Hiding in plain sight is a fitting way to describe the colossal building that houses La Monnaie de Paris, which is France’s oldest institution and the world’s earliest factory in continuous operation. As it covers an entire block along on the banks of the Seine, just across from the Louvre, between the Pont Neuf and the Pont des Arts, this 18th-century architectural masterpiece isn’t exactly a wallflower.
Although it’s been open to visitors for years, until triple Michelin-starred chef Guy Savoy reopened his eponymously-named restaurant there this May, few among the general public knew of ‘La Monnaie’ – the Paris mint – and an even lower number had ever stepped through its magnificent doors. That’s about to change as, with the inauguration of ‘MétaLmorphoses’– an ambitious, €70m plan – La Monnaie is poised to become a major attraction, for Parisians and tourists.
It’s hoped that the six-year project, which commenced in 2011, restores this august institution at the very heart of Paris to its rightful stature. By the end of 2016, La Monnaie will have been transformed into a major creative, dining, shopping and leisure centre, with over 1,000sqm of gardens and outdoor space, a museum, a contemporary arts space, a gastronomic café – also by Guy Savoy – a concept store and high-end retail units. La Monnaie will also offer tours around some of its 150, newly-restored production workshops.
An Ancient Institution
La Monnaie was officially founded in Paris during 864AD, by Charles the Bald, a grandson of Charlemagne, in a bid to centralise and gain control of France’s currency. Eight other mints were established in the provinces under Charles’s edict, but the one in Paris, which was situated on the Rue des Cerfs (now the Rue de la Monnaie, in the 6th arrondissement) emerged as the pre-eminent manufacture from the 15th to the 18th centuries, under the Ancien Régime. Much in need of space to install state-of-the-art minting equipment from Germany and elsewhere, Louis XV resolved to build a new facility on an immense, strategically important, three-acre plot along the Seine which he’d wrested from the city.
In the late 1760s, the King commissioned the architect Jacques-Denis Antoine, who designed a beautifully proportioned Neoclassical building that spanned the entire quay. The Prince de Conti once occupied the enormous plot, which contained a large mansion facing the quay and a smaller townhouse, Le Petit Hôtel de Conti, which was once so admired by Louis XIV that he hired its architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart, to design several additions to Versailles. Antoine ordered that the larger building be demolished but had the good sense to preserve the townhouse, which is the centrepiece of La Monnaie’s current renovations.
The King’s new mint, completed in 1775, was considered Antoine’s masterpiece and marked a turning point in Western architectural style. Some two decades after its opening, during the Revolution, the mint came under the control of the Ministry of Finance and was merged with the Monnaie des Médailles, which manufactured small coins, decorations and medals. In 1870, France had only three operational mints (in Bordeaux, Paris and Strasbourg) and by 1878, La Monnaie de Paris was the sole facility.
In 1973, the production of French currency was transferred to La Monnaie’s modern facilities in Pessac, near Bordeaux, leaving the Paris manufacture to the crafting of commemorative coins, medals and jewellery. Some may see La Monnaie’s current mandate as being less exalted, but the French government considers its restoration of utmost importance, in order to “preserve, protect, restore and present to the public its historic collections and to promote the historic architectural heritage”, and to pass down its “artistic and technical expertise”.
Paris’s Newest Cultural Centre
Unfolding out of view, behind La Monnaie’s elegant facade, the MétaLmorphoses project is still largely ‘under the radar’. Yet this multifaceted initiative’s more visible – and daring – aspects have already created a stir, one which started with an installation by the Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy that opened late last year.
McCarthy’s installation, which was entitled The Chocolate Factory, commandeered the historic institution’s ornate Grand Salon Dupré and enlisted dozens of ‘workers’ to fabricate 10,000 devilish Santa figurines, which were stacked upon shelves in the exhibition space’s nine rooms with videos playing in the background. An overt reference to the building’s function, McCarthy’s chocolate Santas were on sale for €40 apiece, a bargain for an ‘edition’ by an artist of his stature. The show attracted important recognition and a surge of visitors, who viewed the renovated rooms for the first time.
Chiara Parisi, the Director of Cultural Programming, plans to stage four exhibitions per year by leading international artists. Her line-up for 2015 is impressive, as it features an exhibition of work by the late Marcel Broodthaers, which closed in April, plus shows by Tatiana Trouvé, Thomas Schütte and Chris Burden. Parisi’s objective to transform La Monnaie de Paris into “an economic and cultural model for the 21st century” is far-reaching and involves harnessing the creative talents of the 150 artisans working inside the institution and, each year, inviting a contemporary artist to work at the factories in Paris and Pessac, in order to produce a coin that will be put into general circulation.
A Gastronomic Destination
Atop La Monnaie’s grand, red-carpeted staircase lie the new premises of one of the most revered names in French dining. In 2009, when triple Michelin-starred chef Guy Savoy was shown the space, it was love at first sight. He made a snap decision to leave his premises of 28 years and set up here, little knowing that it would take six years to realise his dream – by all accounts, it was well worth the wait.
Savoy worked closely with his friend Jean-Michel Wilmotte, one of three architects overseeing the MétaLmorphoses project – the others are Philippe Prost and Hervé Baptiste – to highlight the extraordinary rooms’ spectacular river views.
“We’re in an apartment in the heart of an hôtel particulier,” Savoy says. “I wanted to maintain the rhythm of the rooms, the high ceilings, the distribution of volume.”
With no more than a few tables in each of the restaurant’s six rooms, the impression is of being a guest in a supremely elegant Paris apartment. Matte grey walls and stark white linens provide an austere backdrop for contemporary artworks, and towering windows frame the Seine. Virginia Mo’s lively, Miro-esque dining plates, designed exclusively for the restaurant and handmade in her Paris atelier, provide dabs of primary colour. Savoy and Wilmotte took care to create a space that befits France’s oldest institution, one which works in harmony with its overarching cultural theme. However, everything is at the service of Savoy’s ravishing cuisine – each dish is as bewitching to look at as it is to eat.
A Museum Transformed
In 1833, the first coin museum opened at La Monnaie, which allowed the ‘manufacture’ to showcase its expertise to Europe’s other royal courts. The Musée de la Monnaie de Paris was significantly enriched in 1988, by the addition of an important collection of coins, medals, historic tools and equipment, and artworks representing 12 centuries of craft.
Closed for restoration in 2010, the museum will reopen sometime after 2016, when its 140,000-strong collection will feature some spectacular new additions, including the Rue Mouffetard horde, a stash of several thousand Louis d’or gold coins discovered rolled in a parchment; the Hue treasure, seized by Napoléon III’s troops in Indochina; and the Slot Ter Hoodge riches, recovered from a Dutch shipwreck of 1724.
Next year will see La Monnaie de Paris’s full public rebirth – the transformation wrought by the MétaLmorphoses project is scheduled to be revealed in stages over the course of 2016. Although the Musée de la Monnaie will be the last section to open, it will give visitors a glimpse of the manufacture’s collections via an “experiential circuit”, which is set to cover the entire facility. This tour promises to provide an overview of the building’s tremendous architecture and its metal-works, includes the foundry and raw materials rooms, and the ateliers responsible for jewellery, decorations, medals, coin-making and engraving.
Visitors will end up in La Monnaie’s spectacular new boutique, where goodies on offer are set to include commemorative French coins, including designs by artistic advisor Christian Lacroix; a huge range of French decorations; sculptures; and a selection of jewellery, ranging from small ‘Petit Prince’ medallions to elegant gold-link necklaces. Afterwards, visitors will be able to enjoy lunch on the garden terrace of Savoy’s MétaLcafé, wander the gardens and shop in a splendid courtyard, complete with a reflecting pool and two atriums.
Given its proximity to the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, Notre-Dame and the myriad attractions of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, it’s only a matter of time before this treasure that’s ‘hidden in plain sight’ becomes the toast of Paris.
From France Today magazine
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