Courtesy of the Philharmonie de Paris
Alexandra Marshall
May 27, 2015

Anybody driving along the Périphérique in Paris has known for months that it wasn’t going to end well. After all the talk about the Philharmonie de Paris, Jean Nouvel’s massive symphony hall, finally, in January—two years late and having cost almost $430 million—the thing was here. And it was hideous.

A hapless dump of bulky geometry with an inexplicable soft-serve-style coil on one side, it’s covered in bird-shaped tiles in various shades of grey that make the building look, from a distance, as if it has been dappled by those same birds’ droppings. Passing Parisians with memories of other massive, tax-coffer-draining architectural disasters like the Opera de Bastille or Les Halles have hung their heads.

Though the reviews for the sound have been good and sales of the democratically priced tickets have so far been healthy, few critics have welcomed the design. Commissioned by Nicolas Sarkozy before the economy went bust, the project only survived the European economic crisis because it was literally too big to fail.

Courtesy of the Philharmonie de Paris

Jean Nouvel very publicly blew off the ribbon cutting ceremony in January, claiming architectural and acoustic compromises were being made in order to meet the opening date. The following month Nouvel even took the project directors to court, demanding his name be removed until 26 cited aesthetic and technical “flaws” were rectified. Given the Philharmonie’s counter-claim that Nouvel kept demanding last-minute changes, and Nouvel’s lack of air-tight proof, a few weeks ago the courts denied his request.

Of course it doesn’t end there. July and August ticketholders hoping to see events like the “Days Off” Festival have recently learned they will be doing so elsewhere, because the building will be closed. Not because everyone in Paris takes summer off, as the Philharmonie’s director recently suggested. (As if the venue having to cancel previously scheduled events didn’t give lie to that immediately.) No, they’re closing again because, wait for it, they need to finish the building.

It’s also ironic that the city’s previous classical music hall, the Salle Pleyel, has been ordered to play only rock and jazz, so that the Philharmonie, with its much bigger capacity, could take over string orchestra duties. Ironic because the biggest hits at the venue so far have been the Paris stopover of the David Bowie: Is exhibition, which ends in May, and its just-announced successor, a show honoring the Velvet Underground. 

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