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Let us assure you

Architecture can often find itself in service of a message: this institution is trustworthy or forward-thinking; that individual or company is powerful; here is a world you want to buy into. This topic looks at examples of the built environment as a kind of public relations strategy. In unpacking the ways that architecture—and, equally importantly, representations of it—lays claims and exerts influence, we might better understand the versions of reality that architecture proposes to us.

Article 4 of 16

The Political Life of a Building

An illustrated biography of the Panthéon

For nearly a century, the church of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris, also known as the Panthéon, was a site for attempts to impose differing ideals and to recast French history. This chronology presents some of those efforts.

Major political events are set in green.

1744
At Metz, Louis XV vows to rebuild the ancient abbey church of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris
1748
Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle ends the War of the Austrian Succession
1755
Jacques-Germain Soufflot takes charge of design and construction
1756
Beginning of construction

Seven Years’ War begins

Jacques Germain Soufflot. Église Sainte-Geneviève: longitudinal section, c. 1755. DR1975:0002

Jérôme Charles Bellicard, engraver. Jacques Germain Soufflot, architect. Perspective view of the projected church of Sainte-Geneviève showing Église Saint-Étienne-du-Mont in the background, 1757. DR1987:0071:006

1763
Completion of the crypt
1764
Louis XV lays cornerstone of the new church in front of a full-scale canvas replica of the portico-to-be created by the painter De Machy
1770
Pierre Patte launches his polemic against the stability of the building’s dome and its daringly light design
1774
Accession of Louis XVI
1775
Completion of portico
1780
Death of Soufflot; Brébion, Rondelet, and Soufflot le Romain continue the work

Gabriel Pierre Martin Dumont, etcher. Jacques Germain Soufflot, architect. Église Sainte-Geneviève, Paris: cross-section, profile, and detail of the armature of part of the pediment, 1781. DR1984:1607

1789
First incidents of the Revolution
1790
Rondelet completes the dome
1791
Death of Count Mirabeau, 2 April

The Constituent Assembly consecrates the new Church of Sainte-Geneviève to the remains of the Great Men of the Homeland; Panthéon as such is born, 4 April

Louis XVI arrested in flight at Varennes, 21 June

The sculptor and theorist Quatremère De Quincy appointed official architect charged with converting the building from church to temple, 19 July
1792
Mob attack on the Tuileries Palace, 10 August

Fall of Louis XVI and the monarchy, 21 September

Proclamation of First Republic
1794
De Quincy imprisoned in the Madelonnettes, 2 March

Fall of Robespierre, 27 July

Transfer of Marat’s remains to the Panthéon, and expulsion of Mirabeau’s, 21 September

Transfer of Rousseau’s remains to the Panthéon, 11 October

1796
Stability of building again called into question; creation of special committee to study the problem

Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart. Project for the decoration of the Panthéon: transverse section, 1796. DR1988:0268

Plate 24: The Panthéon : plan for the restoration of the Piers of the Dome, showing Charles-François Viel’s proposed reinforcement of Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s original piers according to traditional proportions, in Principes de l’ordonnance et de la construction des batimens. W8155

1801
Napoleon, First Consul, concludes Concordat with Pope Pius VII
1804
Proclamation of First Empire; accession of Napoleon I
1806
Imperial decree defines new status of building, with nave as church and crypt as secular pantheon for Great Men, 20 February

Competition to complete the Madeleine as a “Temple de la Gloire”

Louis-Pierre Baltard. Plan showing projected alterations to site and church of Sainte-Geneviève, 1809. DR1964:0004:002

Louis-Pierre Baltard. Perspective and plan showing proposed alterations to the church of Sainte-Geneviève, c. 1813. DR1964:0004:003

1814
Abdication of Napoleon I; accession of Bourbon Louis XVIII
1815
Flight of Louis XVIII

Napoleon’s Hundred Days

Abdication of Napoleon after Waterloo, 22 June

Return of Louis XVIII
1816
Decree of Louis XVIII ordering reconsecration of Sainte-Geneviève, 12 April
1821
Quélen, archbishop of Paris, successfully demands control of the building; tombs of Voltaire and Rousseau secretly transferred to the portico
1822
Formal reconsecration of Sainte-Geneviève as a church, 21 January

Louis-Pierre Baltard. Proposal for new frieze, church of Sainte-Geneviève, 1823. DR1984:1587

1824
Accession of Bourbon Charles X
1829
Transfer of Soufflot’s remains to the crypt, 25 February
1830
July Revolution, 27–30 July

Accession of the duke of Orléans, Louis-Philippe, as king of the French
1830
Royal decree, 26 August: Sainte-Geneviève “shall be rededicated to its original and legitimate purpose”—that is, to the secular commemoration of Great Men, becoming the Panthéon again in the process

Alphonse Poitevin, photographer. View of the Panthéon, 1842. PH1986:0377

1848
February Revolution; fall of Louis-Philippe; proclamation of Second Republic, 22–25 February

Chenavard commissioned to decorate the building with a mural cycle on the History of Humanity, April

June insurrection, and its suppression by General Cavaignac, 23–26 June

Election of Louis Napoleon to the presidency, 10 December
1851
Foucault’s pendulum installed under the dome, 19 February–1 December

President Prince Louis Napoleon decrees that the Panthéon is to be returned to its religious function

Coup d’état by Louis Napoleon, 2 December
1852
Proclamation of Second Empire, 2 December; accession of Louis Napoleon as Napoleon III
1853
Ceremony inaugurating the new Sainte-Geneviève; transfer of “relics” of Paris’s patron saint to the church, 21 January

Charles Soulier, photographer. View from right bank at the Tour Saint-Jacques including Notre-Dame, Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, and the Panthéon, Paris, c. 1852–1853. PH1981:0557

Édouard Baldus, photographer. Le Panthéon, c. 1860. PH1983:0199:013

Unknown photographer. View of the Panthéon, c. 1870. PH1979:0168:019

1870
Franco-Prussian War begins, 19 July

Fall of Napoleon III, 4 September

Seige of Paris begins, 19 September
1871
Occupation of Sainte-Geneviève by forces of the Commune

Suppression of the Commune

Charles Marville, photographer. View of the facade of the Panthéon being repaired, c. 1871. PH1979:0108

1873
Proclamation of the Third Republic; Marshal MacMahon elected to the presidency
1874
Large-scale mural decorations designed and executed by leading artists through end of century
1875
Paris Municipal Council demands reestablishment of Sainte-Geneviève as a secular pantheon
1879
National Assembly elections: Raspail launches campaign for secularization of the church
1885
Death of “national poet” Victor Hugo

For last time, Sainte-Geneviève secularized as the Panthéon and receives Hugo’s remains
1902
Flammarion’s recreation of Foucault’s experiment (see 1851)
1913
Beginning of a new sculptural program in the choir and nave
1985
Beginning of restoration work on the Panthéon under direction of Hervé Baptiste, architect-in-chief for the Monuments Historiques de France

This chronology was adapted from a guide to our exhibition Le Panthéon: Symbol of Revolution, which we co-organized with the Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites de France in 1989. Many of the drawings and photographs shown here appeared in the exhibition.

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