PRINT December 1995

Nicolai Ouroussoff


In Paris, the broad strategy of city planners during the years of François Mitterrand’s Grand Travaux was simple: new cultural landmarks would be erected in the working-class sectors to give instant stature to suffering communities. The results have been mixed. But Christian de Portzamparc’s CITÉ DE LA MUSIQUE, completed in February, is a triumph of architecture that strives to reach beyond its own walls. It is a monumental structure seemingly cut apart in order to draw the city into itself.

Sited at the entrance of the Parc de la Villette—once home to Victor Baltard’s iron-framed slaughterhouses—the concert hall is the second half of a large state-sponsored music complex that shapes the park’s southern edge. (The first half was a conservatory completed in 1990.) In the new addition, a glorious pedestrian street leading into the project becomes a glass-covered courtyard that wraps tightly around the tilted oval-shaped theater. A museum space, then a row of student apartments, forms the street’s outer shell, its top floor bent gently inward like the concert hall itself. But as you move around this central oval, the views open up onto the park and Avenue Jean-Jaurés. If you continue, the path eventually leads back out to where you began. Culture and daily life conceptually interlock along this internal street. Portzamparc’s building suggests a new architecture: one that embraces the city’s sublime confusion.


ARQUITECTONICA’s winning design for an as-yet-unnamed hotel and retail complex on the corner of New York’s 42nd Street and 8th Avenue—“the crossroads of the world”—is a banal tower veiled in glitz. The 48-story structure is slashed in two by a vertical band of light—a gesture that pretends to point to the infamous street below but in fact ends at a time-share vacation club originally designed for the Walt Disney Company (Disney’s ground floor retail space is part of a package that loosely extends to Seventh Avenue). Cloaked in a mosaic of New York scenes, such as the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, the club reveals the true message of the plan—the falsely happy family-values packaging of the Tishman Urban Development Corporation and the Walt Disney Company. Everything here is made palatable. The tense rumbling by underground in the subway tunnels and across the street at the massive Port Authority Bus Terminal is ignored. And the mad dream of constant movement that once marked New York’s great architecture—like Rockefeller Center and the Guggenheim—is completely forgotten.

Nicolai Ouroussoff is a contributor to The New York Times, the New York Observer, Architectural Record, and Artforum.