For over fifty years, Le Bourget was the principal airport of Paris. It was a place that saw the birth of aviation and the stationing of airborne troops during the 1914-18 war. The first passenger flights began around 1919, linking Paris to London, Brussels and Amsterdam, with around 6000 taking such flights in 1920. It was also the site of aviation advances and exploits, and was the place that Charles Lindbergh landed his ‘Spirit of Saint Louis’ in 1927, becoming the first man to cross the Atlantic single-handed. Over 150,000 people were present to see him arrive, and a delicate and graceful statue marking this event can still be found on site today.
As passenger numbers increased and to meet the needs of the large numbers of visitors expected for the 1937 Universal Exhibition, a new airport structure was required. The architect Georges Labro won the competition and designed a subtle, yet powerful 233m long building. The structure was a success, and with 21,000 flights and 138,000 passengers in 1939, Le Bourget became Europe’s second largest airport. But then war broke out.
Requisitioned and transformed by German troops, it was later almost entirely destroyed by allied bombardments during the liberation of Paris. However, being the only airport in Paris at the time, rapid reconstruction was needed once the war had finished, and it was Georges Labro who took on the job again, rebuilding the structure in almost its exact previous form. Passenger traffic eventually reached 600,000 travellers a year, but after the Orly, then Roissy airports were built, Le Bourget gradually slipped back into provincial obscurity.
The old and the new; an Airbus A380 flies over Le Bourget.
Despite the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace taking up residence in the airport structures in the 1970s, we should not make the mistake of thinking that the entire site has become a museum. Today Le Bourget is Europe’s busiest airport for private and business traffic, and the hangars still resonate with the noise of creation and repair. These magnificent reinforced concrete structures give a glimpse of what the site looked like in the 1920s. Built by Henri Lossier in 1922, these massive 15m by 50m units were damaged in the war and slightly adjusted afterwards, but the basic forms we see today are identical to the originals.
Despite these problems, Labro’s main airport building remains an architectural wonder and a rare glimpse of a unique period in history. The charming curves and timeless design should ensure that once restored, the building will still have a very long life ahead of it, even if the footsteps of passengers are now a muffled sound of the past.
Note: If you more interested in aviation than architecture, Owen has some great photos of the Paris Air Show on his blog.