Philharmonie de Paris: a sound interior

April 1, 2015

At Paris’ newly completed symphonic venue, Ateliers Jean Nouvel masterfully integrates an organic aesthetic and acoustically engineered interiors.

Article by ADR contributor, Fiona Foster.

Philharmonie de Paris, inaugurated on 14 January, 2015, is the world’s largest music complex comprising two main buildings, Cite de la musique (now Philharmonie 2) and Philharmonie 1.

Ateliers Jean Nouvel was chosen to design Philharmonie 1 in 2007. Nouvel’s team, including lead acoustician Sir Harold Marshall of Marshall Day Acoustics, was selected from 98 competing applicants worldwide. The competition brief for Philharmonie 1 required that the form of the Grande Salle symphonic concert hall was not to follow the conventional shoebox or vineyard style. The brief also included highly technical acoustical requirements regarding clarity and reverberation.


Realising the mandate for a particularly distinctive and original design, Nouvel sought to create a space that was not only conducive to delivering the music as truthfully as possible to the listener’s ear, but also created a sense of well-being in the listener so that they would be more conducive to receiving the music and absorbing it.

Subsequent to commissioning Marshall Day Acoustics, Nouvel also appointed acoustical consultant Yasuhisa Toyota, to provide model study and peer review of the space.

Traditionally, the shoe-box shape provided the best acoustics for concert hall design. The highly acclaimed Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna is a classic example, where the audience is arranged in the central floor space and along the three wall planes of a rectangle, with the stage occupying one end of the ‘box’. However in 1963 the new Berliner Philharmoniker exhibited a new style of concert hall architecture. Moving beyond the traditional box form, and influenced by his vision for balance and harmony between architecture and nature, architect Hans Scharoun pioneered the vineyard style based on a futuristic, organic aesthetic. Scharoun moved the orchestral platform to the centre of the hall, arranging the seating in outward rising terraces to enhance sound dynamics and improve aesthetics. The ceiling too was positioned to enhance the visual appeal while also optimising acoustics with curves and tent-like angles. This new paradigm became the model for several later concert halls including the Sydney Opera House (1973).


In arriving at the radically different design for the Philharmonie 1, to meet aesthetic and demanding acoustic requirements, Nouvel’s team combined aspects of Scharoun’s vineyard style with those of the traditional box style, applying technology in innovative ways to bend and morph elements, and creating a fundamentally new model in concert hall design: the enveloping style, with the stage in the middle of the space and the audience suspended on cantilevered balconies almost over the orchestra. Due to the ingenuity of designing, with seating banks on floating platforms away from walls, listeners end up being no more than 32 meters from the conductor where ever they are seated. The walls, which the seating banks are attached to, create an expansive outer resonating chamber, giving the listener the impression of being immersed in music and light and conveying a sense of intimacy, presence and immediate engagement.

To create a soundproofing barrier, Nouvel’s team utilised the traditional ‘box within a box’ concept creating a void buffer between the Grande Salle’s actual internal chamber wall and the external walls of the auditorium. This ‘box within a box’ feature for soundproofing was also used by Frank Gehry in his design of the Walt Disney Concert Hall which Yasuhisa Toyota was lead acoustician on at the time.


Nouvel also used curved balcony walls and electronically adjustable wooden ‘cloud’ formations to maintain optimum timbre and resonance without effecting acoustic clarity. Other acoustic integrity maintaining elements include brick-like protrusions on walls for creating extra surface area, materials such as polished timber and luxurious but low sound absorption upholstery. These features together with tailor-made seating adapted to specifically fit a designated placement in the curved, undulating hall, ensures every listener enjoys the same acoustic experience where ever they are seated in the auditorium. In keeping with his vision that the space create a sense of listener well-being, seating is a comfortable 52-55 centimetres wide with a minimum distance of 90cm between seat rows.

Another unique feature of the hall is its versatility to be reconfigured to suit different music genres without compromising visual or acoustic quality. For instance, the 476 seats in the Parterre can be hidden under the floor and the Arriere’s 319 Figueras ‘Oxymore’ seats, designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, can be removed and stored behind the walls, enabling the 283sqm stage on motorised platforms to move into the back tiers, leaving standing room for an extra 1350 people for contemporary music concerts.


Nouvel and his team ingeniously conceived new ideological solutions in the design of Philharmonie 1 to create a beautiful, accessible complex designed with people in mind. The Philharmonie de Paris establishes Paris’ place amongst the greatest symphonic venues in the world and fulfils the social agenda of providing public access to music culture and fostering music appreciation through education and recreation, in keeping with the Philharmonie 2’s pedagogic perspective. Although the opening of the complex went ahead in spite of obviously being unfinished, such that architect Jean Nouvel did not attend the opening, stating in Le Monde that day, ‘the architecture is martyred, the details sabotaged…’, sources who did attend the gala, looking beyond the ongoing work, resounded positive praise for the Philharmonie de Paris and its musical outreach to new audiences.

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