In 1983, Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott won the international competition to design the Opéra Bastille and was to make his mark on this prestigious edifice. He goes back over the reflexions and controversies that accompanied the new opera house entry into the pages of history.
An opera house is not just any edifice. It must be endowed with very special qualities. When you embarked on the competition, did you have in mind any experiences or models that had impressed or inspired you?
Carlos Ott: I come from a very musical family that for a long time manufactured pianos in Germany. I was immersed in music throughout my youth. As regards a building as particulart as an opera house, I had been struck by the failure of the Sydney Opera House. It had ended up costing a fortune and, in architectural circles, had given rise to much controversy. As a building, it was to be the symbol of the city. As an opera house, it wasn’t satisfactory. At that time, few modern opera houses had been built. Therefore, there were very few references at our disposal. President Mitterrand had stipulated in the competition specifications that the objective was to design a popular opera house, turning its back on the elitist tradition of that form of artistic expression. When I began to work on the project, I kept in mind all that the Pompidou Centre had provided for the public. I reckoned that if this Centre was the response to what was expected of a museum in the 20th century, I had to do likewise for the Opera and consider first of all the quality of the machinery. We had been asked to design a veritable city within a city, with three auditoriums. It was specified that it should be possible to perform concerts, ballets and all kinds of modern productions there. It was on this aspect of the question that I concentrated my efforts.
Very quickly, there was a lively debate about your project. How do you explain this?
C.O.: I think many people imagined that the Opéra Bastille should have been a “modern” Opera Garnier, with “modern” versions of the great chandelier, the ceiling and the grand staircase. This was not what I was offering.
When you speak of a “city within a city”, it is not just because there are three auditoriums. This opera house also accommodates almost eighty different artistic professions. To provide each with the space they require must have been a challenge given that the available surface area was not that extensive.
C.O.: Indeed. I had six hectares within which I developed 150,000 square metres. I had to understand the needs of each of these professions. But at the same time, I had to take into account the constraints of the immediate surroundings, in particular the fact that underneath Place de la Bastille there are three metro lines. In fact, all these constraints contained the answer, the solution that was needed. They gave rise to a powerfully logical result.
The quality of the acoustics is ultimately what such a building is judged on. This is a complicated science. How did you tackle this problem?
C.O.: At the time, I had already travelled widely and was familiar with most of the major opera houses, San Francisco, New York, Chicago ... A magnificent concert hall had also been built in Toronto, where I was living at the time, the acoustics of which turned out to be a failure. In spite of all the very costly modifications made to it during the following years, the result was never what one might have hoped for. Work had to be done on it again three or four years ago. So the acoustics were, for me, essential. I wasn’t constructing a building, I was making a musical instrument.
In this matter, I enjoyed a huge stroke of luck. I had studied in depth the work of Doctor Kramer, a great German acoustician. I got in touch with him but he felt he was too old to embark on this project. However, he recommended one of his pupils, a Herr Muller, who promptly agreed to work with me. He was a man of immense knowledge and exceptionally broad experience.
This central issue must have influenced your choice of materials and the decoration of the auditorium.
C.O.: Of course. But the main difficulty was to obtain the best resonance from the floor. The commission was to build a huge opera house. We wanted to create a completely natural acoustic, without resorting to electronics. All our studies led us to the conclusion that, under those conditions, this auditorium could accommodate a maximum of 2,600 people. We had to do considerable work on this issue.
Is this what led you to design that very sober decor?
C.O.: Yes, but it’s not the only thing. From the outset, I was leaning towards an auditorium in which black would predominate. For me, black would give the greatest possible degree of freedom to stage directors, whether they were tackling the classical repertoire or a very modern creation. I didn’t want anything to detract from the performance.
Jack Lang, the minister for culture, on the other hand, was dreaming of an opera house in red and gold. For him, this flamboyant marriage was symbolic of the grand operatic tradition. We were, therefore, in disagreement; I stood my ground but he was very patient with me. In the end, only eighteen months before the inauguration, to settle the matter, he suggested laying the issue before François Mitterrand himself. We therefore agreed to show him a model of each of the two propositions, to which I decided to add a third, intermediate version using a slightly bluish black. We made our presentation in the presence of the principal advisors concerned and those responsible from the various government departments involved. He listened attentively to our arguments, thanked us and left without indicating a preference. We were very embarrassed; we had come to seek a decision and we hadn’t got one. A few minutes later the door opened once again and he returned to say, “In this affair, I am only the President of the Republic. My tastes would lead me easily to choose the version in black. But that is only my personal inclination, you do what you want.” The question was thus settled.
Shortly before the inauguration, I received, at dawn, a phone call from the Elysée Palace, asking me to join François Mitterrand on the site. At the end of the visit, he retraced his steps as far
as the main auditorium. He took me by the arm and I heard him say, “Monsieur l’architect, the auditorium is beautiful decorated in this shade of black, is it not? It is better than the bluish black that you also suggested. Black was your first proposition. It was the right solution. One must always be convinced by the solution one proposes.”
In your opinion, how did he view the architecture?
C.O.: I think he was strongly inclined towards forceful, resolutely modern architecture, with a clearly defined premise. One has the right to like it or not.
Whilst everyone soon recognised the qualities of the interior, the façade shocked more than a few. What was your premise in designing this façade?
C.O.: It is not a facade as the term is traditionally understood in France: it is a skin covering the principal object, the musical instrument that serves as an opera house. My work follows on from the Bauhaus tradition, in which the façade is determined by what the volume contains, the primary functions of the building. It is not cosmetic. My constant preoccupation was rather with imagining how the artists, the different professions of the Opera, of the theatre and, of course, the public, could get the most out of these different spaces. When Bugatti designed the bodies of his cars, it was only after he had designed the chassis and the motor. I did the same thing. Concerning the materials used, I chose a very beautiful blue granite, but the department of Historic Monuments insisted that, in that location, opposite the Colonne de Juillet, the traditional stone of the Paris townscape, limestone, should be used. It’s a material I’m familiar with and which I don’t trust. Unlike granite, it is very susceptible to extreme weather conditions. But the administration, which in France is very powerful, won their case and imposed the use of this stone from Île-de-France. We did however choose the hardest limestone we could find.
Did the mythical character of Place de la Bastille make your work more complicated?
C.O.: No. It is true that our entire contemporary history – and not only that of France – began there. But the myth is absolutely not to be read in the surrounding architecture. On the other hand, this square is the site of what was, from Roman times and for a long time onwards, the eastern entrance to Paris. Indeed, during construction, we excavated part of the Roman road. The opera house is therefore situated in what was for a long time outside the city walls, with an environment that still bears the marks of this. Haussmann’s urban reconstructions stopped just there. Place de la Bastille is round which gives it a certain force as a space. But it has also been built on in a heterogeneous manner. It is not situated within a grand perspective; it is not enclosed in a classical square like Place des Vosges. It therefore allowed us considerable freedom.
Carlos Ott was interviewed by Jean-François Huchet for Letter no. 15 of the Institut François Mitterrand