Paul Nelson was the proverbial American in Paris—born in Chicago, he emigrated in around 1920 to the French capital, where he became a friend of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Trying to merge his roots with his culture of adoption, he longed for an architecture that would combine American technology and energy with French humanism and sophistication. He was indeed instrumental in introducing European modern architecture to the United States, and also in bringing American flair and taste for the spectacular to France.
After taking his license at the Ècole des Beaux-Arts in 1927, Nelson became a member of the School of Paris, the eclectic group of modernist architects that also included Robert Mallet-Stevens. His project for the Palais de la Découverte, represented in this perspective drawing, arose after the scientific exhibit at Paris's 1937 International Exposition greatly impressed authorities in the French government. As a result, Nelson and his colleagues Oscar Nitzchke and Frantz Jourdain were commissioned to produce a study for a permanent science museum in the city. The project, unfortunately never realized, envisioned a structure that was as functional as it was monumental, the outer envelope being designed to contain diverse exhibits with quite different spatial needs. Tensile cables anchored in the central ovoid shell support the circular cantilevered roof. The architects" ideals and aspirations are evident in the clear lines of the drawing, which portrays a building for a positivist, technocratic institution.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Paola Antonelli, in Matilda McQuaid, ed., Envisioning Architecture: Drawings from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002, p. 82.