“The Collège de France Opens Its Doors”: Virtual Exhibition (Episode 5)
Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.
Go to Episode 1 by clicking here.
The architectural evolution of the Collège from 1870 to 1970
In the late nineteenth century, professors complained about the lack of space, especially for laboratories, despite the new wing created by architect Paul Letarouilly between 1832 and 1841. The increase in the number of scientific Chairs requiring adequate facilities entailed the need for an almost unattainable amount of space. At the time, the Collège de France was cramped into the building, as private residences bordered it to the north and the east. The land surrounding it was therefore gradually purchased in order to expand the area of its property.
Between 1840 and 1870, no extensions to the buildings were carried out, despite the increase in the number of Chairs (from seventeen in 1830 to thirty-eight in 1870). The Chairs of medicine, chemistry, and physics did not have adequate experimentation facilities, and the public could not be received on their premises. Architectural projects, draft bills, complaints from professors, the cancellation of ministry budgets: the expansion work necessary was not carried out, despite several preliminary projects, and only emergency repairs were undertaken. Because laboratories needed space, some of them moved out of the historical building. In 1882, the laboratory of Étienne-Jules Marey was set up in the Bois de Boulogne. In 1884, that of Marcelin Berthelot was set up in Meudon.
“The Collège de France demands expansion”
Faced with the urgency, neighbouring plots of land and buildings were purchased between 1903 and 1907, but no budget was allocated to build new facilities. World War I and its restrictions imposed the need for savings, even though many laboratories participated in the war effort through their work on explosives or combat gas.
Several parliamentary reports were written in the 1920s to promote the expansion of the institution, which was included on the finance law agenda. They were unsuccessful up until 1927, when the funds were finally granted.
The project for building new research buildings
Work on the initial chemistry building spanned the period from 1931 to 1937. The excavations for the physics building started immediately afterwards. During the Phoney War (from 3 September 1939 to 10 May 1940), plans existed to create a bomb shelter in its foundations. All of this stopped with the Occupation: the requisitioning of materials and the conscription of forced labour, along with the lack of raw materials, endangered this second building, the foundations of which were regularly flooded.
“Compared to the shacks housing former laboratories, a very modern building offers a comfortable home for science.”
In 1938, Administrator Albert Lebrun inaugurated the chemistry buildings and lecture halls, the first structures in the plans for four new buildings. Some of the laboratories were thus able to move out of the huts that still occupied the institution’s internal roads and the Chalgrin building, which was subsequently exclusively dedicated to the humanities. Of particular note was the case of Marcel Delépine’s organic chemistry laboratory, Robert Courrier’s experimental morphology and endocrinology laboratory, and Frédéric Joliot-Curie’s nuclear chemistry laboratory, noteworthy for its cyclotron (particle accelerator).
World War II: a contrasting history
For the Collège de France, this period was marked by an almost complete halt to construction work. At the beginning of the war, the bomb shelter was not yet operational, which would make it necessary for people to take refuge in the cellars of the “old Collège” in the event of a bomb attack. Administrator Edmond Faral experienced great difficulties in preventing the biology building from flooding, mainly as a result of the requisitioning by the German army.
Like all public institutions, the Collège de France was hit hard by the Nazi Occupation. Staff members and six professors were targeted by the race laws (Émile Benveniste, André Mayer, Szolem Mandelbrojt, Jules Bloch, Isidore Lévy, Marcel Mauss). Some were stripped of their positions for not having returned to their job after the signing of the armistice (such as physicist Paul Langevin).
Four professors died during the conflict: Henri Focillon (died in exile), Jacques Solomon (guest professor, shot as a member of the Resistance), Maurice Halbwachs and Henri Maspéro (both of whom died while deported). Among staff members, the number of deceased totalled eight: Benoît-Marie Belin (photography department, deported for resistance), Alexandre Chweitzer (scholarship student and researcher, resistance member arrested by the Gestapo), Anne Litvac (embryogenesis laboratory, deported to Auschwitz), Janine Godchau (CNRS technician, deported to Bertenau), Gaston Frot (laboratory assistant, killed during the liberation of Monterau), Marcel Gompel (laboratory of the natural history of organized bodies, died under torture), Charles Racz (researcher at the nuclear chemistry laboratory, killed during the liberation of Paris), and Roger Mileur (technical assistant, volunteer in the Leclerc division, died in combat).
It was ultimately not until the beginning of the 1950s, once the most serious period of restrictions had passed, that the work was started once again.
“The body of the Collège de France”: towards the end of the work
In the mid-1950s, the Collège de France started its transformation: the physics building was inaugurated. The magazine Plaisir de France dedicated an article to the institution in 1954, in which it presented the new facilities. In particular, they included Frédéric Joliot-Curie’s laboratory and the cyclotron, which had been housed at the Collège de France since 1937. The new layout freed up room for chemistry laboratories. As for biology laboratories, they had to wait until the 1960s to have their own space. In the 1970s, the Collège de France continued with its modernization, regularly outfitting its teams with cutting-edge materials and restructuring its buildings.