Musée D'Ethnographie

Musée D'Ethnographie in Paris, France by Peter Eisenman, 1999.

By showing the different ways in which people represented their faces and their bodies, and the ways they used nature and negotiated with the supernatural, the museum of humankind served to cultivate universal sensitivity and render thought on our common condition more acute. -Jean Jamin
Assuming that a museum of ethnography has as much right to be as, say, an art museum, defining the role of the former in a given culture is a difficult objective. Most of these museums transplant artifacts from ancient cultures to locations displaced from their origin, for example tools from an extinct African tribe on display in the United States. The tool or piece of art is dislocated from its original purpose and meaning, on view as an aesthetic object subject to aesthetic criticism. What can be learned from these objects in this context?

The recent competition for a new Musée D'Ethnographie on Paris' left bank near the Eiffel Tower, replaces the old museum, once at the Trocadero but since demolished. Peter Eisenman's entry (second to Jean Nouvel's) fills the bending site overlooking the Seine, creating a dialogue between the museum and the existing, adjacent structures, typical Parisian buildings. Eisenman's design meets the roof lines at either end of the site, curving in section to accommodate the different heights. Like many of his designs this is all he concedes to any contextualism with the process taking precedent over any ideal. The projects bends and warps through the site (almost an advanced Columbus Convention Center) exhibiting a life of its own, as if the final design of the end product of the building linking itself to the existing buildings.

Typical of many Eisenman projects, architectural typologies do not exist. Walls, roofs and floors all blend together, blurring any distinction between these elements. Naturally the infusion of program into his designs creates flat floor plates within the shell (the biggest weakness of Eisenman's design philosophy). Here, the ground plans becomes roof which becomes wall, all penetrated by slender, warping skylights. Inside the circulation follows the site, continuously moving the visitor around the museum in ever-changing relation to the objects exhibited. The varying sections of the roofs, coupled with the two long skylights, add a strong dynamic to the interior, helping to focus the design on the relationship between visitor and object.

Let's return to the question, "what can be learned from these objects in this context?" Part of Eisenman's design ideas, and the strongest case for this design in relation to the program, is his belief in a universal architecture. Instead of being specific to a place, his design's use mathematical equations and other means to create projects separate from, but influenced by, the site. The way the design meets the roof lines indicates a similar process. With the tools and artifacts contained within a "universal" environment, as opposed to one clearly different from the objects' origins, we may be able to look more objectively and attempt to learn how human expression in another place and time can influence every place at any time.