Outside Paris, a New Art Space Takes Flight

On the banks of a lake in Meudon Forest, southwest of the French capital, a masterpiece of Belle Epoque industrial architecture is looking to become a hub of contemporary creation.
Hangar Y, in Meudon. © Adeline Bommart

What do you get when you convert a former blimp hangar (the world’s first) into an exhibition space, combine it with a hexagonal lake designed by André Le Nôtre for the royal Meudon estate, and round it off with a sculpture park forming an artistic pathway around the water? Hangar Y – the latest must-visit destination in the Paris area, just 45 minutes by public transportation from the Eiffel Tower! The name of the site is a reference to the imposing metallic structure that was previously used as an assembly hall and storage location for dirigibles.

Inaugurated last March after three years of renovation work costing 30 million euros, this cultural space is hoping to bring in up to 150,000 visitors a year. This will be the limit, to avoid transforming the site into Disneyland while showcasing the genius of Louis XIV’s landscape gardener. However, these numbers should be enough to realize the dream of the Art Explora Foundation, which manages the estate. The organization is looking to use the 25 acres of land to achieve the appeal of both the Grand Palais and the Palais de Tokyo. The first of these Parisian institutions is currently being renovated and usually hosts the capital’s biggest exhibitions, while the second is a shrine to contemporary art in the 16th arrondissement.

The history of Hangar Y began with the 1878 Exposition Universelle. Designed to be an annex of the Galerie des Machines on the Champ-de-Mars, the building was moved the following year to the Parc de Meudon, where it housed the first airships. Measuring 230 feet long and 135 feet wide, the building in brick and iron is illuminated by large windows and stands as a testament to the industrial architecture of the second half of the 19th century. The central nave is 85 feet high – more than enough to accommodate military balloons. After World War I, the hangar became home to an air museum, which later moved to Le Bourget, and was even used as Marc Chagall’s studio! The painter moved there in 1964 to assemble the 13 panels for the new ceiling of the Opéra Garnier.

The envelope of an airship inside Hangar Y during World War I, 1916. © Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace - Le Bourget
The panels for the new ceiling of the Opéra Garnier, painted by Marc Chagall and assembled at Hangar Y, 1964. © Izis-Manuel Bidermanas/2023 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris
Ten European artists, including Nils Vandevenne (left), here with his sculpture Aileron, came to Hangar Y for a residency in 2022. © Lewis Joly/Art Explora
The building’s gable, once open to enable blimps to enter, has been closed by a vast glass facade. © Adeline Bommart

The film industry has also benefited from this immense space. In 2003, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet transformed the site into a field hospital for A Very Long Engagement, a romantic wartime drama starring Audrey Tautou, Marion Cotillard, and Gaspard Ulliel. The structure was listed as a historical monument in 2000 and was meticulously restored in 2018. However, the architects made two exceptions in their otherwise faithful reconstruction: The open gable enabling airships to enter was closed by a vast glass facade, and two mezzanine levels were added inside. These galleries circling the space have made Hangar Y the perfect venue for multimedia exhibitions and other immersive experiences, including The Adventure of Hangar Y, on until December 3.

An Extraordinary, Eclectic Ensemble

Another equally unique space – an open-air art trail – is found next to this metallic cathedral. A sculpture by Adel Abdessemed marks the start. Made of painted aluminum, Die Taubenpost depicts a pair of carrier pigeons over six feet high carrying explosive charges on their backs instead of letters. Other surprises line the forest path snaking around the lake, such as a curious little house built with kitchen utensils by Subodh Gupta, a thousand-year-old olive tree in white enamel by Ugo Rondinone, and Jurassique France, a life-size dinosaur footprint by Laurent Le Deunff.

In total, 19 of today’s leading international names offer “a poetic interlude in a historic, iconic site in the Paris region.” Visitors will also enjoy the bookstore on the theme of French aeronautics, a modular space in wood and steel designed to host conferences and workshops, and two restaurants – an informal outdoor eatery under the trees serving tapas and ice cream, and Perchoir Y, a “modern brasserie” led by Michelin-star chef Guillaume Sanchez, featuring fish and shellfish specialties with a waterside terrace.

In the spirit of the Centre Pompidou, which was the first Parisian museum to break from traditional art spaces, Hangar Y is aiming to blend genres. It also hopes to become an incubator for talent across multiple creative disciplines. Having returned to the French capital after several years in Los Angeles, choreographer Benjamin Millepied recently installed his Paris Dance Project here. In Meudon, the former New York City Ballet star aims to build bridges between classical and contemporary dance, while training the next generation of choreographers as he did in California with the L.A. Dance Project. This mission is perfectly in keeping with Hangar Y’s vocation to write a “new creative history at the crossroads of art, culture, science, nature, and leisure.”

Article published in the October 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.