Singing to the senses: Élancourt Music School by Opus 5 Architectes


Opus 5 Architectes plays with brick and light to create a delightful and sensitive building for a music school on the periphery of Paris


Words by Anna Sansom

The district of Élancourt forms part of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, one of the five ‘new towns’ established on the outer peripheries of Paris in the 1970s. Forty years after its creation, Élancourt’s council is hoping to make the somewhat deprived dormitory and commuter town more culturally appealing to the upcoming generation. As part of this ambition, the Parisian practice Opus 5 Architectes was tasked with repurposing a former ecumenical centre into the Élancourt Music School.

The original building had been designed by the French architects Philippe and Martine Deslandes in 1974–77 and was clad in a dark-red brick exterior. It served Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic faiths and housed various prayer and worshipping rooms. In part due to dwindling numbers of worshippers, the council decided to desacralise the centre and transform it to host the local music school, whose previous building was deemed inadequate.

The facade uses slim Wienerberger bricks in muted tones of pale greyThe facade uses slim Wienerberger bricks in muted tones of pale grey

The goal was to create a synergy between the new music school and a cultural and performing arts centre, Le Prisme, which was opened nearby in January 2018. From the contract’s starting date in July 2014 to delivery in early 2019, several mayors successively defended the music school project — an undertaking that cost €2m (£1.8m).

For the building’s new use, Opus 5 (founded by Bruno Decaris, Agnès Pontremoli and Pierre Tisserand) opted to retain its structural morphology of amalgamated blocks and ‘inward-looking character’ while changing the facade and elevations. To harmonise with the surrounding brick residential buildings, the old exterior was replaced with a contemporary facade of small, hand-moulded Wienerberger bricks, in mineral, nuanced tones of pale grey. Recalling the ‘mashrabiya’ detailing in Islamic architecture, Opus 5 used a mortarless hit-and-miss brick technique. This provides glimpses through to the school windows while maintaining privacy, and filters sunlight to create a rhythmic softness of natural light inside that avoids glare.

The school’s auditorium has the highest ceiling of all the rooms. It features undulating walls of vertical wooden panelling to control acousticsThe school’s auditorium has the highest ceiling of all the rooms. It features undulating walls of vertical wooden panelling to control acoustics

‘We wanted to retain the memory of how the building assembled people and attenuate the look of the bricks by making them more modest in tone,’ says Decaris, whose practice is known for renovating châteaux, churches and cathedrals, on a visit to the school. ‘A music school is introverted because music happens inside and so it needs a relative intimacy,’ he adds, in reference to the subdued exterior.

In the evening, the interior lighting creates a ‘shimmering’ effect on the facade, with light emanating from the small gaps between the bricks. The idea of expressing the building’s musicality architecturally continues on the roof, which has been decked out with a deep blue synthetic turf. Intended to evoke a ‘blue note’ in blues or jazz music, it is visible from the taller residential buildings close by.

Skylights and pale-wood interiors keep the spaces bright and aim to foster a light, friendly ambienceSkylights and pale-wood interiors keep the spaces bright and aim to foster a light, friendly ambience

The 900 sq m school, which hosts 500–600 students, is accessible to everyone from young, school-age children to adolescents, adults and pensioners. It fulfills a community role of enabling local inhabitants to pursue their passion for music. Most users, however, are teenagers; indeed, one of the aims was to encourage young people to come and practise music, and make them feel welcome and uninhibited.

To foster a light, friendly, fluid ambience, the entrance, curvilinear corridors and rooms are all covered in pale wood. The 13 rehearsal rooms have been designed for specific purposes, from singing and piano playing to percussion and electronic music. While most are fairly small rooms, each with a distinct personality and sense of privacy, there is also a larger-scale auditorium, where vertical panels of pale wood enhance the acoustics.

Skylights and pale-wood interiors keep the spaces bright and aim to foster a light, friendly ambienceSkylights and pale-wood interiors keep the spaces bright and aim to foster a light, friendly ambience

‘A room for playing the piano doesn’t have the same acoustic constraints as one for playing electronic music,’ says Hùng Tôn, Opus 5’s project manager. As the singing room requires natural reverberation, Opus 5 developed a system of alternating, acoustic panels on the walls to reflect and absorb sound and installed a diamond-shaped skylight so the sound would not be contained in one place. Meanwhile, the auditorium — where larger groups or an orchestra can practise — has two circular skylights enabling light to pour into the voluminous space and bounce off its undulating, panelled walls. Situated in the middle of the school, the auditorium has the highest ceiling of all the rooms.

Another aspect of the project was to make the school an ‘intelligent building’, Tôn adds. Lighting, heating and temperature can be regulated externally by the city council. If anyone forgets to switch off the lights or close the school properly, such procedures can be handled remotely.

The Élancourt Music School is eyecatching yet unobtrusive, intelligently designed yet unboastful, sophisticated yet restrained. The fluidity of its design singing to the senses and its unintimidating features would surely make even shy students more likely to have a go at unleashing their talent.

 

This article was originally published in Blueprint issue 366. Buy a copy here, or subscribe to Blueprint





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