The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration is a thorny project. Initiated by President Jacques Chirac and completed under his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, it is a testament to the enduring and unsettling relationship France has to its colonial past and subsequent immigration policies. The museum’s official mission as articulated by Chirac at the conceptual inception was to “contribute to the recognition of the integration of immigrants into French society”. It would occupy the Palais de la Porte Dorée, formerly the home of the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes.

Ironically, the original building was constructed in 1931 for the international exhibition with the express intention of representing the French Empire’s colonial scope and prowess. With its plan inspired by Moroccan palaces, the central hall an ecstatic surplus of ionic pillars, tapestried façade cataloging all of the products provided to France in geographic order, and interior frescos illuminating visitors of all the remunerations France generously offered its subjects, in its historical context, the Palais de la Porte Dorée hit all the right notes and was one of the only building to survive demolition after the exhibition was over.

The challenge, naturally, in designing the new Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration on the bones of the Palais de la Porte Dorée was to rework the uncomfortable historical qualities of the site with sufficient innovation, sensitivity and sardonic wit. Consequently, Patrick Bouchain and Loïc Julienne were commissioned to engage the project.

At the completed Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration we see their strategy of minimal intervention played out to its fullest. Rather that memorialize the difficult implications of the original structure, they leave it virtually untouched — electing to intervene strategically as they augment transparency, rework lighting and circulation, and bring the building up to standard code. The cheeky illusion of utility, allows the architects to undermine the affected, authoritarian qualities of the original building as they inserted public spaces for gathering, dialogue and exhibition.

In addition to the political intricacy of the projected program, the building’s classification as a national monument added to the difficulty of deconstructing its supercilious urban posture. Given the pressures to preserve the building’s proper face, perhaps Bouchain and Julienne’s intervention was only partially realized, with the temple mound entry left untouched. Once inside, however, occupation feels unrestricted.

– Anya Sirota