Paris symphony hall heads to city's scruffier side to build community

The new Philharmonie of Paris complex sits far from the city's culturally rich center in order to foster development of a 'Grand Paris' that embraces its outer suburbs.

Charles Platiau/Reuters
The new Paris Philharmonic Hall 'Philharmonie de Paris' in February 2015.

The bold new Philharmonie of Paris, a vast aluminum complex, is anything but classical. Its façade is clad with 200,000 bird-shaped tiles in four shades of gray, meant to connect the building to the park in which it sits.

But it is its location, once the site of slaughterhouses – and far from the traditional nucleus of Parisian high arts – that may have been the venue’s most risqué choice.

For centuries, patrons of the arts have flocked to the center of Paris, first along the Seine, through the doors of the Chatelet theater or the Louvre museum, and later westward. For the symphony it was the nearly 90-year-old Salle Pleyel, near the Champs-Elysees. The grouping of these facilities, part of the city's stunning landscape, made logistical sense: most of the ticketholders live in central Paris or its wealthy western suburbs.

Now those patrons must travel to the working class and immigrant-heavy 19th arrondissement (subdivision) in northeast Paris. This has prompted years of fierce debate with symphony-goers aghast at the prospect of a reverse commute that was too far at best, dangerous at worst.

It's a familiar refrain. When the Georges Pompidou Center opened, in 1977 in the 4th arrondissement near Les Halles, in the heart of a prostitution zone, the cries of protest were equally loud. Today that area is a humming district for tourists and young Parisians alike.

The leadership of the Philharmonie, which opened its doors in January, hope to effect a similar transformation in its vicinity. But it could also change the very dynamics of Paris, the capital of a highly centralized country whose arts and major tourist spots are equally centralized, says Laurent Bayle, president of the Philharmonie. Its opening comes just as Paris is set to redefine its geographical space and transportation networks as it seeks to create a “Grand Paris,” or Greater Paris.

Expanding the community

The Philharmonie takes pains to open itself up to its new neighbors. A giant ramp extends from the entrance to the greater community, beckoning residents from both the 19th arrondissement and the surrounding banlieue, just on the other side of the roadway, to concerts, children’s orchestras, and family events.

But if one of its clear aims is to change the demographic profile inside the auditorium – skewing it younger and more ethnically and economically diverse – it’s also got an important role to play in Paris’s urbanization goals.

The idea to build the Philharmonie in the east coincided a decade ago with proposals to develop a "Grand Paris,” one that subsumes some of the banlieues of Paris and changes transportation networks accordingly. One of its aims is to equalize the stubborn disparities between inner Paris and its outer suburbs.

The Greater Paris project, to be launched next year, will be essentially meaningless, though, without the help of cultural institutions to fill in the space, says Mr. Bayle. There cannot be a grand metropolis “with nothing inside of it,” he argues, “when the only facilities, museums, are along the Seine.”

'Frontier is just in the mind'

The Philharmonie project has run into controversies, from construction delays to price overruns to the fact that its star architect, Jean Nouvel, snubbed the inauguration and wants his name disassociated from the project. Now it's up and running in the Parc de la Villette, just one of many new projects. Yet while more companies and universities are opening up eastward, so far the neighborhood lacks the restaurants and other charms that draw outsiders and put it more broadly on the map for Parisians. 

On a recent night, change was already perceptible, as the well-heeled crowds – including many downtown residents – lined up to see the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre from St. Petersburg.  Danielle and Dominique, two friends who live in the posh 5th arrondissement, said it makes sense to build here. “The area is a bit dead,” says Dominique, on her first visit to the Philharmonie.

And to the nay-sayers, the Philharmonie responds that it’s sold out until at least June. That might be because the venue is now the only place to see the top symphonies, like the Berlin Philharmonic. Or because the state-of-the-art auditorium, while seating 2,400, feels intimate, the sound enveloping. The farthest seat is just 32 meters from the conductor. And perhaps it’s because the area itself isn’t actually so different, after all.

Philippe Provensal, a press officer, leads a group of visitors to the top floor, onto a view of the 19th, the highway that delineates Paris, and the start of the neighboring banlieue. “It shows,” Mr. Provensal says, “the frontier is just in the mind.”

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