The CNIT, a Cathedral for the Space Age

If a monument should be remembered for post-war France, it has to be the CNIT. The forefather of all of la Défense’s buildings was made years before the Business District fate of the hill was decided, back in the 50s. Inaugurated by President René Coty in 1958, the world’s most impressing concrete vault broke all records. An incredibly thin concrete roof covers the area of Concorde square, resting on only three points, took the breath of press away. This Space Age fan vault triggered the most enthusiastic comments « a monument to Faith » for Le Monde, « the world’s most beautiful vault » for Le Figaro… and to André Malraux, writer and minister of Culture: « Since the great Gothic cathedral, nothing like this had never been done… »

If the first decade will meet the expectation, where the CNIT will host some the world’s largest convention, replacing the Grand Palais as Paris’s most incredible venue, the 70s will litterally make the building sink. After celebrating an ode to Consumer Society with Mecanelec and les Arts Ménagers or the art of flowers with the Floralies Internationales -opened in 1959 by General de Gaulle and the Queen Mother of England, and an incredible midnight mass of 100 000 people with Charles Trenet and Duke Ellington in 1960, the new cathedral will slowly fall in oblivion. New convention venues, like the Porte de Versailles or Villepinte convention centers, will take the conventions away. And even more, as the construction of the Business District went on, following Le Corbusier’s principles of segregation between pedestrians and transportation, the « Dalle » was built in order to separate cars from people, swallowing the first floor of the CNIT.

A rather poor adaptation followed in the 80s, with offices and a luxury hotel with very low ceilings, until the new owner of the CNIT, Unibail-Rodamco, decided to restore again the building, breaking the cement ground that had been eating it and giving it back its original room. Inside, a brand new organization allows offiices and shops -including FNAC- in a clear, full of light environment. And suddenly, the incredibly large fan vault appeared again.

Today, the CNIT is part of La Défense landscape just like Notre-Dame belongs to the Paris skyline, and thousands of salarymen walk around or in its shops ignoring its huge architectural endeaviour, yet feeling the exception in the architecture… Will you feel it?