Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The curtain finally rises at the long-awaited, Jean Nouvel-designed venue—unfinished and with its architect protesting on opening night. Can it still fulfill high hopes?
As I write, the Orchestre de Paris is playing the opening notes of Requiem in D Minor by Gabriel Fauré. It is hard not to be moved by the piece under normal circumstances, a choral-orchestral work that one of Fauré's contemporaries once described as a "lullaby of death."
Tonight's performance in Paris is especially significant, though. The Requiem by Fauré excludes the Dies Irae Sequence ("day of wrath") traditionally associated with the Mass Requiem, making it an especially serene work. The selection seems in keeping with a gesture from Charlie Hebdo, whose editors printed Tout est pardonné—"all is forgiven"—across the cover of today's issue, the first it has published since last week's terrorist attacks.
More prosaically, Requiem was performed for the first time, in 1888, for the funeral of Joseph-Michel Le Soufaché, an important Parisian architect. Tonight's performance celebrates an architectural birth: the long-awaited opening of the Philharmonie de Paris.
I am listening live now as the orchestra performs (it has moved on to a percussive Ravel concerto starring the world-famous pianist Hélène Grimaud). But the architect who designed the Philharmonie—the equally famous Jean Nouvel—is not. Nouvel is sitting out the opening. From the sidelines, the Pritzker Prize–winning architect is protesting that the construction was rushed. The exterior may not be completed until the summer.
"L’architecture est martyrisée, les détails sabotés," Nouvel writes in today's Le Monde, "les contribuables auront donc à payer, une fois encore, pour corriger ces aberrations décisionnelles."
French readers of Vanity Fair can read in detail what makes Nouvel say that his design has been martyred and sabotaged. Despite the fact that the project has lost the architect's support, a larger question looms. Can it still unite a Paris neighborhood that has been near the epicenter of conflict over the last week?
The Philharmonie almost didn't happen. Emilie Chalcraft reported back in 2013 on how the project was spared, despite budget cutbacks that scuppered plans for Nicolas Sarkozy's pet project, the Maison de l’Histoire de France, as well as for a bizarre recreation of the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux designed by Snøhetta. The Philharmonie came in for special criticism in a French senate report, according to Chalcraft, due to project drift and cost overruns, but the plans were simply too far along to dial back. (Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire: When the wine is drawn, one has to drink it.)
The decision to proceed may one day look like wisdom, if the Philharmonie can help to integrate two communities that fall along a stark divide in French society. The Philharmonie is situated in the Pont-de-Flandre, just across the ring road from Pantin, a commune within "the other Paris"—part of the "suburban areas of darkness" that border the City of Light.
About one-third of Pantin's residents are foreign-born immigrants. That's changing, according to the Associated Press, which describes Pantin as the Brooklyn of Paris (sigh). But immigration appears to give the commune its character: Resident Mira Kamdar offers an enchanting account of life in Pantin. The takeaway might be different for visitors, though. A travel writer for The Guardian recently stopped by Pantin and focused exclusively on an old warehouse well known there for its graffiti, describing it as "a kind of urban adventure park where people can experience an inner-city edginess without any of the associated potential dangers." (That sounds more like Queens, but no matter.)
This week, as The New York Times explains, Pantin has come under a different kind of scrutiny:
Reporters flocked there last week after the Charlie Hebdo massacre to seek the Muslim view of events at a mosque so crowded that worshipers spilled out onto the sidewalk. The police also searched an apartment in Pantin, their first stop in the rush to track the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Les Courtillières, a serpentine collection of public housing towers in the town, draws filmmakers exploring the dark side of poverty.
Which makes the site of the concert hall all the more challenging now—and maybe something of a missed opportunity already. Philharmonie President Laurent Bayle told France 24 that building a world-class orchestra venue so far from its affluent base in western Paris was intended as "a hand extended to the banlieues" (one nevertheless situated on the right side of the tracks).
Some parts of the concert hall's program do seem designed to appeal to the largely immigrant, segregated suburbs, at least potentially (including tickets that start at $11). The music, on the other hand—at least for tonight's curtain-raiser—comprises only selections by major French composers working in the Western tradition. (The orchestra just finished playing the world premiere of Thierry Escaich's Concerto pour orchestra, by the way.)
As a piece of architecture, it is hard to say whether Philharmonie can bridge France's political and social divide—which is much wider than the Périphérique that it strides. But there may be no better Western architect to try it than Nouvel. And if he has pulled his support for the Philharmonie, it will be a wonder to see it succeed fully in this mission without him.
Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arabe is one of the great modern buildings of Paris—and a great tribute to immigrant residents who hail from the Muslim faith and Arabic world. The 1987 building is one of the Grands Projets of François Mitterrand, and it lives up to its billing. Nouvel's façade is both traditional and high-tech: The pattern of the plates resembles the familiar Arabic mashrabiya latticework, but the plates also make up a kinetic daylighting system. The façade contains some 30,000 photosensitive, mechanically activated apertures that open and close to admit light—making the IMA the first building in the world with an adaptive envelope.
In 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy convened Nouvel, fellow Pritzker Prize-winner Richard Rogers, and eight other architects to come up with a scheme the former president referred to as "Grand Paris." Sarkozy's ambitions were undone, first by the Great Recession in 2008, then by François Hollande in 2012. It is easy to imagine a character of Sarkozy's convictions dreaming of making Baron Haussmann's Paris his own, but it didn't happen. (A lost opportunity for Paris and Nouvel, or perhaps a bullet dodged.)
Last year, Nouvel was charged with a different project related to Islamic and Arabic design, this one in the U.S. The architect is designing a three-story Museum of Islam (and attendant prayer space) in Lower Manhattan. The museum is part of a development that replaces plans for a $140 million, 15-story project for the site—the so-called "Ground-Zero Mosque." The same outrage that chased that notorious development just four years ago could easily shadow the new museum, although an architect of Nouvel's caliber may be able to dispel any doubt.
In Paris, what happens next for both the Philharmonie and the cultural divide that it had promised to bridge is unclear. Nouvel appears to have walked away from it for good. That's too bad—both for the concert hall and for Paris. It's possible to imagine the Philharmonie as the first of another round of Grand Projets, a series of cultural institutes, parks, and other developments designed to foster common ground for a divided city.
Such projects aren't feasible, of course: Severe fiscal turmoil is at the heart of the burgeoning fascist movement taking root in France and other European nations. (Read Vox's Matthew Yglesias for a sober analysis of the economics of Front National and a smart followup piece from The New Republic). Still, it's tempting to imagine what they might look like—and what the Philharmonie might yet become—in part because there is an architect who has proven he is up for the job.