On a Tuesday afternoon in January, the winter sun glinted off the Philharmonie de Paris as if it had been specially summoned to show off the distinct patterning of cast aluminium and reflective steel. Arrayed in an MC Escher-esque motif, the 340,000 tiles depicting abstracted birds are just one of several spirited and inspired features that define this concert hall as different from all others.
But if its architect (and former Wallpaper* guest editor), Jean Nouvel, deserves a round of applause, he was conspicuously absent from both the press preview and inaugurating concert attended by French president François Hollande. Voicing his dissatisfaction in Le Monde, he wrote that the building remains too incomplete to unveil and requires further architectural and acoustic assessments. To the extent that the rooftop, two restaurants and exhibition space will have staggered openings over the next few months, he has a point. Granted, the project makes its debut already two years late.
Even as a work in progress, the Philharmonie represents the realisation of a building designed to change the way people participate in orchestral music, whether owing to its location on the edge of the city, its outdoor public environment or its educational, rehearsal and cultural programming.
Most of all, the Orchestra of Paris has a dynamic new 2,400-seat hall to call home. Such a high capacity barely registers since the volume projects upward rather than outward in a traditional fan shape (as proof, only 32 metres separates the conductor from the furthest spectator, considerably reduced from 48 metres in the Salle Pleyel, the city’s principal symphonic venue). The other main consideration - one that is truly unique - is that concert venue is actually a hall within a hall; the exterior space one crosses to enter gives way to an undulating wall that enhances the intimacy while optimising the acoustics.
In the press notes, Nouvel describes the auditorium as 'reminiscent of immaterial waves and light', adding how the placement of the balconies creates the effect of suspending spectators in space. Indeed, when those spectators gaze to the ceiling, they see a swirling mass of biomorphic panels that strategically enclose the house and stage lighting. When they look across the hall, they see how the balconies have been framed in wood ornamented with a geometric relief. Everything serves a technical purpose.
'All the floating surfaces provide the lateral reflections [for the sound],' said Christopher Day, founding partner of Marshall Day Acoustics, the New Zealand-based company that previously provided the acoustics for the Guangzou Opera House, built by Zaha Hadid.
Beyond the lyrical birds in their lustrous shades of grey, Nouvel introduced a metal mesh that, like a theatrical scrim, makes the building appear impenetrable during the day (while not obstructing the view outward); at night, the interior light takes over and passersby can see inside.
As with the Musée du Quai Branly, the Nouvel-designed museum of indigenous art near the Eiffel Tower, the space around the Philharmonie is as important as the space within. Those not attending a concert or a class can linger on the steps or climb them to the rooftop looking point which, when it opens in the spring, offers a view of Paris far more eclectic than Haussmann’s uniformity. Up here, the vista encompasses the science museum with its mirrored geode, the former abattoir converted into a festival hall, Bernard Tschumi’s architectural contributions from the late 1980s, and the industrial suburb of Pantin.
The goal, said Philharmonie president Laurent Bayle, is for individuals and families from Paris and beyond (what urban planners now call Greater Paris) to feel that fine music can be accessible. Perhaps this explains the Nouvel-designed signage that rises above the building’s 37 metres (the maximum inhabitable height within city limits) to an additional 15 metres, broadcasting event news to those driving along the central ring road. If you’re stuck in traffic, you might be doubly tempted to purchase tickets for some soothing Satie.