“You need to hang around the concert hall for a while, get orchestras in to practice and adjust the acoustics. There’s no point starting too early. In the spring of 2015, at the end of the season, we’re bringing over the world’s greatest orchestras for a series of exceptional, low-priced concerts. The real season will kick off in September with the Orchestre de Paris.” Those were the crystal clear recommendations Pierre Boulez addressed to the President of the Philharmonic Society, his friend Laurent Bayle, in the autumn of 2013, as published in Vanity Fair magazine in September 2013. Today the real season is kicking off in early January, the Philharmonie is opening much too early. Without any practice runs.
Against all the advice its architect has been providing since 2013, the building is being opened to a deadline that doesn’t allow architectural and technical requirements to be respected. The Philharmonie has shot itself in the foot – in both feet... thanks to an imperious decision made by the Philharmonie’s CEO who alone decides, according to the statutes governing this private association (1901 law), within the framework of the budget allocated to him. The architect, who is supposed to audit and sign off on expenses, has been sidelined. Public money has thereby been spent on a daily basis in secret without any auditing external to the association.
And yet the Philharmonie is a public project, 100% financed from the public purse, born as it is of a generous ambition, and of an act of love for music. Jacques Chirac, Dominique de Villepin, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and Bertrand Delanoë, sensitive to the arguments put forward by Pierre Boulez and aware of the lack of a proper philharmonic concert hall in France, decided that Music, like the Visual Arts, deserved a place where it could be performed to perfection, a place built on the basis of a revolutionary, cutting-edge program, one that reveals the openness of a space that is meant for everyone and that has the capacity to accommodate a broad repertoire, from classical music to contemporary music at its most experimental or popular. They decided to invent a new instrument, a concert hall of variable geometry that would respect the requirements of fidelity of the most famous concert halls in the world. To make it clear they hadn’t got the wrong century, they chose Paris’s Parc de la Villette as the site, sitting as it does on the edge of the Seine-Saint-Denis district, a vital place, a meeting point for people of all generations and from all social backgrounds. None of this lacks panache: it had the potential to give our country and its capital a globally attractive image and a space that would lure people from all over the world. At the end of 2011, the global financial crisis had become entrenched and the project started running behind schedule. The Prime Minister wanted to stop the project from going ahead altogether, but Nicolas Sarkozy stepped in, ‘presidentially’ shoring up the original plan.
When François Hollande was elected president, some feared the project would be stalled or killed off. But it was kept on the agenda, with a rousing argument from the new Minister for Culture: it was too late to stop it. In the new majority, there was no one left to defend the project and the City of Paris refused to back up the government’s investment. The crisis created a demand for sacrifices in the name of the economy, of the national effort. An economic crisis does not automatically spell a cultural crisis, an architectural crisis. This one required strategy and inventiveness. But there was fear, at the same time, when it was revealed that costs were escalating. People wanted a scapegoat and the architect was perfect for the role. Described as a ‘spoilt star artist’, he was vilified and secretly–contractually–sidelined, with the threat of being chucked off the job. That was when the Philharmonie association got involved in illegal doings in a bid to hide the real costs during an election period.
The crisis apparently justified all sacrifices, and so a cost killer was wheeled in to join the Philharmonie’s CEO in making economically disastrous decisions. In the name of sacrifice, they would in fact make the ultimate sacrifice, sacrificing savings, extending deadlines and blowing-out costs. Attacks on the work of architecture multiplied. Aurélie Filippetti, when these were pointed out to her, came back at me with this: ‘People will think it’s great anyway’. That is the considered assessment of the Minister for Culture, the Minister for Architecture, the Minister for Authors, in the face of the architect scorned. A new Good Enough Culture is with us. Reassured by such support, the director and cost killer found renewed energy and hacked into the beast. The architecture was savaged, the details sabotaged. And so taxpayers will have to pay, yet again, for the results of these reckless decisions to be corrected. Yet today the program’s strong, symbolic architecture is poised to become an international destination; in terms of the global economy, it will create wealth and stimulate productive social encounters. The Philharmonie de Paris is in fact a true Pompidou Centre for music, with a space at the entrance to the Parc 200 metres long and 20 to 30 metres wide, giving people free access to images and music projected into open or closed spaces–a vital, permanent place, offering a 37-metre-high gazebo with a view over the North and East of Greater Paris.
Opening the Philharmonie de Paris’s inaugural program without these spaces makes no sense and represents an attack on the work of architecture. On that score, I will assert my moral rights over the compliance of the work, as well as over other crucial points, so we end up with decent finishes in the foyers and the concert hall.
Those are the conditions for salvaging the significant investment this magnificent program represents. On the eve of the gala opening night, it is high time we made it clear, as Pierre Boulez has suggested, that the Philharmonie de Paris is just being broken in. The building is in fact premature. With time, and a lot of tender loving care, as with any premature baby, its birthmarks will disappear... We are at the pre-opening stage, a proper prelude to future symphonies that will be dedicated to all the generations to come and, in this period of mourning, I feel our Philharmonie is very Charlie in the situation it finds itself in, and in its inter-generational generosity and its openness to social and cultural diversity of all kinds.
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 program of the early twenty-first century prohibits me from being there on opening night and thereby expressing my approval of, and satisfaction with, an architectural structure that wavers between fakery and sabotage. This situation ought to open up a proper debate about the different missions of the architect, the project manager and the entrepeneur in our society, as well as about control of the use of public money in public buildings.