The Paris Mint, located on the banks of the Seine, is one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in the French capital. Built from 1767 to 1775 and designed by Jacques-Denis Antoine, the Hôtel des Monnaies remains one of the most vivid images of the Parisian landscape.
Dominated by a 117-metre façade, the site comprises of a palace, the 11 Conti museum and boutique exhibition areas, workshop space and a gastronomic restaurant presided over by Michelin-starred chef, Guy Savoy.
Since 1976, the activities of the Mint – the oldest French institution, founded in the ninth century by Charles II – have been split between two locations, the historic Hôtel des Monnaies which produces works of art, medals, decorations and coins made of precious metals, and Pessac in the Gironde, where current Euros are produced at a rate of nine million a day.
In 2009, the Hôtel des Monnaies site underwent a redesign, with architect Philippe Prost winning a competition launched by the Paris Mint to find a project manager. The aim of this project was to remove the Paris Mint from its isolation within the Parisian landscape, and to place it in the constantly moving narrative of the 21st Century. As such, the Mint became a hybrid project, halfway between the renovation of a historic landmark, and the restructuring of a block in a working-class district of Paris.
“This project of restoration and reorganisation poses challenges at multiple levels,” said Prost. “Not just the urban, architectural or landscape level, but also industrial, economic and cultural, and beyond that at a symbolic level.”
Despite the many different aspects of the restoration, it was important for Prost to see the site as a whole, rather than a myriad of parts, and to treat the location, steeped in history, with the respect that it deserved.
“Respect and determination is ultimately how Philippe Prost has envisaged his work here,” said Aurélien Rousseau, President and General Director of the Paris Mint. “Respect for the work of Jaques-Denis Antoine whom, like us, he is keen to rediscover, respect for the industrial processes present on the site, respect for the desire of the site’s owner to open up this unique place without losing its essence. In short, respect for the place’s memories.”
In opening up the Mint to the public, the intention was to make it more of a cultural site, giving visitors the opportunity to rediscover the site of the Mint itself, while lending an additional legitimacy to the trades that have been practised there since its origin some 250 years ago.
The idea of making this historic monument more accessible is related to its remarkable architectural quality, to its history and to its strategic location – 1.2 hectares within the heart of the sixth arrondissement.
For this grand ‘restoration and reorganisation’ project, in particular the development of the 11 Conti museum and exhibition areas, Prost selected Virgine Nicolas and Benoît Deseille of French practice Hi Lighting Design, incorporating their lighting design skills into the design team.
This design team, Deseille explained, was comprised of many different skillsets, from multimedia and exhibition design, to graphic and lighting design. “Led by the architects, the design process and the synergy of the team has been very beneficial to the project,” he said.
In the 11 Conti museum, the brief was to provide a sensory experience to visitors, incorporating an architectural exploration through the heart of the Paris Mint. Moving from exhibition spaces to workshops on a “voyage across centuries and continents”, visitors discover the museum’s collections and treasures, such as the technical know-how contained in the workshops where each day artisans and labourers practise the craft of transforming metal.
This journey is punctuated by a succession of sensory experiences: the sight of minerals glistening in the darkness, the sound of coins being struck, and the physical contact with machinery.
Starting from the Benjamin Franklin Court, the visitors’ experience begins on the ground floor of the foundry, where the glow of molten metals invite them up the stone staircase to the second floor. Deseille and Nicolas installed a long custom-made pendant luminaire from Lenoir Service to express this molten glow, while the walls around were dressed in metal panels of steel, copper and brass.
“The initial idea of the project was to offer a sensory experience to visitors and the way the lighting participates to this ambition varies along the journey and in the different spaces,” Deseille said.
“To ensure the continuity of this experience, the transition spaces like stairs were an opportunity to create immersive moments with light.”
Once at the top of the staircase, visitors are plunged into the darkness of the Materials Room where, as if in the gallery of a mine, all the minerals and materials used in the manufacture of coins and medals – gold, silver, bronze, copper, pewter, platinum, nickel and iron – are exposed.
Moving from darkness into light, the visitors’ next encounter with the various metals is in the white room of the laboratory. A walkway that bridges one façade to the other allows visitors to see the workshops and discover the process of chasing and burnishing, before rejoining the manufactory – the walls of which are shaped like a great ship, intended to be a “Noah’s ark of tools and knowledge”.
Old coin making materials feature throughout the museum, creating a blend of modern and traditional textures and aesthetics. Another staircase in the oval of an old cistern winds around a barrel dressed in embossed and perforated boards while in the Functions and Uses room, two monumental right angled display cases mirror the pattern of the ceiling mouldings.
Deseille believes the attention to detail from the architect serves the combination of historic and modern architecture well.
“Heritage is one of the multiple domains of the architect Philippe Prost, and the philosophy he developed offers a sort of guideline on how the contemporary elements can complete the historical architecture.”
The journey through the museum culminates in a room dedicated to the art of the collection, where medal cabinets, paintings and busts are displayed, all illuminated by three huge cones of burnished steel and brass alongside Concord’s Beacon fittings.
Finally, an open door invites guests into the ‘Strong Room’ – a square-shaped room clad in aluminium, where the finest treasures of the museum are displayed in open chests.
Following on from the museum, the new Boutique of the Paris Mint is composed of a suite of rooms all different from each other, ceilinged or vaulted, vertical or horizontal, lit by natural or artificial light, all designed and decorated as though it were an art gallery for showcasing the productions of the Mint, which marry knowledge, creativity and excellence.
“The transformation of the site at 11 Conti has provided an exceptional space for the new boutique, and given these artistic products the backdrop that they deserve,” said Claude Griffin, Director of Marketing and Development at the Paris Mint.
“The goal was to showcase the creativity of our master engravers and the excellence of their creations by literally shining a light on their products in order to show the finesse of the engraving, the creativity of the design and the refinement of the materials used.”
The boutique takes advantage of the natural light on offer, with the first room featuring a seventeen metre high skylight amplified by four white shutters, which form a hood, bathing the room in a soft light. Elsewhere, the last space is illuminated by natural light from the court de la Méridienne, lighting up the room of jewels and casts.
Opened in September of 2017, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of the Hôtel des Monnaies, the new 11 Conti museum and exhibition space pays loving tribute to the history of the Paris Mint.
The lighting design from Deseille and Nicolas complements the building’s beautiful architecture and the intricate artefacts on display without overshadowing either. Instead it adds to the sensory atmosphere that Prost sought to implement, creating a truly memorable experience.