With the Philharmonie, Jean Nouvel offers innovative architecture which blends into the Parc de la Villette, on the edge of Paris and in the heart of a speedily evolving metropolis.
The Philharmonie brings to life an ancient dream: the initial Cité de la Musique project included a large auditorium, intended to complete the round out the proposed music rooms and amphitheatre. But the Philharmonie doesn’t just aim to be the great concert hall that Paris lacked, it responds to the issues of our time, offering resident or invited orchestras the optimal working conditions that aren’t found elsewhere in the capital, and offering a number of spaces able to host pedagogic activities intended to open music’s doors to the most people possible.
Architecture serving music
Following a competition, Jean Nouvel’s project for this new building was chosen. A rock-like building with the air of a hill rising from the Parc de la Villette, the Philharmonie offers innovative forms. Its’ brilliant spiralling aluminium forms surrounding the central concert hall contrast with it elegantly- angled matt envelope, coated in a bird mosaic in varying shades of grey. The public can stroll across its’ 37-metre high roof, which offers a panoramic view, merging the city and its’ suburbs.
In dialogue with the parc
52 metres high, the Philharmonie de Paris is a landmark in Paris’ north-east. The Philharmonie is also a compass point in the Parc de la Villette. Rather than attempting to dominate the site however, the edifice enters into the urban and architectural context, exchanging with the the site’s other architects (Christian de Portzamparc for the Cité de la musique and the conservatory, and Bernard tschumi with his famous “folies”).
A living-space for music
Beyond the magic of the music, the Philharmonie was conceived as a true living-space for music, where artists and the public cross paths. Numerous services are offered. On the sixth floor, Le Balcon, a cosy and welcoming restaurant, offers a panoramic view of the park, while on the ground floor, casual café facility, Les gourmandises de l'Atelier, offers food and drink to eat in or take away. Apart from the food and drink outlets stationed around the concert halls, the public can wander through the space surrounding the Great hall. As Jean Nouvel emphasises, “the hall and the foyers offer down-to-earth pleasures which mean that one can arrange to meet up, simply hang around, eat or drink in the restaurants with a view over the park, or read in the salons.”
The Symphonic Hall, known as the Grande salle Pierre Boulez, is a remarkable architectural feat: an ‘enveloping’ auditorium that immerses the audience, for a uniquely intimate listening experience.
A new typology
Following neither the ‘shoebox’ style (as at the Musikverein in Vienna), nor the ‘vineyard’ style (as at the Berlin Philharmonie), the Philharmonie de Paris invents a model all its own, with an adjustable concert hall based on the concept of envelopment. This original design required innovations in architecture, stage design and acoustical engineering. The architect, Jean Nouvel and lead acoustician Sir Harold Marshall designed the room during synergetic sessions, with the architect, acoustician and theatre consultant working in a highly collaborative environment.
Though a large-capacity hall (2400 seats), this space within the Philharmonie feels remarkably intimate. But this feeling can be mathematically explained: the distance between the conductor and the farthest spectator is only 32 metres (compared to 48 metres at the Salle Pleyel for a smaller audience). ‘Evocative of immaterial, draped sheets of music and light, the hall suspends the listeners-spectators in space, on long balconies… This suspension creates the impression of being immersed in music and light’, explains the architect, Jean Nouvel.
Setting a benchmark in acoustics
Assisted by Metra & Associés (the associate architect), Atelier Jean Nouvel worked with Marshall Day Acoustics and Ducks Sceno to develop a bold system of cantilevered balconies and floating clouds, combining envelopment, intimacy and spaciousness. The stage can accommodate any orchestral formation, even the most imposing. The hall is also equipped with a Rieger organ, specially designed for the symphonic repertory.
The acoustic sub-consultant to Jean Nouvel was the New Zealander Sir Harold Marshall of Marshall Day Acoustics. He recently collaborated with Zaha Hadid on the Guangzhou Opera House and is considered the pioneer of lateral reflections and a highly innovative designer of concert halls. Jean Nouvel also benefitted from the expertise of the Japanese Yasuhisa Toyota, notably associated with the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The acoustical programme (drawn up by Kahle Acoustics) called for great clarity of sound combined with high reverberation, as well as significant lateral reflections and a close, intimate feeling — all to be achieved within a new typology. The solution was found in a daring system of floating balconies which creates the intimacy, and the outer chamber, which produces the high reverberation. This new model interweaves lateral reflections, direct sound and reverberation, to achieve excellent clarity and transparency within a warm, enveloping resonance.
Another acoustical feat, of a different sort but no less remarkable, is to have succeeded in soundproofing the hall against outside noise, which is considerable given the Philharmonie’s location near Boulevard Sérurier, the Péripherique (ring road around Paris) and the Zénith. This was achieved by Studio DAP using the ‘box within a box’ concept, i.e., by leaving a space between the walls. In this respect as well, the hall adheres to the poetic yet highly technical notion of a ‘floating auditorium’.
One of the features that makes the Philharmonie unique among European concert halls is its versatility. To develop this aspect, Atelier Jean Nouvel, assisted by Metra & Associés worked closely with Marshall Day Acoustics and with the agency Ducks, specialising in concert hall stage design, with previous projects at the Opéra de Lyon and in Copenhagen. The aim is to be able to adapt the auditorium to different genres of music, while always providing optimal viewing and listening conditions. In the symphonic configuration, the audience surrounds the orchestra. The tiers behind the stage can accommodate a choir if required for the work being presented, but are more often filled by spectators. But in the case of concert-format operas or ‘ciné-concerts’ (film screenings to live music), the modular concept allows these back tiers to be eliminated and the stage to be moved back, increasing the parterre. Another innovative feature is that the seats in the parterre can be removed to leave standing room for contemporary music concerts.
The Philharmonie de Paris includes a vast area allowing the hosting of temporary exhibitions connected to its’ musical calendar.
The temporary exhibitions gallery, covering around 800 square metres, is a stimulant to visits and activities during the day at the Philharmonie de paris. The exhibitions proposed here are connected to the musical programme. Accessible from the park foyer, this gallery, together with its’ logistic space, is conceived in such a manner as to be easily adaptable to a variety of scenographic ventures.
It also has the benefit of a very high ceiling, lending itself to both the installation of very large works and the staging of spectacular shows.
Finally, the high quality staging equipment, notably in regard to digital technology, lighting equipment, temperature control and safety, allow the presentation of works originating from all the world’s great museums and their marrying with both sound and visual landscapes.
A broadcast room, joined to the gallery, is provided as a space for diffusion of musical extracts illustrating the exhibition of the moment.
The Philharmonie de Paris, of which the Pedagogic dimension is a crucial pillar, constitutes numerous rooms in which one can be initiated to music or improve oneself.
1800 square metres are set aside for the pedagogic department. Situated on the ground floor, they include three classrooms, two musical awareness rooms, five group practice rooms, five individual practice rooms, a small studio permitting group leaders to film or record the sounds of the workshops and a picnic room equipped with benches and tables for school groups to take their lunch or afternoon tea breaks.
Two large rehearsal rooms allow orchestras to work in optimal conditions.
The first one, Le Studio, intended for work sessions by complete orchestras, is equipped with a stage identical to that of the Grand Concert Hall, with the backstage area able to accommodate stands for the choir or for the public. The second rehearsal room is intended for smaller groups.
Four other rehearsal rooms, not accessible to the public, allow work in specific conditions: one room for small groups, one for strings, one for vocals, one for percussion fitted with storage space for the instruments.