In photos from opening night last week, the exterior of the Philharmonie de Paris looked truly terrible, with construction debris littering the plazas and trusswork poking through unfinished outside walls. Reviewers spoke of traipsing through an unfinished lobby across chipboard temporary floors. The orchestra prepared to play in an auditorium they had barely set foot in, designed with a radically new acoustical concept.
Jean Nouvel, France’s most celebrated architect, was justifiably furious at the rush to open before the building was complete, considering the potential damage to his reputation and to that of a brand new institution that already has an uphill battle to attract audiences (as I wrote here). Just hours before the hall’s inaugural concert, he wrote an op-ed for Le Monde, and issued a statement declaring he would not attend the opening, saying that management had “shot itself in the foot,” by unveiling the hall before it was ready.
Unfortunately, the timing and his vituperative tone could not have been more poorly chosen. By horrifying luck, thugs who hoped to terrify Parisians made the Jan. 15 opening a necessity, allowing art to be a force for unity as a potent response to calculated killing. And what transcends tragedy more movingly than Fauré’s Requiem, fortuitously programmed months earlier by the Orchestre de Paris? Instead of having to defend the building’s sleekly unsettling architecture, its delays and cost overruns, President François Hollande entered the hall to an extended ovation.
By contrast, Nouvel played the part of the preening superstar, seemingly out of touch with France’s crushing fiscal reality and deaf to the terror-wracked city’s need for a cathartic, shared experience.
However petulant it sounded, though, his outburst matters. He chose a moment of maximum impact to attempt to explode what he deemed myths that had attached themselves to the project.
Nouvel’s most heated comments were directed at the media, taking it to task for blaming him for the cost overruns and delays for which he said he had been exonerated by an independent report. About much of this he is no doubt correct. The often-quoted early budget of €200 million was obviously unrealistic to the knowledgable observer. The design was dauntingly complex. (I have no idea what holds up all those nervously tilting planes infilled with rippling panels of some kind of polished steel or glass.) And it had to meet very demanding performance and acoustical criteria.
The five-year schedule from Nouvel’s design-competition win to the planned opening in 2012 was optimistic, to put it kindly, then largely sabotaged by delays the sponsoring governments imposed as the economic crisis deepened. Media assertions that he is to blame for ballooning costs are “unfounded,” he wrote. “I will not tolerate that untruthful, defamatory and disparaging writings or comments are made about me.”
There may well be plenty of blame to spread around, but Nouvel was pushing back against the ingrained assumption that cost overruns are always the fault of the architect—an assumption architects everywhere are quite familiar with.
It looks unlikely that his campaign will succeed, given that architecture bashing seems to be in style in an age when great wealth hires architects, while society pulls back on needed facilities for the rest of us. Media loves its story templates and the architect acting heedless of cost and schedule is one of them. Once set, that storyline is very hard to change, however inaccurate it is.
Nouvel may have regretted his intemperance; he is not speaking further about the project for now. Early reviews of the auditorium’s appearance and sound have fallen just short of rapturous. (I found this one, by a musician, to be quite insightful.) Reviewers have praised the combination of clarity and envelopment that the acousticians, led by Howard Marshall of the Auckland-based Marshall Day, intended.
The hopefully delicious irony in this turn of events is that us media types, if we’re honest, are forced to halt our usual rush to judgement, which will permit the resident orchestras to learn what works best in the hall, and for completion to truly show us the way the architecture works in the city.
Concert halls, so often labeled a bauble cocooning a smug elite, offer a unique experience to everyone (Phil tix are cheap, by the way), even when high-quality reproduced music is ubiquitous. There’s something ineffably sublime about being part of an audience sharing a unique experience created by living artists, in which the architecture is a collaborator. The sensuality of Nouvel’s swirling forms look like they invitingly set a mood for mass bliss.
The Philharmonie deserves, as Nouvel argues in his statement, a proper inauguration, “peacefully and with dignity.” He may yet achieve exoneration.