The controversy surrounding the opening of the landmark Philharmonie concert hall in the French capital was typically Parisian in its nature, evoking polarized opinions aplenty. The epicenter was (and, to the extent that the building remains unfinished, is) a clash between state-owned and private organizations, with a hefty dose of public indignation from one of the leading players: Local superstar architect Jean Nouvel boycotted the launch night of his own commission, insisting the building was incomplete, and blasted the Philharmonie for displaying “contempt” for both architecture and architect by opening the hall prematurely.
Just how incomplete? Tom Service, classical music correspondent for The Guardian, compiled a short snagging list: Taking his seat in the main hall before the inaugural concert, he observed “exposed MDF, chipboard, half-painted flooring, and chair numbers written on Post-it notes”. Not catastrophic by any means, I’m sure you would agree. However, Nouvel was much more concerned with the fact that no acoustic testing had been carried out before the opening — a major faux pas, considering the building's foremost function as a world-class concert venue.
The Philharmonie is edging towards completion. Via Skyscraper City
Fortunately for Jean Nouvel and everyone else concerned, a longstanding collaboration throughout the design process between the architect and acoustic engineers means that the sound quality, by all accounts, is quite superb. Tom Service remarked, “I can’t remember a new hall sounding this good or this characterful at its opening,” whilst The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini declared it “acoustically marvelous.”
The rich audio of the concert hall owes its wholesome depth to an unconventional structural system: Acoustic engineers Marshall Day Associates ‘floated’ the entire auditorium inside a reverberating chamber to achieve unmatched surround sound. Each balcony is uniquely contoured, and undulating acoustic panels are suspended above the audience, lending the space an organic, cave-like aesthetic.
The hall’s many facets are also unusually dynamic: Large sections of seating can be retracted to create larger voids with smooth internal surfaces, and the entire floor can be shifted up or down, allowing the auditorium to be customized to suite all manner of musical genres. Nouvel has form in this realm — the Philharmonie's interior bears strong similarities to his concert hall in Copenhagen — and the Frenchman appears comfortable designing such sensitive acoustic environments.
While there is a broad consensus over the strengths of the hall’s internal design, the same could not be said of the building’s outlandish external appearance. Anthony Tommasini was complimentary in his description of Nouvel’s intricately tiled façade, proclaiming, “The exterior of the building is an exhilarating sight, covered in some 340,000 cast-aluminum pieces meant to suggest birds.”
Via Skyscraper City
On the other hand, The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright viewed the pixelated surface in a very different light, likening it to a “scorched spaceship,” and comparing its hulking Deconstructivist form to a pile of broken paving stones. Commenters on his article were even more inventive with their metaphors, one claiming to have “never seen halibut folded in so many interesting ways.”
The aggressive geometry of Nouvel's gigantic structure is unlikely to win any awards for subtlety, but its alien appearance seems strangely in keeping with its context. It has emerged at the heart of Parc de la Villette, a breeding ground for architectural misfits and flamboyant experiments in design, from Bernard Tschumi’s blood-red follies to Christian de Portzamparc’s postmodern Cité de la Musique. Formally, it appears chaotic in the extreme, a mash-up of current trends that crash together in a pile-up of conflicting architectural gestures. A plethora of styles make cameo appearances, reminiscent of different starchitects' recent attempts at achieving instant iconicity within large public commissions. As Wainwright points out:
“There is the jagged prow borrowed from Daniel Libeskind, the billowing waves from Zaha Hadid, the chiselled zigzagging rooftop walk from Snøhetta, all tied together with the mishmash bricolage lunacy of Coop Himmelblau — whose contorted Confluence Museum just opened in Lyon, bearing a strong family resemblance to the Philharmonie.”
Via The Guardian
Compared with Nouvel’s beautifully understated designs for other cultural institutions in recent times — see the perforated dome of the Abu Dhabi Louvre — the Philharmonie comes across as riotous, if not altogether strident, and the finesse of its external surface has been subject to compromise in the rush towards practical completion. Nouvel expressed outright anger at this state of affairs, proclaiming that “the architecture is martyred, the details sabotaged.”
Despite the fallout, this controversial concert hall’s saving grace surely lies in its functionality, the simple purpose for which it was designed in the first place: as a container for the performance of awe-inspiring music with perfect acoustics. Hopefully, once the interior has been fine tuned, the unfinished details remedied, and the concert program is in full swing, Nouvel will have regained his composure — and maybe then will he show up to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
The Angry Architect
Top image via the LA Times