They say timing is everything.  Nothing could be more accurate regarding my recent visit to Paris.  After a seven-year absence, I finally returned to the city I call my second home; where I tasted my first cassoulet and spoke my first words of broken French.  Though planned a few months prior, I arrived in Paris only a week after the brutal attack at the headquarters of the satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo.

Upon exiting the Paris metro, I headed to my friend’s garrote loft that happens to be a short five-minute walk from the massacre.  It resides on the northern end of Place de la Republique—the site where just three days prior hosted over one million citizens representing the largest gathering of French national pride and unity.  Thanks to my friend I had a birds-eye view on history unfolding.  Five Juliet balconies span the width of his place atop a five-story building over looking the square.  Throughout my stay, I caught the continuation of massive groups of individuals of all ages making their pilgrimage to the center statue to lay flowers or pens/pencils—symbols of free speech.  My host, Jerome Godard-Godefroy, a noted journalist, was RTL’s (France’s national Radio Station) morning ‘drive time’ news host—someone I have referred to as the ‘Voice of France.’ 

In addition to seeing old friends and colleagues, I timed my visit to coincide with the completion of two major new cultural facilities each by Pritzker Prize-winning architects.  

Knowing vaguely their locations in the city, a quick study of a Paris map presented the first confluence—each resides on the edge of Paris’s ‘ring highway’; the demarcation between inner Paris and the outlying suburbs. Each new cultural facility is situated within a park.  The first recognizable and major contradiction is how each was realized.  One completed financed by private monies—LVMH the French luxury goods conglomerate which in actuality, is a rare an almost unheard of act in the country.  The other owes its life via the standard method of public subsidy—routine in France and for that fact, throughout much of Europe with similar cultural facilities.

A Real Discovery

Within hours of touchdown I was off with my host to experience the first of the two projects. Frank Gehry’s LVMH Museum—opened officially to the public for just over one two month at the time of my visit—is situated in the tony Bois de Boulogne just outside of the 16th arrondissement on the Western side of the Paris, while Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris concert hall resides at Park Lavelett in the less than desirable 19th on the Eastern edge.

On approach, the LVMH Museum is a true joy to behold. The billowing opaque and transparent glass panels, affixed to the structure by fully exposed metal armature, are draped around what ostensively is a series of stacked boxes housing galleries, an auditorium and public spaces. This cladding provides the building its majestic quality.  Here, Gehry borrows from his ICA building in New York City—a riff on sails of a ship, seeming as if he tore off the curtain wall, reassembling the remains in a totally abstract and more freeing sculptural and non-seamless manner back onto the structure.  Taken in from a distance, the overall impression is of sinuous muscularity in motion—neither tense or aggressive, but rather fluid and graceful.  The building seems to lay in repose on its side, ready to rise up reminiscent of characters out of the Hollywood franchise movie, Transformers. 

Often Gehry sculptural exterior form and gestures comes at the expense of both public and programmatic interior space.  For the LVMH project, this fallout was cut to a minimum.  Only rarely throughout the building were their noticeable, unusable negative spaces—causalities of a bold exterior artistic statement. 

The galleries—in varying shapes and sizes—are mainly of traditional form and structure.  The more irregular shaped spaces are referred to as ‘chapels’ indicative of tradition side altars or spaces in Gothic cathedrals, often adjoining the larger more formal exhibition spaces. Curators have complained about a design flaw in Gehry’s signature Guggenheim Bilbao regarding the challenging ability to actually ‘hang’ a show. Here that restriction isn’t apparent. One gallery in particular, lends itself to the display of a singular large art object.  I immediately thought of Kara Walker’s latest installation in the old Domino Sugar Factory in New York this past summer.  Given today’s artistic impulse, it’s refreshing to see such bold statements will have a place in this museum. 

Another winning element is it’s basement level multi-purpose auditorium.  With a push of a button the room can be configured into a formal performance/lecture room, a banquet room, or as an additionally gallery for temporary installations. In traditional lecture-hall format, opposite sides of the podium are flanked by floor to ceiling glass panels, offering exterior views onto a series of small outdoor patios and walkways that are surrounded in moat-like fashion—the result of a cascading waterfall over a large and gently sloping non-pedestrian staircase.  This water motif, a signature element that I found imposing in Bilbao seemed to challenge the visitor. Here in Paris the opposite it true.  The design feature is inviting and intimate, providing a serene contemplative respite from touring.

The building had two commissioned art projects—one permanent while the other up only for the inaugural months.  The permanent is the work of the foremost American hardedge painter, Ellsworth Kelly. While the minimalistic hand of this brilliant artist is celebrated and enlivens the space created by Tadao Ando in a similar commission for the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, here the exercise falls terribly short.  The commission consists of two works—Color Panels is composed of five single-color canvases and Spectrum VIII – a vertical 12-panel work that acts as the stage curtain.  The random placement and dimension of Color Panels (inappropriately scaled for the space) reduces the installation into what reads as an after-thought—stock mono-color canvas panels purchased and slapped on the walls at the last minute. 

On the other hand, Danish-Icelandic artist, Oalfur Eliasson, known to New Yorkers for his New York City Waterfalls in the summer of 2008, has created Contact. Various galleries, passageways and outdoor space are used to create, in the artist’s words, “a choreography of darkness, light, geometry and reflection” meant to respond and react to Gehry’s architecture.  Often commissioned work seeking to ‘respond’ to a new building and rarely worthy of consideration. Not here.  Eliasson work is deceptively simple and whimsical. Yet on closer encounter, is complex and haunting.  His play of shadow and light is reminiscent of Robert Irwin.  One room brought to mind the mystery and wonderment I felt when I first viewed Irwin’s Scrim Veil—Black Rectangle—Natural Light in 2013 at the Whitney Museum. Eliasson follows Irvin, using Gehry’s building as a collaborator in the same manner as Irwin did with Marcel Breuer’s famous cutout window of the Whitney.  (Image #7 — one of the multiple galleries devoted to Eliasson’s light/shadow installation, using a fixed point within the building as the focus of the piece)

Exiting the building from the top floor deposits you onto a series of random balconies and terraces that populate the rooftop and one complete side of the structure.  Don’t try to figure out or delineate a ‘right’ pathway, just simple explore and discover. The views are breathtaking.  On one side the Eiffel Tower and the other, La Defense—part of France’s ‘grand plan’ in urban planning and architecture begun in the 1950s and accelerated by former President Mitterrand which includes his addition of La Grande Arche which opened in 1989 timed to France’s bicentennial.   (Image #8 — Rooftop view looking toward La Defense framed by one of the exterior panels which acts a canopy & 8A an example of the various outdoor terraces and pathways from the roof down the side of the building)

Gehry’s intension both inside and outside of the building is to dispel the traditional linear narrative method of viewing art or experiencing architecture.  What ever sequence you the visitor chose is valid.  By these means, Gerry has created a true democratic experience in Paris.

The Other Side of The Coin

The day of my departure for Berlin coincided with Saturday’s free daylong public open house, part of the inaugural opening events for Jean Nouvel’s new concert hall. The obscure location is situated next to a work-class suburban population in the hope of attracting and introducing classical music to new audiences.  Upon arrival shortly before the doors were to open at 10am, there were roughly only 200 individuals in line—but the momentum of the day gave way to swelling eager crowds and, as I was later informed, a sizable turnout on Sunday as well.  The first concert slated on Saturday was for 4 pm, restricting access to the main hall until then. Early touring was permitted only to lobbies, rehearsal rooms for small group or individual practice and classroom outfitted for musical education classes.

The approach from the Paris metro subway affords a clear and unobstructed vista of the hulking structure.  The exterior concrete and metal cladding immediately calls to mind the look and feel of warn and weathered surfaces indicative of distressed jeans.  On closer inspection, the optical illusion is the result of a carefully calculated gesture of a repeating abstraction of a bird’s profile on individual aluminum panels—reminiscent of an Escher print—executed in varying tones of grey.  My friend immediately chimed in with the clever and apt comment, “I get it, fifty shades of grey!’ The building almost begs for a masochistic embrace. 

The overall form, referred to by local and international press as a ‘crash landed space ship,’ is a strange amalgam of contradictory signature gestures appropriated from fellow Pritzker Prize winners—a curvy and seductive exterior midsection (nod to Zaha Hadid) clad in a basket weave pattern of individually molded metal slaps (homage to Frank Gehry) framed by aggressive jutting angular patios, walkways and non-functional façade adornments that seem to serve no real purpose (thank you Daniel Liberskind). 

In its current state of semi-completion (FYI – Jean Nouvel boycotted the opening outraged by his client—the city of Paris—opening a facility that clearly wasn’t complete) you still can get a real sense of the finished result.  What might be Nouvel’s salvation is a sloping 52-meter-high metal roof that visitors would be able to walk on.  Even when all facets are complete, the building will still lack warmth.  In fact, a quick Google search by my friend brought up an image of a building in Sofia, Bulgaria he recalled.  The caption on the photo read, “a decayed communist monument in the center of town.”

The building almost dares you to enter, challenging you not to be overcome by its monumental and imposing off-center stairway. The alternative is to descend on a gradually downward sloping plaza toward a low overhanging outdoor balcony, giving the impression that you are being sucked into the belly of the beast. This menacing approach, ironically, is where most of the young students will enter for education and rehearsal rooms that houses the organization’s extensive youth and community outreach program. 

The saving grace is the 2,400-seat concert Hall.  It is soft and seductive as the exterior is angular and aggressive.  Off-limits till later in the day, I wasn’t going to leave without experiencing the room. Given my lack of regard for authority, I, along with my colleague snuck into a rehearsal for the hall’s first free community concert.  Billed as “101 Pianists with Lang, Lang” it featured the international young phenomena of the classical concert circuit.  But the true stars were the one hundred school conservatory music students paired on 50 electronic pianos.  It was heart-warming to hear and witness such youth and vitality enlivens such a wonderfully animated space.

The hall’s design forgoes the traditional shoebox or straightforward faux proscenium-style arrangement for the currently popular vineyard design, with seating areas surrounding the stage, like the Berlin Philharmonie or Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. Side seating blocks at various levels are arranged like cascading mini-balconies giving the feeling of womb-like hammocks in a rural backyard. 

The hall has a rich vibrant sound that should serve both artist and audience well. The proximity of audience to musician is close and intimate even from the last row on the orchestra floor or the top row in the balcony rafters.  The room can be reconfigured to accommodate 3,000 for world music and rock concerts providing greater flexibility than most existing performance spaces and without—or at least I was told by an official—jeopardizing the integrity of its primary purpose. 

Nouvel chose a color palette of soothing and simple elegance. Gradations of light-tone wood veneers are paired against shades of tan and beige walls contrasted by audience orchestra-level seating in plush velvet black upholstery.  Little in the way of ornament is present. Recessed into walls and extended outward are square and rectangular forms of varying dimensions affixed throughout spaces mainly on balcony fronts or side walls, serving as acoustical elements either to absorb or reflect sound.  It’s these elements that decorate an otherwise minimal design. Some have a polished reflective cladding—an odd surface for an acoustical concert hall.  This treatment gives a retro-glam 60’s appearance similar to Don Draper’s Park Avenue living room on Mad Men.  The ceiling consists of suspended acoustical curvy wood panels. Their forms are reminiscent of various abstract images in a Miro painting.  They, along with a large bisected circular shield and doubling as a canopy for masking special lighting equipment in the ceiling, are installed with thin metal rods giving a whimsical appearance of the lightness and ease of a Calder mobile. The traditional concert hall pipe organ is humorously represented by a shaded painted image on the back wall, in the style of impressionist Monet’s cathedral paintings. 

I am eager to return to experience a full concert evening, but alas, like most, believe I will rush directly from subway to my seat avoiding at all cost any contact with the exterior building.  

It was fascinating to experience two major architectural projects in Paris within days of each other.  Each a key cultural addition realized to stimulate interest in either the performing or visual arts.  Each designed to be enjoyed as public space within a park environment.  As pieces of public art, each allows complete exterior access.  They invite you to climb over and around, very much in the spirit of a playground jungle gym, creating a unique experience unto itself.  In fact, and if so desired, you never have to actually go inside. 

Gehry offers a building you can’t stop appreciating the bold and enthralling exterior that almost keep you from wanting to enter, while Nouvel provides a form of brutalism which only accelerates your desire to quickly enter and find refuge in the serenity of a truly rapturous concert hall. Experienced these new additions to the architectural playbook together, is to witness a series of confluences and contradictions. 

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