France’s historic mint is undergoing an exciting transformation; the unveiling begins this fall, but visitors will have to wait until 2016 to see the entire project. Hidden in plidden sight in one of the poshest districts of Paris is a factory sitting on three acres of land, writes Amy Serafin in France Magazine . Weekdays, 150 blue-collar workers travel to this site in the 6th arrondissement to melt, stamp and engrave coins and medallions, indifferent to the tony boutiques and galleries that surround them. For the past two centuries this compound has been largely closed to the public, a Fort Knox overlooking the Seine. Now the Monnaie de Paris is opening up in a big way, with contemporary art shows, restaurants, boutiques and exhibits of the craftsmanship long practiced here.
The Monnaie de Paris is one of the world’s great mints, the first (and also the last) factory in Paris and the oldest French institution in operation. In the Middle Ages, several workshops throughout the country minted coins. King Charles the Bald founded the Monnaie de Paris near his palace on the Ile de la Cité in 864; ultimately the production of all French coins converged in the capital. In the 14th century, when the Louvre became the royal residence, the mint settled nearby on today’s rue de la Monnaie. And when this location became too dilapidated, King Louis XV hired a young architect, Jacques-Denis Antoine, to create another building just across the Seine. Completed in 1775, the new Monnaie de Paris was a stunning piece of Neoclassical architecture that assured Antoine’s reputation.
The Monnaie has conducted its business unperturbed at this site across regime change, revolution, war and urban development. Its current president, Christophe Beaux, says this is an exceptional feat: “Very few original mints in the world are still standing and operational.” Britain’s Royal Mint, for example, moved from Tower Hill in London to Wales in the 1960s.
In 1973, the Monnaie opened a modern factory in Pessac, near Bordeaux, for minting francs and euros, leaving the Paris site to focus on art objects, commemorative medals, collector coins and decorations including the Légion d’Honneur. But the entire establishment eventually lost touch with the times. Worse, this monnaie-maker was losing money: In the 1990s, extra workers were hired in preparation for the transition to the euro, but they became a costly burden once demand was met.
By 2007 the Monnaie was losing up to €7 million annually. That year proved to be a turning point. First, the Ministry of Finance changed the institution’s status to an établissement public, meaning that it would now be administratively and financially autonomous. Then Beaux, who was working as deputy director for the Ministry (and who also had experience in the private sector), asked for the chance to run the ailing establishment, to the surprise of his colleagues. “The Monnaie was an enterprise in trouble, but it was changing its status, meaning it was going to sink or swim,” he says. “That was a particularly interesting challenge for me, as I consider myself more of an entrepreneur than a bureaucrat.”
He implemented draconian cost-cutting measures, including a reduction in staff. At the same time he experimented with ways to develop the brand, with new products such as collectors’ euros representing the various regions of France sold for face value at the post office. These have been highly popular, selling in the millions. Beaux also hired an export director who aggressively increased overseas sales. Today, the Monnaie’s Pessac factory produces 1.5 billion coins a year. A third is foreign currency made for more than three dozen countries, from Oman to Guatemala.
Within a year of Beaux’s arrival, the Monnaie was turning a profit. But his ambitions were greater than simply getting out of the red. He developed a project, titled “MétaLmorphoses,” to overhaul the historic building site. “The place needed to be shaken up, reformed from the inside, its doors and windows thrown open,” he says. For security reasons the Monnaie had been largely impenetrable. Now, it would become a vibrant part of the city, offering a combination of history, heritage, architecture, culture, food and shopping. Financing—the budget has risen to €70 million—would come from its own profits and private subsidies.
Architect Philippe Prost won the competition to renovate the complex largely because his design was most respectful of the existing site, which has changed little since Antoine conceived it. The façade, one of the longest on the Seine, has survived the centuries intact. Prost restored the original buildings and removed unsightly additions such as a gym built on the roof for workers in the 1930s. Most of his imagination, however, has been lavished on interior spaces such as the covered passage he created for visitor traffic or the workshops he opened to public view.
Metal is an important part of his design. Next to the Impasse de Conti, Prost has built a new four-story workshop for storing metal, drawing, sculpting, modeling and engraving. (In a piece of political maneuvering, the Institut de France managed to peel off a parcel of the Monnaie’s property a few years ago, so the workshop that stood there had to be replaced.) Though the building is closed to the public, its exterior is worth a look, sheathed in big copper panels with holes like the metal sheets from which coins are punched out. “It’s a direct reference to the work that’s taking place there,” says the architect.
The Monnaie is opening in stages and is set to be completed in the winter of 2016. (The calendar was pushed back two years when lead turned up in the paint and floors.) This fall, the main building on the Quai de Conti opens its doors. At the top of Antoine’s magnificent grand staircase, the stunning Dupré Salon, two stories high, leads to a series of rooms for contemporary art exhibitions. Beaux points out that this ties in to the Monnaie’s artistic vocation: “It is a métier that depends on design and engraving.” He also believes that it’s important for the venerable institution to remain in sync with the times. The inaugural show is sure to draw crowds. “Chocolate Factory,” by Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy, will turn out chocolate Santa Clauses from October 25 until January 4. Prior to that, as a month-long teaser for the Monnaie’s reopening, another L.A. artist, John Baldessari, is installing his 100-foot-long light panel, “Your Name in Lights,” on the roof. People can sign up on the Monnaie’s website to see their names flashing in lights for a fleeting 15 seconds of fame.
An even more appetizing draw awaits at the top of the stairs in the west wing, where a series of salons with a remarkable view of the Seine used to house the director’s office and private apartments. Prost, however, dared to suggest using the space for a fine-dining restaurant, and Beaux agreed.
Such an exceptional setting deserves an exceptional chef. Guy Savoy beat out several competitors for the honor, and is moving his Michelin three-star establishment to the Monnaie this fall. “As soon as I visited the site, I knew I wanted to be here,” he says. “It’s fascinating for its location, its history, its architecture. Anyone in the world would dream of it!” The restaurant will keep the same size, spirit and signature dishes (including the famous artichoke soup with black truffles and parmesan), and Savoy has hired his favorite architect, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, to design the interior. Later on, the chef will also open “Métalcafé,” a more affordable café/brasserie with a terrace.
Beyond that, the city will have to wait patiently for the rest of the project to take shape, as construction continues into 2016. The Grand Monnayage, or minting room, will return to its original location in the heart of the main courtyard. (Antoine’s decision to place it here instead of a chapel was revolutionary for the time.) A permanent “experiential” tour will allow visitors to see the metal foundry, the stamping and engraving of coins and medals, and even a press striking two-euro coins.
For the first time, visitors will also be able to admire gems from the Monnaie’s collection such as the Hué treasure, decorative gold bricks seized from the Vietnamese by French colonial troops in 1886. Most were melted down to make Napoleon coins, but a few were kept intact in the Monnaie’s safe. Beaux refers to them as the institution’s own “Mona Lisa.”
For those who prefer spending money to looking at it, the complex will host a number of new high-end shops. Under the dome of the central pavilion, the Boutique de la Monnaie will sell medals, jewelry, art objects and the like. A concept store is also opening in early 2016 in a new building on rue Guénégaud.
In front of the concept store, Prost plans a contemporary garden and a pool of water with a motif at the bottom evoking the coins in Rome’s Trevi Fountain. The garden leads to the Petit Hôtel de Conti, the oldest known building by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the architect responsible for much of Versailles. Built in the 17th century for the Princess of Conti, the mansion was later engulfed by the Monnaie de Paris complex and hidden from view. Now the public will be able to sit in the garden and admire its façade for the first time in two centuries.
Even if you don’t go to the Monnaie to see art, buy a baptism medal or eat truffles, the restoration project will completely transform this part of Paris. Formerly accessible by only one entrance, the complex will soon have six entryways (including the boutique) as well as three pedestrian walkways, one of them a covered passage in glass and stainless steel. Rather than braving the noise and traffic on the Quai de Conti, passersby will have an appealing new way to get from the Louvre to Saint-Germain. “It will be a village du métal in the 6th arrondissement,” says Beaux, “and a place people can go just to find a moment of calm.”
By Amy Serafin in France Magazine