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Musée d’Orsay

Musée d’Orsay

Structure Information

Gare d’Orsay, Paris, France, 1900                                                    Musee d’Orsay, Paris, 1986

Figure 1. Gare d’Orsay [1]

Figure 2. Musee d’Orsay









In 1900, Gare d’Orsay was built as a new central railway station for the World’s Fair in Paris [2]. The new station, and its integrated hotel, needed to blend in with its architectural surroundings [2]. Three architects, Lucien Magne, Emile Bénard and Victor Laloux, were consulted by the owners, the Orleans railroad company, who chose Laloux’s design in 1898 [2]. With changing times, the station served many purposes and in 1975, it was proposed to be renovated into a museum [2]. The new museum would serve as a connection between the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art [8]. ACT Architecture transformed the station into the museum it is today with interior design by Gae Aulenti and financial support from the French government [2]. As mentioned previously, the Orleans railroad company was the original owner and funded the original construction [2].

Historical Significance

Because of its need to blend in with its surroundings, the station has a Baroque style façade, incasing its use of the modern materials, glass and iron [3]. The station shows Laloux’s use of cast-iron arches that allowed for larger openings and a glass façade [4]. This use of cast-iron was innovative for its time.

The renovation of the station to a museum was unique because the original roof was kept intact [5]. Keeping the roof when renovating is rare because the roof is more susceptible to damage from moisture and sun [5]. Because the roof was kept, modifications had to be made to the construction techniques that would have been used. One of the major changes was using smaller, more compact equipment instead of a tower crane [5]. In addition to equipment constraints, it was important to make sure the construction did not cause vibrations.

The Gare d’Orsay was a model for Penn Station in New York [6]. The president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Alexander Cassatt, was inspired by the station when he traveled to Paris in 1901 [6]. Penn Station was built in 1910.

Gare d’Orsay’s architect, Laloux, was also a professor. One of his students was William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building [4]. While Laloux’s Gare d’Orsay may have been the model for only one structure, his teachings contributed to a world-known skyscraper.

Cultural Significance

Originally on the site of d’Orsay was the Palais d’Orsay, completed in 1838 [7]. It was the home of the Court of Accounts and the State Council [7]. In the Paris Commune of 1871, a revolt against the government, the Palais d’Orsay was burned to the ground [7].

As mentioned previously, Gare d’Orsay was built in anticipation of the World’s Fair in 1900, but by 1939, the platforms were too short to accomodate for the modern, longer trains and the station only provided serve to the suburbs [7]. After 1939, the station served as a mailing center for packages going to prisoners of war during World War II [7]. By 1958, the station was no longer in operation [7]. The rail station’s hotel shutdown in 1973 [7]. The hotel is historically significant because it was the location of General Charles de Gaulle’s press conference that announced his return to power in 1958 [7].

By 1973, the Directorate of the Museums of France was considering converting the station to a museum [8]. There were also plans to demolish the building and build a hotel in its place, but the station’s architect led it to be added to the Supplementary Inventory of Historical Monuments in March 1973 and classified as a Historical Monument in 1978 [7]. In 1986, the museum was inaugurated by President Francois Mitterrand [7].

In 1900, the painter, Edouard Detaille, wrote “the station is superb and looks like a Palais des beaux-arts…” [7] At the time, the station was considered beautiful. Today, it is perceived the same way. While the station is home to the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, reviews from TripAdvisor show that the conversion of the old rail station into a museum is what impresses everyone. Even the people crazy enough to give the museum a 1 star review compliment the building’s architecture! Musee d’Orsay provides a unique museum experience because of the preservation of its rail station history.

Structural Art

Structural art demonstrates efficiency, economy, and elegance. If the structure’s load path can be seen, the structure is efficient. In Musee d’Orsay, the load path can be seen relatively clearly on the inside but is hidden by a stone façade on the outside. Even on the inside, the walls are decorated with ornamentations that only add to the building’s architecture. These added decorations reduce the efficiency and economy. The building used 12,000 tons of metal in its construction, which is more than was used in the Eiffel Tower [8]. In addition to the original building lacking economy, the renovations were 3 years behind schedule and millions of francs over budget [7]. Based on the positive public opinion of the building, it can be said the building has elegance. However, a lot of this “elegance” is from architectural ornamentation, rather than the beauty of the structure itself. While the building is beautiful, it is not considered structural art.

Figure 3. Outside of Musee d’Orsay

Structural Analysis

Figure 4. Construction of stone façade [10]

Laloux’s design for the building stemmed primarily from the need to create a rail station that would serve the future while blending in with its historical surroundings. Thus, the glass and iron arches of the main hall are covered by a stone façade. Stone structures were added to the building’s interior to help create the museum’s atmosphere [9]. These structures hold their own weight. While the construction process is unknown, assumptions can be made from construction pictures. The stone façade was constructed using scaffolding before the arches were built. Next, the arches, interior façade, and glass were all added. For the renovation, scaffolding was installed throughout the building to gain access to the high roof. Figure 6 shows the arch construction.


Figure 5. Renovation [10]

Figure 6. Arch construction






The structural system of the building is a cylindrical arch system. Most of the loads on the structure are carried by its arch system.

Figure 7. Exterior Load Path

Figure 8. Cross Section Load Path

The structure carries load by transferring self weight to the arches which transfer load to the ground. In cases where there are no arches, the weight is transferred to columns. The cross sectional arches connect to the outside arches at their supports. Horizontal iron members connect the cross sectional arches and provide bracing. Each end arch in the main hall has interior beams and columns that provide extra support and bracing.

To analyze the structure, I am going to focus on the three arches over the building’s cross section. The building is 75 meters wide and 180 meters long while the main hall is 40 meters wide and 32 meters tall [2]. The whole building has 12,000 tons of iron and 35,000 square meters of glass [2]. Assuming the glass is 10 millimeters thick, the glass weighs 25 kg per square meter [11]. The density of iron is around 7400 kg/m3  and has an approximate diameter of 15 mm [12]. Limestone has a density of around 165 kg/m3. When the densities were converted to line loads, they were also converted from kilograms to newtons, and then to kilonewtons because of their magnitude. With a width of 10 m and an approximate thickness of 0.5 meters, the distributed load of the stone is 8.085 kN/m. The building has 8 main arches with smaller arches in between. Each main arch is around 10 meters wide and the span between each main arch is around 20 meters. Figure 9 shows the tributary areas of the arches. The white areas show the main arches. Each tributary area will be used to determine the weight of glass and iron acting on each arch.

Figure 9. Tributary Areas for the main arches

Using the above data and approximations, arches 1 and 8 have a distributed load of 10.66 kN/m. The other arches have a distributed load of 13.24 kN/m. The following diagrams and calculations were used to determine the force in each column due to the arches. Summing the forces in the x direction and y direction confirm that the forces in all of the arches balance out.

Figure 10. Forces in arches 1 and 8

Figure 11. Forces in arches 2-7

Figure 12. Calculations

Gare d’Orsay was a design competition won by Victor Laloux. He had recently completed a rail station and hotel in Tours and was able to successfully integrate the building with its surroundings [7]. Laloux would have used blueprints like the one in Figure 13 to explain his idea to the Orleans rail company.

Figure 13. Gare d’Orsay blueprint [10]

ACT Architecture was chosen to renovate the station by the French president, out of six proposals submitted [7]. ACT Architect used models like the one shown in Figure 14 to explain how renovations would work around the existing building. Figure 15 may have been a cross section used to explain how art would be laid out throughout the museum.

Figure 14. Museum model [10]

Figure 15. Museum layout schematic [10]

Gae Aulenti, the museum’s interior designer, was also an integral part of the renovation. Figure 16 shows a schematic of a cross section of the museum’s interior design.

Figure 16. Museum interior design [10]

Personal Response

The first time I visited the Musee d’Orsay, I was overwhelmed by the amount of beauty contained in one building. While the paintings and sculptures were impressive, I spent a good portion of my time admiring the soaring arches that rose above me. When I needed a break from looking at paintings, I had the enormous structure to dazzle me. Visiting the museum a second time only renewed my love for the structure.