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Architecture - Urban DesignEn France avec la Berkshire Review

Opera Houses in the City, Part I: The Palais Garnier (English Version)

Un paon au parc de Bagatelle. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
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Un paon au parc de Bagatelle. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
Un paon au parc de Bagatelle. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

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Imagine a peacock at the Paris Opéra. Having taken the Métro eastwards from his digs in the heavenly Parc de Bagatelle, he passes the intermission munching an eight euro canapé. As we stare at the cultured bird, we find his feathers blurring into the architecture. Does the peacock, we wonder, prove that ornament is hard-wired into nature? This is not a “modernist” bird, a bird with clean lines and sharp edges like an Australian King Parrot. Like the Garnier, the patterns of the peacock’s plumage are subtle and layered, they seem to curl in on themselves until, through modern eyes, it is difficult to read in the ornament anything but beauty itself. This is a particular kind of beauty, one which provokes émerveillement rather than analysis.

Ornament n'est pas un crime à l'Opéra Garnier. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
L'ornement n'est pas un crime à l'Opéra Garnier. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

“It’s beautiful…” is often where a conversation about a building like the Opéra Garnier stops, and understandably so. As creatures of late late modernism living in a world addicted to the starkest of numbers and statistics, the ornament of yesteryear is appreciated, but barely readable. Our appreciation comes from the feelings provoked by old buildings, rather than what their decoration might once have sought to teach. We justifiably try to protect these buildings because no one is making them anymore.

What is most moving is when an ornate building, which one might instinctively consider delicate, continues to work through the centuries. That St. Pancras in London would welcome bullet trains speckled with the dust of French beet fields was never anticipated by its architects and yet one could hardly imagine a more dramatic or functional terminus. To travel from Gare du Nord to St. Pancras is a journey within the history of nineteenth century architecture.

The bell rings and the peacock heads off to his box. As we settle into our seat we find ourselves thinking about the Sydney Opera House. Both it and the Palais Garnier were designed by relatively unknown architects who won major competitions. Both are related to but ultimately outside existing styles, Garnier’s design nudges the broad tendency of 19th century neo-baroque, Utzon’s the mid-20th century expressionism of Eero Saarinen, who according to legend plucked the Dane’s winning design from the reject pile. If one could somehow mould the Garnier’s interior into Utzon’s shells, well, one might not have the perfect opera house, but it would be some peacock, wouldn’t it?

One way of trying to more deeply appreciate the Opéra Garnier and other “old” buildings is to consider how they sit in the city, a criteria which is forever contemporary. Sydney and Garnier are both, because of urban contexts in which they are seen in the round, theaters without backs (Sydney of course also has a fifth facade facing the sky, as well as several other performance spaces). Each gives the impression of being a ship at sea, but it is the Opéra Garnier, nowhere near the water (notwithstanding the “lake” in its basement) which truly sits on an island, now probably more than in the time before the car ate Paris. The Palais Garnier has the rare privilege and heavy responsibility of sitting in a neighborhood specially designed for it. The Opéra quartier, including the long, now traffic-choked, Avenue de l’Opéra itself, was one of Baron Haussmann’s most ambitious percements, but there is both a practical and aesthetic tension between this exuberant but rational building and its thoroughly starchy surroundings.

Percement de l'Avenue de l'Opera, 1870. Photo by Charles Marville.
Percement de l'Avenue de l'Opera, 1870. Photo by Charles Marville.

The catch is that the quariter was designed for an opera house, not specifically Garnier’s. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Napoleon III in 1858 at the former opera house on rue Peletier and a successful attempt against the duc de Berri in 1820 at the opera house before that on rue Louvois, security concerns were paramount. The Avenue de l’Opera was intended to offer safe and direct passage for the emperor from the Tuileries to the new opera, up a ramp and straight to his box. Since the Opéra was not finished until after the revolution of 1870-71, the emperor never once made the trip.

La place de l'Opéra. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
La place de l'Opéra. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

For us today, there is perhaps no other part of Paris where what one expects from reading a map is so different from what exists in reality. On paper, the Opéra Garnier seems to crown a lively urban crossroads which in reality is so over-scaled and full of traffic that the avenues which cross it can neither differentiate themselves from one another or maintain the continuity they seem to so triumphantly uphold in plan. Like Times Square, Opéra is the city’s place of perpetual passing through, rather than gathering (though the closing of certain streets around Times Square has encouraged lingering in recent years). The area in front of the Garnier’s “stoop” — another similarity with the Sydney Opera House — is known as the Place de l’Opéra, but what kind of place is it? What can one do there? Like Étoile, it is a space which looks spectacular in plan and does not so much disappoint in reality as fail to exist as anything other than geometry.

These spaces have a strange effect on Paris. The Place de l’Opera is less crazy than Étoile, where twelve boulevards converge on a purely symbolic object, but both are places where you might have to cross six or seven major boulevards in the space of a hundred meters in order to actually get somewhere. As the rest of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) exists in the wake or anticipation of the famous shower scene, so the big urban set-pieces of Paris tend to color the surrounding streets, often for many blocks. Once Haussmann makes a percement he has to see it though, and so the Avenue de l’Opéra must doggedly trundle all the way to the Palais Royal. The Boulevard Haussmann, which separates the Opéra from the Grands magasins, isn’t dead straight but it sure feels like it as it continues, like a righteous windbag crapping on into the night, to Étoile under the guise of the Avenue de Friedland. While such axes might seem to make it easier to get around the city, for the pedestrian — Paris’ protagonist — the city becomes unbalanced. The point is not just that it gets boring walking the boulevards, but that urban walking is not so much a function of distance as of the way interesting surroundings cure sore feet. Along the Seine (or Sydney Harbour) or a rich, varied street like the Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine there is a proliferation of detail which encourages walking and seeing.

Les coulisses des coulisses, Opéra Garnier. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
Les coulisses des coulisses, Opéra Garnier. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.

Subtle building, crude urbanism. The Garnier, like the peacock, is wondrously beautiful, quite possibly the most beautiful building in a town full of monuments seemingly desperate to attract the most point and shoots. The Opéra is not some wedding cake fantasy; it is beautiful for he way it functions, which is quite different from the more quantitative modernist functionalism we are used to. The Garnier is vigorous. As much as one might love it, the Sydney Opera House is not a building where one can leave the garbage bins outside in plain view without threatening the architecture, while the Garnier is like an old grizzly bear who tolerates birds (but not peacocks) living in its fur. Walking around the Palais Garnier on the innermost sidewalk, the only one which doesn’t require the crossing of teeming boulevards, reveals a building adapted at all scales to its daily use. It is hardly falling apart, but there are clumps of pigeon droppings, at least one cracked window, garbage bins, a dumpster, and peeling paint. There is a fancy restaurant whose curvaceous trendiness coexists happily with Garnier’s rough shell. The Garnier, bear and peacock, is exquisite but not precious. As La Danse, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary on the Paris Opéra Ballet suggests, this is a hard-working building, filled not only with performance, but with rehearsal spaces, offices, cafeterias and activities ranging from beekeeping to underwater training for firemen.

Poubelles, Opéra Garnier. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.
<p>Poubelles, Opéra Garnier. Photo © Alan Miller 2012.</p>

The Garnier demonstrates that there are many functionalisms in architecture. The modernist universal space, first suggested perhaps by the Crystal Palace (1851), is now ubiquitous, adding enough soaring trusses and dropped ceilings to include airport terminals, loft conversions, the open plan office and maybe even the smartphone in your pocket, now a calculator, now a casino. However spectacular in their raw state, these spaces are never quite the same after the partitions without which they cannot function roll in. The Garnier has adapted to dramatically changing times. The emperor for which a separate entrance and avenue were designed never even visited, and the building, over time, was able to shed its associations with a hated regime. It may once have been as Théophile Gautier said, the “cathédrale mondaine de la civilisation,” but now is surely as democratized an opera house as any in the world, especially since you can pick up a ticket to the opera or ballet for about the price of a movie (try doing that in Sydney!).*

Though it is understandable to luxuriate in the Opéra’s sumptuous ornamentation, it’s worth remembering that Garnier won the competition for designing a plan, in the words of the jury, “remarkable for its simplicity, clarity, logic, grandeur and for its external composition which indicates the plan in three distinct parts: the public foyers, the hall and the stage.” It sounds a bit like form following function, but only on the inside does one really understand the difference between the Garnier’s brand of functionalism and that of high modernism. The amount of “left over” space in the Opéra is evident in its famous plan, or in the spectacular sectional model displayed in the Musée d’Orsay. Because of this loose-fit approach, all is peace inside the Garnier, a complete contrast with the hectic streets outside. Architecture approaches the pure, wondrous state of space which make you feel good. One marvelous room after another unfolds like chapters in a novel, from the famous stair to the mysterious velvet corridors which lead to each lodge box. These spaces are simultaneously generic — in the sense that their specific purpose is unclear — and as expressive as the night’s performance. Mercifully allowed to be in-between, these rooms become the natural habitat of peacocks.

*An exclusive tip for our readers: a ticket in the back row of one of the loges is classified as “Catégorie 5” and can be had for as little as 12 euros. The advantage of these seats is that, while they are restricted view, there is plenty of space in the loge to stand up and have a perfect view of the stage, probably better than from the “Catégorie 3” seats in the row in front. Like Parisian apartment buildings, which were in pre-elevator days economically integrated, with poorer residents and servants sous les toits, the Garnier’s boxes welcome all comers — in a single loge box prices can range from 12 to 92 euros!

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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