When we took a tour of the construction site of Jean Nouvel’s new philharmonic hall in Paris, it seemed nigh impossible that it would be ready for the opening concert scheduled just a few days later. Whimpering and buzzing sounds abound, mind you, but it’s not the musicians setting the tone, and instead an army of builders and their machines. The building’s scaly façade gleams wearily in the light – even before completion it already looks completely out of date. Derricks block the two central entrances, pushing their way like ramps into the Parc de la Villette and creating the impression that this is no building but a spaceship that has crash landed. The prestigious architecture’s gray volumes amass across several storeys, breaking off at some points and then climbing to new heights at others – miraculously they somehow succeed in embracing the glass-clad foyer. Another part of the melted spaceship extends as far as the park, where it seeks to blend in with the surroundings, while the wide staircase leading up to the main entrance is destined to swiftly become a prime location for skateboarders and parkour artists. A disorderly mind seems to have committed to producing some – any old – shape that has now splattered across this parkland meadow. The finished building has almost nothing in common with the attractive visualizations that marked its conception.

O sole mio: the concert hall

We enter the building through the stage door. So instead of the grand foyer we are greeted by the unadorned charm of the office wing – complete with corridors painted in black or red from floor to ceiling. Eventually, we manage to arrive at the centerpiece of the complex: the concert hall.

Here again there are countless people busy putting the finishing touches to this or that. The cladding on the tiers is still incomplete, many of the acoustic elements on the walls are missing, as are the acoustic screens that will be attached to the ceiling. Despite still being a construction site, the hall is very impressive and swiftly helps us forget the otherwise botched philharmonic architecture. Taking his cue from Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic, Nouvel decided to position the stage in the center of the hall, with approx. 2,400 seats arranged around it and ascending in tiers. Even in the gallery you still feel close to the stage because, unlike in Berlin, the tiers in Paris are steeper, giving the new hall a very compact and considerably more dynamic look-and-feel.
Individual tiers jut out into the hall and are only partially connected to the wall. This means that sounds can flow right around them to be reflected by the outer walls of the hall, resulting in a mix of direct and reflected acoustics on the more remote tiers. So much for the theory. And we can’t exactly put it to the test as we are standing on a building site. Besides, experienced conductors claim that you need to perform in a concert hall and gradually adapt it to your needs – just like you do with an instrument. Which means that the acoustic quality of the new hall can only be reliably judged once the first season has been and gone. So we need to keep our expectations dampened for the opening concert, advises Laurent Bayle, Director of the Cité de la Musique. The main thing is that it can open on schedule.

Cost killers welcomed on board

This building project was anything but easy: financially, politically and architecturally. There were major disputes on all fronts. As a result, the architect is now refusing to attend the opening, arguing that the building has not even been finished yet. And there are plenty more reasons why Nouvel feels misunderstood by everybody. After costs had exploded he had to accept the assistance of a “cost killer” – which, believe it or not, is actually a profession. And yet, is it not just common business practice nowadays that star architects like Nouvel at least double the original budget, or even triple it? This is difficult to explain to taxpayers in times of crisis, however, which is why socialist presidents, prime ministers and ministers of culture and the Lord Mayor of Paris have all carefully distanced themselves from the costly enterprise. On top of which in France any dedication to classical music is considered rather elitist and one has to be careful not to tarnish one’s good links with affluent voters does one not.

Right approach, wrong answer

Be this as it may. All parties involved in the project started out with the best intentions. Several of which have thankfully remained. The location in the socially deprived north of Paris is one of them as it means that the concert hall is accessible also to people from the less affluent suburbs. Jean Nouvel designed the concept with a conglomeration of some 13 million people in mind and accordingly composed the philharmonic hall as an impressively layered landmark visible from afar. One block extends right across the entire complex. The neon lettering that runs along it is destined to attract the attention of anyone driving on the “Boulevard périphérique” (that forever gridlocked downtown interstate that goes right around the center of Paris) to the venue and its upcoming program. The artistic director suggests live broadcasts of rehearsals and concerts in the public foyer of the complex will awaken people’s love for music. And ticket prices are going to be no higher than those at the cinema. People will even be able to climb up onto the roof of the philharmonic: A small path leads up to a look-out deck offering a view of Paris and its suburbs. Sadly, cost killers with an interest not so much in good quality space(s) and not least the architect’s penchant for erratic shapes, but in hard figures have put a stop to this. Now it’s up to the artistic director to fill the complex with life and attract a wide and especially young audience to the venue. Which would have been his job in any case, irrespective of who masterminded the building. The result: In addition to classical music, pop and jazz will now also be played in the new hall, plus there are plans for a David Bowie exhibition. Working with young people is definitely high up on the agenda.

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In good company: Between Tschumi and de Portzamparc now squeezes the Nouvel in the Parc de la Villette. Photo © Guy Montagu-Pollock
Fitzcarraldo in Paris
by Ralf Wollheim
Jan 19, 2015
Nouvel romantic: You can climb on top of the roof construction and enjoy the view on the outskirts of Paris. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
The zig-zag way up is feels like a mountain path. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
A long stairway leads into the belly of the spacecraft. Photo © Guy Montagu-Pollock
A spark of Venturi: The building as a billboard along the highway. Image © Atelier Jean Nouvel
A few days before the opening concert the construction is far away from being finished. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
View into the "sky" of the concert hall. Photo © Julien Mignot
Acoustic wall in the rehearsal hall. Photo © Julien Mignot
Nouvel worked on the project with the audiologist Sir Harold Marshall. Photo © Julien Mignot
The concert hall is a few days before the opening not done yet. Photo © Julien Mignot
The acoustic sails were not all attached. Photo © Julien Mignot
A concert hall is like an instrument: Until he sounds perfect, many settings are changed in order to improve the sound. Photo © Julien Mignot
The practice rooms are decorated in a light wood. Photo © Julien Mignot
Actually, the architecture promises an impressive foyer. But that is rather modest.
Photo Ralf Wollheim
Detail of the facade. Photo © Ralf Wollheim
Recent works in one of the practice rooms. Photo © Julien Mignot
The elaborate facade is a great puzzle of different shades of gray. Photo © Guy Montagu-Pollock
It is a good idea by Nouvel, to design the roof of the Philharmonic as a public place – so it becomes a part of the park area. Photo © Ralf Wollheim