A legend of French architecture has delivered an extraordinary conservatoire building, composed from conical sections, which echoes the relics of an abandoned abbey. Herbert Wright travels to Soissons to see the Cité de la Musique et de la Danse, and finds the veteran architect Henri Gaudin in his Parisian Chinatown retreat.
Photography Antonio Martinelli
On the skyline of Soissons stands a surrealistic spectacle. The small northern French town is dominated by a double-towered, late-gothic facade, a relic of the Abbey of Saint-Jean des Vignes. Sky shows right through its great open rosary window, portal arches, and its hollow steeples. The abbey was abolished in 1792 and as its stones were recycled for house-building soon after, the nave simply disappeared.
Henri Gaudin. Image Credit: D Gerard
'I made a new nave,' declares 81-year-old French architect Henri Gaudin. It lies not at the abbey, but within a music conservatory more than 300m to the west, facing it across what was a military parade ground. The new €19m Cité de la Musique et de la Danse reflects and inverts the empty, asymmetric abbey facade in an extraordinary configuration of curved roofs that diverge upwards like emerging petals, extruded horizontally back across the new nave-like space. Gaudin executed the design with his son Bruno, himself now a significant French architect.
Saint- Jean-des-Vignes is revealed beyond the bridge linking the first-floor internal terrace with an auditorium entrance
The senior Gaudin is virtually unknown in the English speaking world, his books untranslated and none of his buildings among the glamorous Paris grands projets that gain instant international fame. Yet he has been a major presence in French architecture since the Seventies. He had been in the merchant navy, and his École des Beaux-Arts diploma in 1966 was a design for a pilot's house suggesting nautical shapes (perhaps a funnel, a hull). A string of social housing projects in the Eighties defied the hitherto prevailing Corbusian, rectilinear modernism and brought to France something of the 'organic' approach of Aalto and the social sensibility and requisition of light of Siza.
Henri Gaudin's sketch of Soissons' Cité under a dramatic sky. He admits a fascination with vaults, arcs and combinations of straight and curved lines
'It has been said of me that I'm an organic architect,' says Gaudin. 'It is mad, absolutely mad. I am not organic. Organic belongs to nature.' He is talking in the Parisian flat he has occupied since the Eighties in Belleville, where bohemia meets Chinatown. You need to step off the gritty street into a tranquil private network of courtyards to find him, then climb some tired stairs.
The main auditorium has a capacity for 500 people, and is finished in poplar wood
Once inside, it's a question of navigating the narrow path past some of his 2,000 drawings, stacked, bound or leaning against walls, and countless books and maquettes on shelves, to a lounge busy with more papers, old furniture, African statues and a Catholic saint mounted on the wall. Gaudin is tall, but sinks deep into his chair, as if to conserve energy for his animated responses.
The Amphitheatre, with a capacity for 120, is also lined, and acoustically engineered, with wood.
Gaudin's also been labelled postmodernist, ever since the barrelling facade of his housing at Maurepas adorned the poster for the Institut d'Architecture's 1981 exhibition Modernity/ Post-Modernity, but that's another label he rejects. 'I don't like much this terrible term. Postmodernist - it's something a bit cultural, a bit academic.' In 1989, he was awarded France's National Architecture Prize, and he rejected that too, because for him it's always about the building, not the man. In the same year his Paris Archives Centre, with its iconic line of storage towers, punched with tiny square windows curving behind the public building, was completed.
Above the 'nave', simple shapes in roof vaults, skylights and windows contribute to a complex, dynamic geometry
Son Bruno Gaudin worked as a project assistant on the Archives Centre. His own practice has since built a big portfolio and is currently remodelling the vast interiors of Henri Labrouste's 1868 Richelieu building in Paris, which was the previous base of the Bibliothèque nationale. Henri Gaudin acknowledges that the Cité at Soissons 'owes him the sophistication and elegance of many of its spaces'.
A line of south-facing windows draws light into a curved vault that acts as a lightscoop above the 'nave'
Henri Gaudin was once described by his contemporary, the philosopher and cultural theorist Paul Virilio, as 'a man of letters who builds with stone, concrete or words'. He has written about architectural history, including the Middle Ages, and particularly the role of simple geometry. 'Everything I know about architecture I have learned from the Romans,' says Gaudin, stressing the 'extreme precision' of volumes they engineered from just circles and rectangles. It seems that rather than appropriate historical elements, Roman or otherwise, as postmodernists did, Gaudin reaches deeper, into the fundamentals of such timeless geometry.
Even in the brick-clad southern facade, curved sections break up the rectiliniarity
He becomes very animated when he explains how he is 'very interested in the intersection of a cone and a plane. It can create hyperbolas, parabolas, ellipses, circles'. It is such shapes, including the arcs of circles that converge at the tip of gothic arches, that have increasingly characterised his architecture, including at the new Cité building in Soissons. 'Everything evident in architecture, everything intelligent and intelligible, comes from the intersection of planes in space,' he insists. Yet the rational base is not everything - his main inspiration, he says, is poetry. 'You have to find a balance between intellect and sensibility.'
A structural column in the 'nave' is of slow-set concrete. Ancient stones from previous on-site military buildings are retained in the wall behind
France is now dotted with Henri Gaudin's buildings. They include the award-winning Charléty Stadium (1994) in Paris (in collaboration with Bruno) with its brilliantly engineered floating canopy ring and tensile structures rising up into lighting masts, and the Cité de la Musique et de la Danse in Strasbourg (2005), a veritable fortress-like mass tempered with red stone and an eclectic weave of shapes, which has something of late-period James Stirling, but without any explicit historicism.
The organ room window reveals Saint- Jean des Vignes, seen above a water feature extending from the Cité. The door (left) echoes the window's shape
As early as 1993, in the Saint-Leu University in Amiens, metal-clad sections curved like upended half-hulls of boats defined an entrance. They were to become recurring Gaudin signature elements. In 1997, Gaudin entered a design competition for a chapel in Paris' 13th arrondissement, in the shadow of the glass L-shaped towers of Dominique Perrault's new Bibliothèque nationale. Like pages of an open book standing on its spine, but without the symmetry, roof surfaces essentially plunged down around the long axis of the building, skylights spanning the gap below their high edges.
This view of the eastern facade peaks in a vaulted section that introduces light not into the nave, but the space above the main auditorium, used for ballet practice
The competition was won by Pierre-Louis Faloci, but Gaudin's concept would be reborn in the competition entry for a conservatoire in Soissons a decade later. Here, the new 4,118 sq m Cité de la Musique et de la Danse is bigger than the chapel. Its rectangular plan is proportionally less narrow, because the north and south sides that sandwich the axial atrium (the 'nave') are substantial four-storey volumes that house everything of the conservatoire, its auditoria, and documentation space.
Immediately on entering the space, its silent drama envelopes you, not unlike a cathedral. Light falls into the length of the vertical void from the skylight that snakes in the strangely configured vaulting above. On the nave's south side rise columns of concrete set slowly to make it look like marble.
A long staircase and landing on the north wall, a slanted first-floor gallery terrace on the south and converging ceiling beams, draw the eye to a full-height window in the east. This opens the nave to yet more light, and is shaped like half of a gothic arch, clearly echoing the arches of the distant abbey of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes visible through it.
There are four auditoria in the Cité. On the south side is the Amphitheatre, so-called because of the configuration of its 120 seats, which is acoustically baffled by triangular wooden wedges that make the sound omni-directional. The main auditorium is on the north side, with a capacity of 500 and lined with poplar.
'We work with simple materials,' Bruno Gaudin says, adding that this space is similar to auditoria in Strasbourg and a 2003 Gaudin conservatoire in Vincennes. In addition, there is an orchestra workshop room that can accommodate 60 people.
The western elevation includes an entrance into the central atrium in the middle glazed section, whose shape is the same as the vaulted, curved sections above, but horizontal rather than vertical
But perhaps the most dramatic performance space is the smallest. The white-walled Organ Room is in a triangular wing under a section of hyperbolic parabola roof, jutting out from the main volume. Its full-height window is again a half-gothic arch, as is its entrance door. Here, reverberation times are three or four seconds. In form, it echoes the Organ Room in Strasbourg.
The nave's staircase leads to a first-floor landing below the great eastern window, from which both the main auditoria can be accessed. The south side gives depth for second-floor practice rooms that require silent surroundings. On the third floor, the nave is twice bridged, and there you are just below the extraordinary configuration of elements in the ceiling vaults, where Gaudin plays strongest with geometry and light.
The tall window peaks in a vaulted section that opens out towards the abbey, north of the central skylight whose adjacent vaulting, conversely, narrows to a point. A high line of south-facing windows shines light into the curve of the gothically half-arched wall of the southern-most ceiling vault. The whole asymmetric axial split arrangement of components defined by simple geometry and intersections delivers not just light, but a strange spatial satisfaction too.
Outside, the lyrical curving roofs are lined with zinc, contrasting with the brick-clad vertical walls that define the exterior perimeter envelope up to the third floor. Water, too, is an element, in two symmetric aprons that extend from the eastern facade, echoing on the ground the gothic profile and diverging curvature of the roof elements.
Gaudin names a few contemporaries whom he admires - Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza, even John Pawson from a more recent generation. But he dismisses today's architecture as 'a mess'. He says that 'the poverty of contemporary architecture is to be brutal, unsubtle when it touches the sky'. This is not the case with the new Cité building in Soissons, or the empty abbey it faces. Both incorporate the sky into their very structures.