Today Le Bourget is Europe’s busiest airport for private and business traffic, and the hangars still resonate with the noise of creation and repair. These magnificent reinforced concrete structures give a glimpse of what the site looked like in the 1920s. Built by Henri Lossier in 1922, these massive 15m by 50m units were damaged in the war and slightly adjusted afterwards, but the basic forms we see today are identical to the originals.
Although the building was saved by the installation of the museum, it does seem today to be in need of the planned restoration project. The white marble exteriors are grey and crumbling, and green shoots are sprouting out of inaccessible corners. It is interesting also to see the carved sculptures on the façade held in place by netting. These figures were designed as a celebration of the far-flung French colonies, but it seems strangely apt today to see them represented as people being tied up and ensnared.

Despite these problems, Labro’s main airport building remains an architectural wonder and a rare glimpse of a unique period in history. The charming curves and timeless design should ensure that once restored, the building will still have a very long life ahead of it, even if the footsteps of passengers are now a muffled sound of the past.

Note: If you more interested in aviation than architecture, Owen has some great photos of the Paris Air Show on his blog.

14 comments:

Ken Mac said...

fantastic history and photos. You capture the Paris I want to know more about!

Tim said...

It also happens to be a fantastic museum, even if you're not particularly into aviation. They have a stunning collection of aircraft from across the ages, admission is fairly cheap and, as it's just slightly out of town, it's never too crowded. So thumbs-up from me and well worth the RER or taxi ride out of Paris.

nathalie in avignon said...

Great story Adam! I've never been to le Bourget and knew nothing about its architecture.
I wonder if the netting is there to hold the statues in place or prevent the pigeons from sitting on them?

Nathalie again said...

Thanks for the info Tim, I'll think of it one day...

andy said...

FWIW,I love this blog.

CarolineLD said...

These photos look almost like scenes from vintage travel posters - a lovely evocation of the days when air travel was glamorous.

Starman said...

I agree with Tim. I'm not particularly into aircraft, but this seems like it would be worth the trip.

Owen said...

An excellent post Adam, you've shown me a few details that I hadn't seen despite several visits there over the years. It's a really big place, I'm sure I still have plenty to discover.

Totally agree with Tim, the permanent collections of the Museum are top notch, really beautiful old aircraft in there, as well as a great section on early hot air balloons.

Many thanks for the nod here Adam, sincerely appreciate it. Glad to hear you had a good time there...

Adam said...

Andy: Such encouragement is worth a lot actually! Thanks.

Cergie said...

J'ai pris souvent l'avion du Bourget, car nous habitions en Côte d'Ivoire. A l'époque c'était éopique : nous faisions escale à Bamako.
La dernière fois que j'y ai été c'était lorsque je suis revenue du Québec en 1974 ; nous étions partis d'Orly et devions revenir par Roissy qui avait ouvert pendant les 3 semaines où j'étais partie et puis il y a eu un brouillard à couper au couteau ; nous avons beaucoup tourné, ce n'était pas encore possible d'atterrir dans ces conditions à Roissy, pour finir nous nous sommes donc posés au Bourget sans rien voir avant de toucher la piste.
J'aime bien l'aspect "province" de cet aéroport que l'on voit sur tes photos. A Roissy le terminal 3 dont partent les appareils low-cost fait assez province aussi.

Encore une pub : près de chez moi il y a l'aéroport de Pontoise qui appartient aux aéroports de Paris.
(Cergipontin < Cergy-Pontoise)

Badaude said...

Wow, that's beautiful! All airports should look like that...

artdecobuildings said...

Thanks Adam
Le Bourget has been added to the list of places I want to visit.
David

Richard said...

If you love the 1920s and 1930s architecture, also have a look at the fantastic apartment buildings just on the opposite side of the road.

Adam said...

Funny you should say that Richard - I'll be doing a feature on those shortly!

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