A new Philharmonie in Paris

Helen Wallace reports from the Cité de la Musique in Paris's 19th arrondisement

PhilharmoniePhoto: Jean Nouvel – Arte Factory

The French economy may be teetering on the edge of a fiscal abyss, but the era of ‘les grands projets’ appears to be alive and well in Paris. Behind the curvaceous Cité de la Musique a vast tiered structure is emerging that is set to become Europe’s next great ‘Philharmonie’. Entirely state-funded – by the central government, the city of Paris and the region Ile de France – its cost has been estimated at an eye-watering 170 million euros (around £137.5 million) and counting. Sign-off was a good two years before the markets crashed…

In fact, this 2,400-seat concert hall has been 20 years in the making. When the late president François Mitterrand dreamt up the redevelopment of the benighted slaughterhouse district of La Villette, two concert halls were planned along with a Science Museum, gardens, playgrounds, geodesic dome and the redeveloped abbatoir itself. In the event, only the 900-seat auditorium of the Cité de la Musique was built – to Pierre Boulez’s specifications – alongside a musical museum and studio theatre, which opened in 1995. 

Philharmonie insidePhoto: Jean Nouvel – Arte Factory

In 2006 it was announced that the last part of the jigsaw would now go ahead. Naturally, the architect of la Cité de la Musique Christian de Portzamparc entered the competition to design the new building, hoping to complete his original conception. But it was Atelier Jean Nouvel’s audacious, metallic ‘outstretched hand’ that won the day, and certainly chimes with the current fashion for organic forms à la Frank Gehry and Thomas Heatherwick. Nouvel, who was responsible for both the new concert halls in Lucerne and Copenhagen, certainly has a track record.

Most striking is the puzzle of metal pieces covering the building, from out of which starry constellations will shine at night. Like the opera house in Oslo, the entire roof can be walked over by the public. The night’s programme will be projected in vast letters onto a prominent broken-bridge façade which stretches out over the périphérique (Paris’s main ring-road). Is the hope that commuters will realise what they are missing and turn back?

Viewing the detailed models, one of which is big enough to crawl into, it’s clear the hall is inspired by the interior of the Berlin Philharmonie, though with its own unique features. The general shape is of an egg lying on its side, with the stage surrounded by seating on all sides. Multiple balconies bring the audience closer by being projected into the hall on lengthy gangways, rather than attached to the walls. The result is that the furthest any listener is away from the conductor is just 32 metres (in the Berlin Philharmonie it’s 40m, and in LA’s Disney Hall 45m). The projected balconies will also allow sound to reverberate behind them, a new innovation in concert hall acoustics yet to be tested.

We were taken around the site and models by Emmanuel Hondré of la Cité de la Musique, who deftly summed up the need for a flexible space: ‘This hall will take over the classical programme from the Salle Pleyel, but it will be more than that. The Orchestre de Paris will be resident here now, playing 50-odd concerts a year. This space needs to complete their musical lives, and to bring real life inside – giving opportunities for educational work, chamber music, workshops and rehearsals of all kinds.’ The 20,000 square metres will include administrative and technical rooms, an educational wing, exhibition spaces, a café, a restaurant. The idea is clearly to open out the venue to the Parc de la Villette creating the sort of bustle and buzz now present around London’s Royal Festival Hall, an opportunity missed with the blind-sided Cité de la Musique. The auditorium was due to open in 2012, but the new provisional date is September 2014.

It’s yet another reason for us Brits to visit the neglected 19th arrondisement, only five stops up from the Gare du Nord, cut through with canals, parks and all that’s new in Paris.