Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.
MAURICE NOVARINA THEATER in Thonon-les-Bains, France by WIMM
July 1st, 2016 by Sumit Singhal
Article source: WIMM
The renovation of the Theatre Maurice Novarina in Thonon-les-Bains by the city commenced in 2012 and it was completed with the inauguration of the building on the 10th of January 2015. This project has mobilized nearly 150 people of various backgrounds to renovate the building and its equipment, which is considered a landmark for the city and its inhabitants.
The exhibition ” Memory of a renovation ” retraces the issues, the questions, the architectural choices and the work that led to the delivery of the converted building.
01th Episode – 1966 Inauguration of the 6th « House of Culture » of France
In the late 1960s, a French cultural policy was affirmed and the democratization of culture under the leadership of André Malraux, French Minister of Culture and philosopher took place in public facilities built by a number of great modern architects (Andre Wogensky in Grenoble, Le Corbusier in Firmin, Jean Le Couteur in Reims ) .
This democratization policy could also be said to embrace cultural decentralization.
The policy, lead by the different « Houses of Culture », proposed a method of collaboration between the state, local communities and artists with the idea that culture is promoted by a dynamic and varied programme with theatre plays, music, cinema, dance, visual arts installations, stories etc. The architecture of the building must embody modernity, be suitable to embrace new creative ideas, be a meeting point and a space of celebration.
André Malraux defined a « House of Culture » as: ” Primarily a home that should gather all the creative activities of a small town or a big city neighbourhood, in the field of culture. One can not conceive a true culture house without a radical change of architectural traditions that scatter to the four corners of the city; theatre, library, cinema, game rooms or conferences, etc. Far from being seen as an isolated building, the theatre must become the focus of the House of Culture, and as it uses most of the other arts, the leader of the artistic life of the city. ”
In 1961, the municipality of Georges Pianta decided to build a village hall. The architectural firm Maurice Novarina was appointed for the project. The team was formed by architects (Novarina, Kétoff, Rosfelder, Kandaouroff), engineers (Kétoff , Delfosse), a decorator (Démangeat) and an acoustic engineer (Sohier) . Raoul Ubac designed a modern tapestry for the upper gallery on the first floor. In addition to the theatre, the public library and a cinema-auditorium are located in the lower ground level of the building.
In 1964, the mayor proposed to change the equipment status from village hall to ” House of Culture ” , encouraged by André Malraux.
Consequently in June 1966 the 6th House of Culture in France was opened, in the presence of Emile Biasini. For the opening ceremony, the designer Camille Demangeat transformed the auditorium and the stage (by removing the orchestra pit) to adapt the space to the new cultural programs related to the democratization of cultural facilities. The aim was to give artists free access to the establishment and form a creative ground for different kinds of audiences.
The building is radical. It imposes modernity without compromising the city landscape.
Two large contrasted volumes, with well-established functions, constitute the form. It creates a dialogue with the city: The public ” hexagon”, fully glazed on three sides by a vast curtain wall, oriented towards the lake, the old town and the modern city rebuild after the post-war reconstruction. Raised above the natural ground, it houses and reflects the public functions that are offered. The lobby and the theatre auditorium access are on the ground floor. The municipal library and the little auditorium are on the lower ground floor. The bar is positioned on the first floor in the “promenoire” giving the users a view of the lake and the city.
The “private” polygon includes also spaces related to the equipment function : administration, lodges and the technical spaces (ateliers, lifts, dock loading etc … ) . While the main glass public facade opens to the city and lack, the private spaces facades are opaque, thick, covered with small white tiles, closed to the public of the polygon. The height of the curtain wall is thought to emphasize the original idea transmitted by a culture public equipment?: Transparency is a communication tool . At night, the light showcases the building corridors like a lantern. The public movements and bar activity animate the façade like in “Playtime” of Jacques Tati. The light reveals the pyramid-prefabricated structure of the roof, which is an architectural and technical accomplishment.
Episode 02 – From 1969 to 2012, the building is transformed
In 1969 the status of the equipment (by equipment do you mean programme? Or use? Or building?) changed to become the ” MAL ” Maison des Arts et Loisirs of Thonon-les-Bains. The building found independence in its operations and in its program. The library and the promenade bar maintained their previous functions. The building, due to the cultural dynamism of this period, continued to be transformed to accommodate new practices undergoing strong redevelopment. In the mid-80s the book and music library was transferred and replaced by an exhibition gallery. The promenade bar was removed. The lobby was significantly modified. It gained space by multiple changes but lost fluidity and spatial qualities; in particular it lost the connection with the city and the lake. The auditorium theatre was refurbished in the early 2000s. The balcony was removed and the triangle prefabricated structure roof was covered by acoustic and technical panels to improve the sound system in the room. In 2012, the town of Thonon -les-Bains launched a competition for the replacement of the three glass curtain walls, the renewal of the roof waterproofing and redefinition of all access to the building.
Episode 03 – The theatre in the city today?
At the end of 2012, the project was assigned to WIMM (principal architects) and Carine Bonnot (associated architect). The team was completed by engineering and technical knowledge given by : William Rodriguez for structure engineering (KEOPS), Michel Varlez for fluid and thermal? engineering (BRIERE), Guillaume Raoult for the economic development (VIES-AGES) and Benjamin Gremen for the site coordination and planning ( SINEQUANON). Yves Grillet (Grisan) joined the team in the beginning of the construction of the project for assistance to the follow-up work.
As the studies works began, this new team raised the intrinsic question of how the city command (not sure what this means – do you mean how the city governance / chain of command?) operates in the functionality of the building today. Do you mean something like ‘how does the city integrate with the functional aspects of the building / how to integrate the city?
Interventions in the curtain wall interrogate the connections to the city but also the nature of the spaces that are given to see and live.
There is evidence that the strong architectural design conceived by Maurice Novarina suffered many changes during its multiple transformations. The initial project that wished to achieve a transparent building with a link to its users in the world of culture is today not able to create this interaction with the public.
“We are dealing with a damaged and old building that suffered a lot of refurbishments over the years that had gradually erased its original qualities. Its skin and programmatic development had to be rethought within its evolution and content that were neglected with the changes on cultural policies.
The different layers of work had been done with good intention, but the fragile thread that established the link between the building and its audience was broken. The interior promenade of the first floor, a beautiful spot to view the city and the lake, had become secondary. The library was removed from the building, leaving room for an exhibition space with a separate entry. The private entry made for this exhibition gallery was built as a void on the exterior grounds cutting the equipment unit and the connection to the city. The reception areas had gradually eroded the spaces under the stage, expanding but somehow losing their connection to the outside. These renovations paradoxically made the spaces darker, the users couldn’t relate to its function or experience its architecture volume. ” William Tenet, WIMM.
Therefore, in parallel with the pure technical answer for the refurbishment and upgrading, the team questioned the use and programming of current areas of this cultural tool through its proposal. The purpose was not to ” re-think ” the Theatre but to transform it into a new device closely related with contemporary cultural practices. As well as being a cultural object, the re-design was also concerned with the theatre’s relationship with the public.
Consequently the approach was based on several questions:
– The transparency today: How can the relationship with the world of culture, originally established by the curtain wall, be more effective and therefore intensified?
– The operation and the quality of Theatre spaces today: How to re-discover the original clarity, vocational development and cultural facility for all users? How are today’s links to the lake and the city now formed, in other words, its urban presences
Episode 04 – How to find the link to the city and to the public?
Quickly, three lines of work were established:
– Give the building its synthetic nature, unitary cultural place;
– Simplify its connection to the city;
– Restore a space of cultural mediation with the public.
A constant “back and forth” of solutions are set up to regain the building’s initial qualities and give rise to an exchange tool with the public. The technical dimension rekindles dialogue. Constructive methods have changed; the requirements also. The thermic filter that is the curtain wall is no longer acceptable; it is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter; despite its aesthetic qualities it is a real energy loss and thermal bridge.
Symbolic of these issues, the curtain wall “window” of the building has within it a tremendous and rare potential to amplify the theatrical interior spaces. These spaces will be places of encounter, communication and exchange around culture. Their perception both from the outside and the inside will be one of the key elements of the device.
“The Urban shelf of Jacques Tati is somehow resurrected. We worked in the reprogramming of these spaces and their reading. The ground floor comprises: a large reception compartment which distributes the various activities gathered today in the building, a ticket counter, a bar/restaurant and spaces for the presentation of cultural activity. The access to the ground floors was simplified; the exhibition gallery is thus completely integrated with the equipment. The promenade became a meeting/ press conference space and a projection space creating an internal screen of the city. ” Carine Bonnot
Studies began by simplifying the floor plans; the interior spaces are redesigned so as to regain their initial fluidity and restore the connection of the equipment to the city. The exterior access to the exhibition gallery is erased and the façades east and west are extended towards the exterior without changing the initial volume so it can incorporate spaces of circulation, of exchanges, of leisure and entertainment (ex. balcony with view of the lake).
The original marquee and stairs are removed so as to enhance the abstract dimension of the building. Only one access is proposed in the principal façade. This access works as a wide topography that extends and connects the volume to the mineral? square.
The new curtain glass wall creates an urban shelf that generates new activities. It challenges the cultural program as it proposes new events. The façades are reinforced by a visual filter, which consists of vertical lines that control thermal energy and provide comfort inside of the volume.
Inspired by Kinetic Art and Op Art experiences, the façades perception changes with movement.
” If positioned in front of the façade the vertical metal lines disappear and allow the viewer to perceive the activities, then when movements take place objects blur before becoming again visible when facing one of the sides of the hexagon. The actions change with movement as a cultural changing screen” William Tenet, WIMM
Episode 05 – 2014-2015 – Inauguration and opening ceremony (building and exhibition)
After one year of architectural design studies the renovation started in January 2014. In one year the original glass façades of the building were removed, the asbestos was eliminated, concrete elements were modified and rebuilt to recreate new structures for the new façades, new spaces, new servicing plant and distribution, and the roof was re-covered.
In the end, and because of the nature of this almost surgical project, the intervention seems minimal despite all the constraints (renovation within a patrimonial building, limited schedule, occupied construction site) and efforts of the team of architecture, engineering, city services and construction companies.
The goals of the project construction were: finding a balance between the preservation of the original elements and keep the subtlety of the modern construction.
“We decided to preserve the traces of the multiple interventions that took place on the building; to erase them would have led to applying a lot of “make-up”, hiding and denying that the principal of architecture is that buildings can and are able to be transformed and that often their intelligence resides in leaving tracks for future transformations. This idea led us to choose the approach of the interior design, character and nature of the renovation project. The theatre had changed, as had it users, and the plays / shows that are proposed. This mutation, in form and background, left traces that we could distinguish, analyse and work with.” Ana Luisa Gonçalves, WIMM.
The supporting structures are discreet and blend into the curtain wall. The new metal vertical structures of the glass façades find the right proportion and are aligned with the original prefabricated concrete structure. They underline and reinforce the special nature of this type of structure. The selected glass is also a recent feat of technology still little used in France. This is a high-performance, extra-clear glass, which allows both to be very transparent during the day while having an insulation performance and an important filtration UV for thermal comfort and solar control?.
The urban shelf is created in two spaces, on the ground floor relates to the areas of reception of the public and communication of events and shows and on the first floor relates to the city and the lake.
On the ground floor the project offers an original design. The interiors were worked as theatre set. A study of historic XX century theatre design and color sets was done and it served as inspiration to create the design for the wallpaper that covers the heart of the volume (exterior façades of the auditorium).The interior design echoes the original tapestry and performances that have been played; it emphasizes an ambience and an atmosphere of the plays or shows to be seen.
The new floors are made of composite stone and resin, which will mark the different interventions while respecting the presence of the beautiful marble floor outlined by bands of brass. The first floor is uncluttered and the relationship with the outdoors is special of paramount importance.
The interior architecture is completed by two double-height glass volumes that are treated as galleries or balconies that allow an external connection with the setting, a large wall section suitable for projection, banquettes and chandeliers designed by Gaspard Lautrey elegantly recalling the interior fittings of old theatres.
WIMM develops an hand-crafted approach to architecture by stimulating individual spirit through its designs, which are living and ever-changing proposals with presence.
WIMM is an atelier of research and development in the fields of architecture, design and urban design. It was born from the association of William Tenet , Patrick Arrighetti and Ana Luisa Gonçalves. Our approach begins by comprehending the territory as a place to be invented. It is a back and forward research of the relationship of individuals with space and urban space by giving a resolutely contemporary response.
” Created in the heart of the French Alps, our office production is influenced by the avant-garde spirit of the first realization of ski resorts created in the 60s which allowed innovation, raised hopes through a change in architecture and gradually transformed the local economy. It changed the structure of social ties by inventing a new way of living. Optimism as a response to a particular economical and cultural epoch ” William Tenet.