NOISY-LE-SEC – A bit run-down but a lively and youthful suburb to the city, the walk to the new Conservatoire by Jakob + MacFarlane is swift and fast-paced from the station of Noisy-le-Sec. Around the corner of the main boulevard, visitors are met by the architectural signature of the Paris-based firm - a very expressive apple-green façade.
Once in front of the lot, the building gives you an overview of its neighbours through its façade language. A blind wall at the back hugs the existing ageing residences. The two street-facing ones are clad in concrete panels – guarding the creativity that goes on inside. It stays flush to the sidewalk taking up as much space as possible to accommodate the strict program. A two-storey building, it’s a modest scale that links the houses and the larger residential towers in the background.
The entrance, which is adjacent to a small open square, is more playful than its concrete counterparts. The building in a U-shape attracts the public with its inner courtyard. ‘Once you get into the courtyard you’re already in the building – it’s part of a whole – it’s the void from which you’re already connected with visual snapshots of the interior,’ explains Thomas Sablayrolles, architect at the firm.
Indeed, as we’re standing in it, the architecture we walk on is a continuity of the façade language with its tessellation as a recurring pattern, proving the connections between exterior and interior exist.
The building is split into two main functions - the school for dance and music and then an auditorium. Because it’s a pedestrian area, it became important for the architects to orient the project back to the street by opening it up with a diagonal axis. The diagonal is key, and everything relates back to the breaking down of the structural grid through this diagonal.
Brendan MacFarlane, co-founder of the firm, qualifies the structure as a 3D metric system. Through a series of iterations, the architects break down the metrics incrementally with a tessellation that forms the façades, the roof system, and the paving. ‘Like a dancer, the structure became fluid, the diagonal became an instrument that captures the dynamic nature of dance and music in relation to architecture.’
Inside the muted interior, an L-shaped lobby and corridor space is connected through a monumental metal staircase along the triangular windows that look out into the courtyard. Although each floor is dedicated to music, dance, or recording studios, there is a sense that no real hierarchy exists in the architecture allowing for a collaborative and open educational space. The architecture takes a step back to let the creative flow produced here take over.
On the ground floor, where boxes within boxes create a series of sound-proofed recording studios, the corridor leads to the auditorium. It is accessible as its own seperate block within the Conservatoire. ‘We were able to develop the design of the auditorium – bringing it closer to the façade design and the courtyard paving – with the incorporation of the acoustics and technicalities as another facet of the architectural language,’ explains Thomas Sablayrolles as we walk around the generous stage and look up at the acoustic panels that allow for multiple configurations of the auditorium.
Jakob + MacFarlane is known for using digital technologies and pop colours as both design tools and means of production. But a key thing that is often forgotten is that these tools are never considered as the reason behind the designs. It’s often about grounding the project and make it belong in its context.
‘The context in Noisy-le-Sec is strange, it’s an in-between land within the Grand Paris initiative - a large-scale planning initiative announced a decade ago – where the city is nearby and then the forest a bit further, but it’s still a tough neighbourhood,' explains MacFarlane. The formal and chromatic experience here is their answer to facing this reality. The powder-coated metal panels have orange, gold and yellow mixed in, giving it a chameleon touch where the green changes throughout the day.
Although funding is hard to come by in public buildings, MacFarlane reminisces how the project was never forgotten in its three years of production and that it was picked up time and time again. He concludes: ‘It shouldn’t be considered as an object on display designed by outside factors like the Grand Paris initiative but rather as a necessity for the community. This one is exciting because it came with an immediate positive reaction from within.’