Exquisite musical pearl of the Seine
Text: Ernst Hofacker, Lars Thieleke | Photos: Philipe Guinard, Nicolas Grosmond, Boegly+Grazia / Architectes Shigeru Ban & Jean de Gastines

Star conductor Laurence Equilbey

Architect’s Darling, system developer’s masterpiece: La Seine Musicale is Paris’s new music culture centre. French star conductor Laurence Equilbey lets us in on how it feels to work in it with her orchestra on a regular basis. What is not apparent when looking at the building: The façade system had to be specially developed and realised in the space of only one year. 

“To me, La Seine Musicale is pure inspiration. My orchestra’s artistic values are excellence, innovation and openness – they are in perfect harmony with those of La Seine Musicale. The building is flooded with light and open to its natural surroundings, which gives it a clear expression.” If anyone knows that, it’s Laurence Equilbey. After all, she has earned the French Order of Merit, on top of that the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and she leads the Insula orchestra and performed one of the opening concerts at La Seine Musicale with it. 

Like a ship, Paris’s new music culture centre presides over the river, upon Île Seguin, the former factory island of carmaker Renault. It is crowned by its gigantic, honeycombed timber and glass-clad Auditorium – the pearl-like concert hall for an audience of 1,150 people. The clever trick is a solar veil with a 800 m2 photovoltaic facility, which circles the Auditorium like an oystershell, always in line with the sun’s position as it travels across the sky.

On account of the unusual shape of its pearl, the building has already been hailed as a landmark of the Parisan district Hauts-de-Seine. Besides the Auditorium, La Seine Musicale comprises another venue for an astonishing 6,000 spectators called La Grande Seine, as well as recording studios, seminar and rehearsal rooms, a music school and, not unimportant, sufficient catering possibilites for the visitors; all accommodated within the total 36,500 m2 of the ‘oyster temple’. Michel Sardou and Bob Dylan have already honoured La Seine Musicale with their presence, and Leonard Bernstein’s musical “West Side Story” has also been a guest here. 

La Seine Musicale sits like a ship on the Île Seguin
La Seine Musicale sits like a ship on the Île Seguin

Luckily, no building betrays the struggles that went into its construction. When Stefan Sepp, head of the engineering division at RAICO and responsible for the façade system of La Seine Musicale, is asked where his biggest challenge lay during this project, he takes a very deep breath. Then he says: “A French system developer had already compiled a full planning in 2015. A custom system comprising custom profiles, sealing and everything. In short: the system didn’t work, so the assignment went to the processing company MTECH BUILD. There they were in Paris, with a special construction project, needing special French permits, and they just didn’t have a clue how to do it. So they came to us, asking for help and whether we could complete this project in line with the appropriate quality standards in minimal time.” 

A tight squeeze: Narrow space and little time required good coordination and first-class construction site management
A tight squeeze: Narrow space and little time required good coordination and first-class construction site management

Nerves were raw in Paris. Stefan Sepp and his team had just one year starting from the first talks with the general contractor. On top of that, it was clear that construction and assembly on the building site on the Seine island was going to be extremely difficult. Stefan Sepp: “Our partner, the processing firm MTECH BUILD, had to store construction materials in floating freight barges within reach of the cranes. The whole thing happened on a site the size of a proverbial postage stamp. The scaffolder had to alternately build ten metres higher, ten metres lower so that the spherical shape could be fitted with profiles bit by bit. At peak times, 50 to 60 fitters were at work on the building site.” 

Stefan Sepp and his team opted to start from scratch and developed an entirely new system for La Seine Musicale which was adapted to the given conditions of the substructure that was already present: “We used less than five serial parts in the entire construction project. The profiles, which we newly developed, are based on the fundamental principles of our THERM+ system, but they were individually custom-adjusted: No element was completely level, instead everything sloped towards the back, while the diagonals shaped the seals inwards. We made it a little softer so the glass panes fit better. The most important question was: How do we manage to build a sensible sealing system for the water run-off? Our solution: three tiers and drainage via the gulley circling the ‘equator’ of the sphere.”

Despite the size ratio: The fitters won the battle against the elements
Despite the size ratio: The fitters won the battle against the elements

Rock me, Amadeus! During construction, Laurence Equilbey observed the various stages of the evolution of La Seine Musicale from afar. She says the building’s aesthetics with its clear, seamless design and the veil fascinated her day and night. On 22 April 2017 she had the privilege of opening La Seine Musicale. The conductor experienced a dream come true. Now she makes regular appearances there with her Insula orchestra and her chamber choir accentus, and she thanks the Département des Hauts-de-Seine for its commitment: The decision to invest state resources in culture, and in music in particular, has gifted Paris with a beautiful concert hall to match the Philharmonic and the Radio France Auditorium, in which festivals and unusual themed performances take place. Just right for the Insula orchestra, with which Laurence develops innovative stage productions that combine music, visual arts and circus performance. 

The fitters were able to base  their work at La Seine on these models
The fitters were able to base their work at La Seine on these models
Prizeworthy: The La Seine Musicale project was carried out on schedule and within the set budget

What composition does one play to open such a dazzling and important venue, Madame Equilbey? “One that has both surprises and a statement”, she replies. “To put it precisely, Mozart’s ‘La Finta Giardiniera’, which I find very interesting in its German version ‘Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe’. It alludes to elements from ‘The Magic Flute’ and offers a strong dynamic in the German libretto. We varied the singing from German via Italian and French to English. A clear statement for openness and equality.”