Here’s my guide to visiting Les Deux Plateau, nicknamed the Colonnes de Buren, at the Palais Royal in Paris’ first arrondissement. The Colonnes are a controversial candy striped art installation by Conceptual artist Daniel Buren. The ultra modern art is a glaring contrast to the historic elegance of the Palais Royal, though I love the daring duality.
The Colonnes de Buren sit, somewhat antagonistically, in a courtyard of the elegant Palais Royal. The Colonnes are a bit of a Paris hidden gem, though some fashionistas have discovered them. The Colonnes are just steps away from the throngs of tourists swamping the Louvre and taking selfies by the I.M. Pei pyramid. If you prefer wide open space, come here instead.
The Setting: Palais Royal
The Palais Royal was built in 1633-39 by French architect Jacques Lemercier. Initially, it was the personal residence of Cardinal Richelieu, the evil trickster from Alexandre Dumas‘ The Three Musketeers. It’s since been the venue for centuries worth of Parisian history.
After Richelieu’s death in 1642, the Palais was bequeathed to King Louis XIII. Thereafter, it was called “Palais Royal” instead of “Palais Cardinal.” The following year, the King died, leaving the Palace to the Queen Mother. She lived there with her children. One son would become the future king of France, the vaunted Sun King Louis XIV.
The Palais Royal thereafter became the main residence of the House of Orléans. Grand parties were hosted. In the 1780s, Louis-Philippe d’Orleans significantly redeveloped the palace gardens. Columns and arcaded passages were installed to border and enclose the gardens. In 1784, 145 boutiques were added and it became a public shopping place.
Now, the arcades are home to some of the most upscale shopping boutiques in Paris. And one of Paris’ best coffee shops, Café Kitsuné.
The palace itself houses the Constitutional Council and Ministry of Culture among other things. It’s closed to the public. But the elegant Palais Royal Gardens are free to visit and usually open during daylight hours.
The tranquil gardens are the perfect spot to linger, picnic, or settle down with a good novel. In a city where green space can be scarce, there are plenty of trees, roses, and even some grass. When you’re feeling sufficiently peaceful from the garden or sated with good coffee, stroll into the palace courtyard for some artistic stimulation.
Colonnes de Buren: Contemporary Art in a Royal Palace
The Colonnes were initially controversial, deliberately presenting a stark contrast to the classically designed French palace. The installation is a walk in structure of 260 black and white candy striped columns of varying heights arranged in a dizzying array of monochromatic swirls.
The columns are made of white Carrara marble from Italy and black marble from the French Pyrénées. The base of the columns go down into the basement of the courtyard and rise up to the ground level, symbolically linking the underground and street level of Paris.
The Colonnes cut a striking image in the stone courtyard. They were created for a functional purpose — to disguise ventilation shafts for an underground extension of the culture ministry’s premises.
But with function, came art. Buren intends his work to be critical of the hierarchies of power and museumifying. He likes it to disrupt revered public spaces. I loved the subversive intent.
To me, it has the suggestion of a modern Stonehenge or a modern take on an ancient architectural arrangement. The piece is a study in contrasts — stark black and white colors, old and new, simple and baroque, different heights.
When the installation was unveiled, in typical fashion, Parisians gave the Colonnes a poor reception. As they do with every artistic or architectural version of “old meets new.” It’s always the same dance in Paris — initial repulsion and controversy and then eventually an embrace of the city’s très chic avant garde nature. Right now, that’s happening with the rebuild of the venerable Notre Dame.
During the Colonnes’ design and installation, intense debates ensued about the suitability of integrating contemporary art with historic landmarks. It was called a “rude gesture,” an “intellectual absurdity,” a classless “chessboard” and “licorice sticks.” The debate was similar to those over the Louvre’s I.M. Pei Pyramid, the Centre Pompidou, and myriad other sites.
Petitions were launched to attempt to halt or destroy the installation. Graffiti desecrated the site. Left and right wing factions battled. Mitterand demanded that the project proceed as planned. In the end, he won and the art work was installed.
The Colonnes quickly became popular among strolling Parisians, skateboarders, Instagrammers, and nearly everyone really. The space seems alive. People liked climbing on the columns, which you’re permitted to do. And the artist didn’t mind the familiarity. Buren said:
“Since the very beginning, I was delighted and interested to see people coming. They’re still there, they talk, meet up, children make up games. It’s a great pleasure to me.”
The Colonnes have long since settled into their courtyard venue. The installation, like Paris’ other once controversial grand projects, has now been accepted as an invaluable addition to the cultural glories of the French capital. Indeed, Buren himself is known as “La France” in the international art world.
In recent years, the Colonnes fell into disrepair. Buren lodged allegations of neglect and threatened to demand the Colonnes’ destruction if they weren’t repaired, as was his right as the artist. Paris complied. In 2010, the Colonnes received a much needed 6 million euro facelift.
Today, the Colonnes are still free to visit. It’s considered good luck to toss coins into the pools of water that form at the base of the columns.
So the next time you’re at the Louvre, head over to the Palais Royal for some scintillating and photogenic art and a languorous lounge in the beautiful garden. You won’t regret it. And you may even get an Instagrammable photo.