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Saturday19 August 2017

La Seine Musicale, Paris, by Shigeru Ban

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The second concert hall to be completed in the French capital within three years is a showcase to innovation and style. Ike Ijeh admires the distinctive features of this venue, which was designed by award-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban

La Seine Musicale

The distinctive egg structure houses the classical auditorium and features a giant 45m-high solar ‘sail’

In the time it has taken London to prevaricate over whether it needs a new world-class concert hall, Paris has built two. The first came in 2015 in the form of Jean Nouvel’s calamitously controversial Philharmonie de Paris in eastern Paris. Swelling to twice its original publicly-funded budget, relations soured so sorely on that project that Nouvel refused to attend the official opening and lambasted his employers for “the contempt shown over the past two years for architecture, for the profession of the architect, and for me as the architect of the most important French cultural programme of the early 21st century”.

Now, said civic employers have learned their lesson and the successor to the Philharmonie has recently opened on time and on budget and is both controversy- and Nouvel-free (although Nouvel did design the masterplan for the wider regeneration site). The €170m La Seine Musicale is located on the opposite side of the Paris on a small promontory island on the western edge of the city close to Versailles. In a masterly coup for city authorities, it has been designed by celebrated Japanese architect Shigeru Ban in his first built commission for the French capital. Local architect Jean de Gastines, long-time partner to Ban on several French projects, also serves as associate architect here.

Moreover, to fully exorcise the traumatising memory of the Philharmonie’s difficult delivery, this project has been procured through a novel public-private partnership scheme, a mechanism that remains relatively untried in a society where, unlike Britain’s, the long arm of the state dominates the vast majority of public life and works.

This particular procurement route is all the more extraordinary for the type of building La Seine Musicale is. In Britain, PPP tends to breed architecture that bristles with tedium and temerity. Fully conscious of their contractual obligations over a 30-year period, cautious contractors commonly specify buildings that are expressly designed to minimise all risk of undue vexation afflicting their long-term maintenance commitments.

Not so at La Seine Musicale. Shigeru Ban, 2014 Pritzker Prize winner, may be an inspirational innovator but his trademark work with cardboard and paper is the stuff of building maintenance nightmares. The paper and cardboard may have been dispensed with on this project, but its chief architectural feature is still an extraordinary risk-summoning timber lattice-work egg structure covered in 5,600m² of glass and partially shaded by a gigantic 800m² photovoltaic ‘sail’ that gradually moves every 15 minutes along steel rails and in alignment with the sun’s path to protect the interior from solar glare. Birmingham Queen Elizabeth Hospital, this is not.

La Seine Musicale

The 170m euro concert venue has been built on an island on the Seine on the western edge of the city

Garden

The egg is the most distinctive of the three main components into which the building can be split; the others are the concrete structure of the venue itself and the garden that sits atop it. A sprawling public garden occupies the building’s entire roof and incorporates a series of ramped terraces and soft landscaping. It is reached by a monumental flight of steps to the rear of the building and appears to follow in the recent tradition of incorporating accessible rooftops onto European cultural venues.

Such a feature is also found at the Philharmonie de Paris, Renzo Piano’s SNFCC in Athens and, in part, Herzog and de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. In fact, publicity for La Seine Musicale makes clear its aspirations to rival London’s South Bank and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie for cultural prominence, so it is interesting to note how rooftop gardens - or, in the South Bank’s case, elevated promenades - are increasingly being viewed as essential urban accessories for cultural institutions.

Marketing tool or not, rooftop gardens of any form are always eminently civilising civic gestures and their appearance here, offering panoramic views of the Paris cityscape to the east and extending the natural backdrop offered by the adjacent River Seine, is particularly welcome. The experience they offer is further enlivened by the presence of the egg, which itself is placed on the building’s roof and thereby appears to sprout organically from its green, landscaped surface.

La Seine Musicale

A 1,150-seater classical music auditorium sits underneath an intricate honeycomb ceiling constructed from wood and paper

Structure

The second component of the venue is the building’s linear concrete structure, which contains most of the building’s functions, including: the main 6,000-capacity multi-purpose concert auditorium; a large rehearsal hall; convention rooms; vast entrance foyer; and its subsidiary internalised ‘street’. The venue sits on Seguin Island, a narrow triangular island in the middle of the Seine and the building’s linear footprint is determined by its peninsular site.

Ban and Gastines speak of the building’s form evoking that of a “great ocean liner thanks to its long solid concrete walls”. But therein lies part of the problem, for its open, riverside site, at ground level, at least; this is extraordinary defensive and inward-looking building. A gigantic plaza is located at its wider end but this is primarily framed by sheer concrete walls whose windowless surfaces and mean entrances offer absolutely no clue whatsoever as to what is going on inside.

An enormous 800m² LED screen mounted in the centre of the façade provides some animation and the sweep of stairs to the rooftop gardens to one side offers a fissure of anticipation as to what its summit might offer. But, all in all, the building maintains a bafflingly blank and sterile relationship with public realm. Even worse is the treatment of the river façade, where a sunken, bunker-like concrete colonnade appears to want to protect itself from the Seine rather than interact with it.

Alas, the theme continues inside. Ban and Gastines explain their approach to the building interior: “A covered street runs through the building, offering a link between all [its] functions, from the main plaza on the east side to the headland of the island. It boasts several shops, and serves the main concert hall, the entrances, the reception and convention rooms, and the auditorium.

“This route was conceived in continuity with the island’s urban plan and indeed acts as an exact extension of the great gallery designed by Jean Nouvel. We have paid great attention and respect to the urban schematic, because it is important for there to be harmony between the different components of the island.”

There is no mistaking the raw, sculptural drama of many of these internal public areas. Faced almost entirely in exposed concrete and comprising a kinetic melée of leaning columns and cut-away voids, the jagged succession of foyers and lobbies are impressive in both scale and layout.
But both they and the ‘street’, in particular, offer virtually no views of the river outside and thereby sever the potentially dynamic interaction with the island beyond and what is left behind sterile in its absence. Without this sense of place, for all their volatile structural dynamism, many of these spaces might as well be in Wembley Stadium or the Millennium Dome.

La Seine Musicale

The egg structure is constructed from woven spruce timber laminate interspersed with larch nodes and glazed panels

Egg

The egg contains a smaller 1,150-capacity auditorium designed for classical music and it is here, finally, that the building comes to life. Ban and Gastines describe the egg as something of simplicity and warmth.

“From the outside, it takes the form of an egg protected by glazed wood meshwork, because we wanted it to have a simple shape. Inside it takes on more angular proportions to favour the acoustics. We developed a ceiling made from a collection of small, tubular pieces of wood, cardboard, and paper tubes. We used these materials because we were looking to create a warm atmosphere.”

Internally, the auditorium is indeed a supremely uplifting space and reveals the kind of carefully crafted, organic intimacy that is Ban’s trademark. Its walls and ceiling are extraordinary, the former comprising woven wickerwork of wooden acoustic surfaces and the latter a fantastical geometric kaleidoscope of 916 wooden hexagons filled with 28,000 fireproofed paper tubes. Here, finally, Ban is on home turf.

Equally assured is the inventive lattice-work façade. Its components are made from glued laminated woven spruce members with varying depths of 32 to 42cm and fixed to junctions with larch nodes. Glass panels are interspersed within the mesh to form the façade. This is, in turn, separated from the internal auditorium by a series of encircling, mosaic-lined ramps which provide an additional acoustic buffer for the auditorium and, finally, offer the generous views over the surrounding river and island so lacking elsewhere in the building. Of course, timber geodesic domes have been done before, but rarely to this scale and level of refinement. It is undoubtedly the highlight of the building.

But the encore is its futuristic moving sail outside. A steel rail supported by a paired scissor columns forms the mount on which the sail glides, with the sail itself set to automatically follow the path of the sun during the day from east to west before returning to its starting position at night to repeat the process the following day. The sail is 45m high and moves at speed of 8cm per second and is thought to be the only solar shade of its kind in the world. But it provides energy as well as shade, generating 80,000kWh/y to power the auditorium within.

While undeniably impressive in sustainability terms, large moving parts on any building risk accusations of clunkiness and contrivance and La Seine Musicale is no exception. But for Ban and Gastines, the feature enables the building to be “totally different depending on the time of day” and is part of their overriding mission to create “a symbol of Seguin Island and its arrival in the 21st century”. This, inevitably, it does.

But it also provides a metaphor for the disparate nature of the architecture found throughout the project. While the egg offers moments of enjoyment and is clearly where Ban’s natural instincts are most evident, spatially and geometrically it seems anomalous to the blank concrete walls of the main building. Again, these bear little relation to the lush expanses of the rooftop garden or the natural setting of island and river. In parts, this is undoubtedly a building of drama and excitement. But one is forced to ponder how much more might have been gained had its constituent parts not only been stitched together with more conviction but more firmly embedded into the fabric of its enviable island setting.

Project team

Architect  Shigeru Ban / Jean de Gastines
Client Conseil Departmental des Hauts-de-Seine
Main contractor Bouygues Bâtiment Île-de-France
Structural engineer Setec Travaux Publics & Industriels
Mechanical engineer Artelia Bâtiment & Industrie
Landscape architect  Bassinet Turquin Paysage

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