Corey Frye, also known as “A French Frye in Paris,” spends much of his days pounding the cobblestones in Paris as he leads tours around the city. Along the way, he spots wonderful panoramas, cafés, historic sites, and more. These “Paris Moments” he shares with Bonjour Paris readers in a column featuring the Photo of the Month. (View past editions here.) Enjoy!
The Opéra Garnier is considered the anchor of what they call Haussmannian Paris, that Paris we love of balconied boulevards and white-knuckle traffic circles. Like many passers-by I’ve photographed my fair share of the facade, though always quite traditionally if I’m honest. So when I stepped up from the metro into the November fog and saw this composition, I had to look twice.
This building makes me smile inside. And not just for the glorious Frenchness of it all but because it tells a great underdog story. In 1861, as the U.S. braced for civil war, Emperor Napoléon III held a contest to decide which architect would design his new temple to the arts. Proposals flooded in, reaching a total of 171, and they were strictly anonymous so favorites couldn’t be played.
Surely one of the more established upper class architects would take the prize but no! — the winner was Charles Garnier, an unknown and rather scruffy 35 year-old, whose previous architectural resume had equaled one single apartment building.
You gotta love Garnier: he was such a long shot that when he won he didn’t even have his own architecture firm to support the project. He scrambled to assemble a last-minute team of engineers and artists built largely by hitting up his former art school buddies.
Why did his proposal win? They say it was the most meticulously detailed plan of all time. Middle-aged Garnier, who wasn’t even a blip on the artistic radar of Europe, somehow imagined in his head a completed masterpiece of a theater: he had contemplated the colors of each marble column, the themes of the mosaic frescoes, and even the internal workings of the stage mechanisms. It’s almost as if he’d been saving up his genius for 35 years and when the universe opened up to him he poured it all out. I like that kind of story.
The “Palais Garnier” was finished 15 years later and was a triumph. It was the most expensive and luxurious opera house of its time and the grand opening was a spectacular affair. Politicians, dignitaries, princesses, dukes, and the Emperor himself attended. Guess who was forced to buy a ticket to attend this first show? The underdog himself.
But Garnier gets the last laugh; a century and a half later none of those dukes or princesses make me smile inside. This building does.