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Architecture - Urban DesignEn France avec la Berkshire Review

Opera Houses in the City, Part II: The Opéra Bastille (English Version)

L'Opéra Bastille. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
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L'Opéra Bastille. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
L'Opéra Bastille. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

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What does it matter what you say about buildings? Is it possible to be fascinated by a building without thinking it very good, or even without knowing whether it is good or not? I’m not talking about the architectural equivalent of a guilty pleasure, a treat which would have to be triple-Z grade  lousy indeed to cause genuine shame in a time in which you can watch Plan 9 from Outer Space at the Cinemathèque Française. I’m talking of course about the Opéra Bastille, a building which this sentence will not even attempt to sum up.

Perhaps one feels compassion for any building criticized, by former Opéra National de Paris director Hugues Gall, as “a bad answer to a question which wasn’t being asked.” However debated it was in the mid 1980s, that question — whether or not Paris needed another opera house — now seems moot. Whether or not the city needed the Bastille in addition to the Garnier, both have found their niche without dislodging the many smaller and private theaters which also present opera.

The second question of whether or not the Opéra Bastille is “bad” architecture remains more open, debated, if not in the newspaper, as at least a passing thought in the heads of those who see the building. It is likely the least-loved of François Mitterrand’s grands projets. There are several variably reliable accounts of how the design was chosen, that the president pointed at the wrong model, that the jury was sure that they had chosen the design of the superstarchitect of the moment, Richard Meier. According to Georges Poisson, whose book, Les Grands Travaux des Présidents de la Ve République provides a readable and perceptive account of all the major projects built in Paris from the Centre Pompidou (1977) to the Musée du Quai Branly (2005), the jury, without much enthusiasm,presented Mitterrand with a shortlist of six projects from among the 757 entries. The president then eliminated all but two and then added a third before choosing Carlos Ott’s design over that of Christian de Portzamparc, who proposed a more radical remodeling of the Place de la Bastille, filling the entire triangle from Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine to Rue du Lyon and thus building over Rue du Charenton.

While the jury did, according to Poisson, think that it saw the “hand of Meier” in Ott’s design, the design seems to have been chosen because of its contextualism, a reason that may seem odd to those who have visited a building could well have been dropped from the Delta Quadrant into the douzième arrondissement (the Opéra Bastille does recall the 24th century style of the administrative buildings of the United Federation of Planets on Star Trek). Ott himself presented the design as “functional project that is not principally aesthetic [1],” which charted a path between the poles of tabula rasa urban renewal and over-fussy contextualism [2]. The sheer size of the brief, far larger than that of the Opéra Garnier, including a main theatre seating 2,700 and an (unbuilt) “salle modulable” with 600-1,300 places, meant that fitting in would be a tough ask.

Perhaps the greatest source of tension has to do with the building’s style rather than its scale. Ott’s efforts to fit his building into the Place de la Bastille were surely made more challenging by the building’s blankness, its pure geometric forms, especially drums, and all the smooth gridded surfaces. The design was devised, chosen and constructed during the zenith of historicist post-modernism, a movement which left less behind in Paris than in most other cities. Though pomo was less popular in Europe than in the US, I am tempted to credit the grands travaux themselves for saving Paris from fiberglass corinthian columns and plaster broken pediments. Like many great builders before him, Mitterrand had particular taste. He liked a very French style which one might call “high-tech monumentality,” an architecture which has a monumental presence, contemporary materials and no interest in historicism. This tendency is evident all over Paris, from the Centre Pompidou, through Mitterrand’s travaux to Stephane Maupin’s just-completed “mountain” on rue Rebière, but it is rare elsewhere.

Le post-modernisme parisien, Avenue Daumesnil. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
Le post-modernisme parisien, Avenue Daumesnil. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

Though embodies this style, the Opéra Bastille remains an odd one out among the grands travaux. The Bibliothèque Nationale had practical problems to do with the storage of books in glass towers, but one can understand the appeal of its geometric simplicity and huge scale. The Grand Arche at La Défense must have been a similarly irresistible proposition. The Grand Louvre was controversial at the time, but must now be considered one of the architectural triumphs of recent decades. Mitterrand himself was ambivalent about the Opéra Bastille. In a 1984 interview he told the Nouvel Observateur that “in its original state I would not have chosen the project for the Opéra Bastille. It’s the project over which I hesitated the most, and not just for its architecture. Now I have come around. [3]”

Stylistically, the Opéra Bastille is neither a form which follows function or a formalist caprice. It lies somewhere between and to the side of rationalist modernism and contextualist post-modernism. Functionally, the building has all one might ask of a modern opera house — a large hall, sober but pleasing, with good sight lines and acoustics, a stage of 4,500 square meters, cavernous back and side-stages and the famous scenery turntable which at least theoretically allows three different operas to be performed in a single day. If this technology did not always run smoothly in the beginning, Bastille is at least an Opéra house which does not limit the creativity of the artists who work there and this is no small thing, whatever one thinks of its architecture.

Ott’s efforts to fit in are numerous. Most obvious is the reconstruction of the restaurant at the corner of Rue de Charenton and Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine — Les Grandes Marches — supposedly the last building to witness the fall of the Bastille. Poisson criticizes this “pastiche” for preventing a major restructuring of the Place de la Bastille and the entrance to Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine [4], and if he is right that the restaurant is a pastiche, perhaps the lack of a major renovation is no bad thing in such a vibrant and heterogeneous quartier (the Place de la Bastille is “almost all right”). Other contextual gestures include the rectangular black (Mitterrand’s color choice) gateway “arch,” canted to follow the outline of the Place, the more or less public steps, a Métro entrance directly underneath, all responses to a brief which demanded a democratic opera house, a goal which likely has more to do with ticket prices than architecture.

Rue de Lyon. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
Rue de Lyon. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

In a 1989 text, Ott made what seems to me a rather upside down comparison with the Palais Garnier, writing that “there must be a real symbiosis between the building and the urban fabric, in contrast to the Palais Garnier, a closed building which seems insurmountable.[5]” For me, the Garnier is the building which, being in the round, encrusted with texture and ornament, with a broad, practically grinning entrance and a genuinely public “stoop,” does its best to be welcoming in excessively formal surroundings, while the Bastille remains, in spite of its contextual gestures, a chilly building among lively streets. Unlike the Garnier and perhaps inevitably given its site and extensive brief, the Bastille does have a distinct back, and a lot of back in the form of the long, lifeless ground level facades along Rue de Lyon and Rue de Charenton. Buildings aren’t obliged to cram cafés into every inch of facade, but it is a shame, on the Rue de Lyon side, that the long blank bulk of the Opéra prevents a direct connection between the Place de la Bastille and the very successful Promenade Plantée along the railway viaduct which once led to the Gare de la Bastille, where the Opéra stands today. Diagrammatically, the Opéra Bastille is still a railway station.

L'arrière de l'Opéra Bastille vu de la Promenade Plantée. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
L'arrière de l'Opéra Bastille vu de la Promenade Plantée. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

Unlike such urban set pieces as Opéra or Étoile, Place de la Bastille is a genuine crossroads. Boulevard Richard Lenoir, Rues du Saint Antoine and du Faubourg Saint Antoine (which kink the main east-west axis of the city), Rue de Lyon and Boulevard Henry IV, among others, are streets of diverse design which lead to very different parts of town. Poisson describes Place de la Bastille as the “Étoile de la gauche[6]” a history which goes back to 1789 and extends to the ecstatic gathering which followed Mitterrand’s election in 1981 and even to last month’s “Reprenons la Bastille” rally led by Front de Gauche presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Bastille is both a point of transition in the city and an accidental square, an oddly shaped void where the famous fortress once stood. If the Place de l’Opéra seems literally written in stone, Bastille feels much more like damp clay, still a part of living history, though it is safe to imagine that the Opéra Bastille is now the most solid part of a mutable ensemble.

Sortie du Métro, Opéra Bastille. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
Sortie du Métro, Opéra Bastille. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

If the Opéra Garnier is a building which is self-confident enough to take all that its context can dish out — pigeons, traffic, garbage bins, the Opéra Bastille, like many modern buildings, seems brittle. The Métro entrance at its feet, designed to seamlessly connect with the main steps, is for some reason the most filthy in the Place (incidentally, Place de la Bastille was until 1962 the site of one of Hector Guimard’s largest and most elaborate Métro entrances). The unsettling blandness of the Opéra Bastille almost works as a neutral background to the roiling grubbiness of its context. One can understand why Mitterrand did not immediately warm to the building, and why Parisians have yet to take it into their hearts or mythology (no one talks about the Palais Ott…), but any building which combines in one edifice pure geometric forms, overwhelming scale, attempted contextualism, successful functionalism and its own creation myth surely has something to teach us. In architecture, it is sometimes better to be interesting than to be beautiful.

Station de Métro, Bastille de Hector Guimard (1900, supprimée 1962).
Station de Métro, Bastille de Hector Guimard (1900, supprimée 1962).

[1] Georges Poisson, Les Grands Travaux des Présidents de la Ve République, p. 134.

[2] Carlos Ott, Architecture Capitale, in Les Temples de l’opera, by Thierry Beauvert and Michel Parouty, pp 118-119.

[3] Poisson, p. 132.

[4] Poisson, p. 138.

[5] Ott, Architecture Capitale, in Les Temples de l’opera, by Thierry Beauvert and Michel Parouty, p. 119.

[6] Poisson, p. 131.

Alan Miller

About Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and holds a BFA in film from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. Alan Miller reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, and other sports in his letters from Sydney. He won the 2011 Architects’ Journal Writing Prize.

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