Shigeru Ban’s New Cultural Hub An Empty Symbol for Paris

The new La Seine Musicale performance center, designed by Shigeru Ban, is meant to be a cultural beacon for Paris. But does the city need any more of those?

Courtesy Didier Boy de la Tour

In the southwestern suburbs of Paris, a new Shigeru Ban–designed concert hall is the latest development in an unbroken line of peculiar happenings on a small island in the Seine. Île Seguin once housed a medieval abbey, served as a private retreat for the daughters of Louis XV, and was commandeered by the state during the French Revolution. By 1929, Louis Renault had acquired and transformed the island into a vast center of automobile production, with thousands of employees working across a massive complex that spanned the length of the island. Production gradually moved elsewhere, as it does, and the last car rolled off the assembly line in 1992.

When Renault announced the forthcoming closure of its factories, Michel Rocard, then prime minister, declared Île Seguin a site of “national interest.” Six years of deliberations between Renault, the state, and the relevant local councils finally resulted in a new plan for the island, designed by Bruno Fortier and agreed upon in late 1998. Fortier’s plan, however, called for the demolition of all the Renault buildings. A severe critic of the proposed demolitions, architect Jean Nouvel (considered but ultimately rejected for the plan awarded to Fortier), wrote a letter in Le Monde in 1999, urging the government to take “moral responsibility” and prevent a “major symbol of the French workers’ movement” from being deliberately destroyed.

Nouvel’s critique met with immediate success and Fortier’s plan was abandoned. The following year, billionaire François Pinault purchased a large plot on Île Seguin to construct a new home for his art collection, a vision that didn’t involve destroying Renault’s factories. Yet by the time Pinault obtained his building permits, the tide had turned: a new report found that the industrial buildings would be too expensive to save. As demolition plans moved forward, Pinault announced his surprise withdrawal; administrative headaches had prompted him to take both his foundation and his architect (Tadao Ando) to another island: Venice’s Palazzo Grassi.

After this series of false starts, Nouvel was finally charged, in 2009, with creating a new culture-led master plan for the island. Nouvel’s plan included the recently completed concert hall; S17, a long-stalled contemporary art center designed by Pritzker Prize–winning RCR Arquitectes, expected to open in 2021; and new bridge links and public gardens.

Designed by Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines, La Seine Musicale stands on a small Parisian island with a fraught history. Courtesy Didier Boy de la Tour

In 2013, it was Shigeru Ban and his French partner, Jean de Gastines, who prevailed in the Seine Musicale competition. Their winning design was completed earlier this year, and here we are. It features  a long, low concrete volume situated at the “prow” end of the island, capped off with a reticulated dome. The dome, the architects previously claimed, “detached itself from the general silhouette of the island [and announced] the specificity of a prestigious public program.” The overstretched nautical metaphor equates the design to that of a concrete ship’s hull floating in the Seine, where a “mainsail” of photovoltaic panels rotates on rails around the dome to catch the sun.

But if the base of the new complex resembles anything seaworthy, it is more container ship than passenger vessel, particularly when viewed from across the river. The long rectilinear volume sits uncomfortably on its site, and the formal and material contrast between the dome and the base seems ill-considered. The combination of repeated, precast concrete panels and the volume’s slack geometry detracts. The building lacks gravitas, the texture and mass that makes concrete so impressive when deployed intelligently.

Happily, once inside, the situation improves. La Seine Musicale’s complex program is organized along an interior street, off of which sit two auditoriums, a 6,000-seat venue for pop music and dance events, a 1,150-seat hall for unamplified music, rehearsal rooms, recording studios, offices, cafés, and restaurants. At the building’s far end, it turns out that the dome houses not only the classical concert hall, but also the majority of the project’s design ambitions. Ascending via the escalators from the ground floor, I enter into a strange new world of latticed spruce, iridescent tiling, and organic curves. Although this combination of color-changing tiles, wood, and glass feels a little like design-by-Instagram—confirmed at the opening-weekend concerts in late April by the bottleneck formed at the top of the escalators as everyone stopped to take selfies—I can’t help but feel a little bit delighted. Particularly after the lifeless-ness of the exterior.

A third, final transition takes visitors from the spectacle of spruce geometry and endless tiles into the calming embrace of wood. A lot of wood. Apart from the rouge-red punctuation of plush, fold-down seating, the entire auditorium is a wave of warm-colored wood. I’m admiring the honeycomb roof tiling and undulating wall paneling when I hear the couple next to me debating the hall’s aesthetics. “What is it with wood right now?” the woman says. “First the Maison de la Radio and now this,” her partner adds, referring to the Maison’s new Grand Auditorium, clad in birch, beech, and cherry acoustic panels. “When will it end?”

Inside, the ceiling and walls are lined with wood elements. Courtesy Didier Boy de la Tour

It transpires that the roof tiles and wall paneling are purely aesthetic and have no real bearing on the hall’s acoustics. Although it is surely a positive development that technology is sufficiently advanced to permit the separation of form and function in concert halls, the knowledge that the wood is purely ornamentation disenchants somewhat. Nevertheless, one of the opening concerts—a mostly Germanic program of Mozart, Weber, and Beethoven (and this on the eve of the first round of voting in the French presidential elections!)—proves the acoustics are sound. Although the hall has nothing on the aural pyrotechnics of the Philharmonie across town, there’s a clean neutrality that allows one to fully appreciate the skill of Laurence Equilbey’s resident Insula orchestra.

Following the performance, people spill out onto the large square in front of the building and over into the adjacent gardens. The awkward and uninspiring spaces are merely temporary gardens, a taste of what’s to come. Given the wholly unfinished nature of Nouvel’s island project—the gardens temporarily planted, the contemporary art center unbuilt—it’s difficult to judge the success of the Seine Musicale as part of a larger whole.

And although public opinion in Paris seems broadly in favor, one struggles to understand why a neighboring council would elect to construct another concert hall less than 15 miles from one of the world’s best. It is perhaps revealing that Ban has said the county council demanded of him “a symbol, a door for Paris, like the opera house in Sydney.” Although certain aspects of Ban’s design, namely the auditorium, are intriguing and elegant, Paris is already a city of great attractions and has no real need of additional cultural magnets. On the other hand, the city does want for green space, and one can’t help but feel that the transformation of the island into a vast and wild public park could have been more impactful, even radical. But then, the French don’t care much for nature without a little improvement. And nothing says improvement quite like “cultural hub.”

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