Feb 19th, 2021, 01:55 PM

Architectural Disgust

By Isabella Sibble
The Satie Conservatory. Image Credit: Sofia Rose
Not far from a symphony.

What does it mean for a building to be musical in its design? According to renowned architect Christian de Portzamparc, it means a lot of concrete, mismatched windows and no color. Named for the famous French pianist and modern composer, the Erik Satie Conservatory (Le Conservatoire de Musqiue Erik-Satie) is more commonly recognized as one of the standout brutalist buildings in AUP’s neighborhood.

Behind the building’s edge-ridden edifices and insidious stairwell lay music classrooms, grand dance studios, and performance spaces, but it is hard to feel an artistic pull on the other side of those walls. The thick columns that support the higher floors feel sedimentary, and the limited windows appear to block out any inspiration from the outside. Hailed as “The First Work of Musical Architecture,” the Satie Conservatory, to an ordinary onlooker’s eyes, seems to reflect anything but the fluidity and expression of performing arts.

Image Credit: Sofia Rose

The architect, renowned Frenchman Christian de Portzamparc, has been honored with many architectural accolades throughout his career. Notably, he was the first Frenchman to win the Pritzker Prize, and he has also received the elite Grand Prix de l’Urbanisme. Some of his more prominent works seem to speak to his musical attentions more obviously, like the Cité de la Musique, with its sinusoidal roof floating above the building like a lyrical dancer. The Satie Conservatory, conspicuously absent from the architect’s online portfolio, does not appear to have the breathiness as many of his other works.

Upon first glance, this structure is a far cry from the comfortable. Aside from its sandy color, as AUP Professor Vanel puts it, “it breaks the monotony of the immediate neighborhood, made up of long dead streets full of nothing remarkable.” At the time of the building’s construction, this change in rhythm was representative of something much greater, however. Portzamparc spent the early days of his career studying the relationship between residents and their spaces. The recognition that many middle- and lower-class people simply did not have spaces that met their needs established Portzamparc’s mission and informed much of his career. Evidence of this knowledge can be seen in many of his works, for he strives not to build for the eyes of the wealthy but for the use of all.

Image Credit: Sofia Rose

Most importantly, beyond what opinions are held about aesthetic choices, this building serves a purpose; it is a space for art to be created. Being named after an avant-garde composer, it makes sense that the building itself may be a bit misunderstood by the standard eye, but what better place to inspire the furthering of arts than a building that challenges its own ––grotesque and dated –– neighborhood standards?

While maybe not teeming with musical allusion, there are some details found on the face of the conservatory that can be regarded as thematic: the stairwell from another point of view is like the ribbon of a pointe shoe, the columns, perhaps the steadfast reliability of a corps or chorus and the unpredictable angled windows suggest the potential for artistic breakthroughs destined to take place behind the conservatory’s walls. 

Image Credit: Sofia Rose

A trailblazer in socially responsible design, Portzamparc’s dedication to the people in his architecture is evidenced by his work in our own neighborhood. The high-class residents of the 7th arrondissement may tip their noses up when they pass Portzamparc’s conservatory, and it is unlikely that you will see students attempting to take jealousy-inducing Instagram photos against its concrete walls, but for those impassioned by progress, change and inclusivity, the Satie Conservatory is there with you and for you. While architecture is too often overlooked as a form of resistance, Portzamparc’s conservatory is an important reminder that social change is not just an intangible idea contained within our smartphones.