COVER

A MONUMENT TO MUSIC

HOW CARLOS OTT CREATED A SENSATION

BRIGID JANSSEN May 15 1989
COVER

A MONUMENT TO MUSIC

HOW CARLOS OTT CREATED A SENSATION

BRIGID JANSSEN May 15 1989

A MONUMENT TO MUSIC

COVER

HOW CARLOS OTT CREATED A SENSATION

In his mind's eye and ear, Carlos Ott imagines an event in the future that is filled with movement and sound. It may involve, he says, a helicopter chopping through searchlight beams, a car motor revving, a gang of youths in leather and chains taking cover from men in business suits that bulge over hidden gun holsters. There is a clash of screeches and clanging. From the shadows, more than 2,000 people look on in fascination. The event that Ott envisages is, in his mind, a new opera. It brings to the stage and to the audience the life of the surrounding city. It is played out in the biggest and most technically advanced opera house in the world—the massive and controversial building created in the historic Place de la Bastille in Paris by Ott himself. The Canadian architect designed it as , a permanent monument for the bicentennial of ,',e French Revolution.

"V, Ott’s vision is that his Bastille opera house

will be much more than a memorial to history—and not only in the building’s sleek combination of curves and rectangles in glass, steel and stone. He says that he hopes it will prove to be “a monument to music that goes beyond the mythology of the classics to inspire a new repertory for our times.” In that hope, as in his building’s high-technology modernism and his effort to integrate it with the Bastille neighborhood, Ott’s nearly completed project joins an array of other new bicentennial structures that together bring end-of-the-century auras to the ancient City of Light.

Kings: The implantation of modern public buildings in the heart of old Paris—notably the construction of the Bastille opera—has been a painful process. But it has been actively encouraged by President François Mitterrand and, a decade ago, by his predecessor Georges Pompidou, who oversaw the building of a centre of modern art named after him. Those presidential standards of building in contemporary style conform to the traditions of previous eras. Kings, emperors and presidents built up Paris in the patterns of their times, from the medieval Notre-Dame Cathedral and the royal palaces to the imperial Arc de Triomphe, the Second Empire’s rococo Paris Opéra of 1875 and the engineering monument of the revolution’s centennial year, the Eiffel Tower. Still, many Parisians argue now that Modernism should be confined to the city’s newer highrise fringes. And some critics complained because the utilitarian new buildings were designed largely by foreigners, including Ott’s opera house, the American I. M. Pei’s new entrance to the old Louvre palace fine art museum,

Italian Gae Aulenti’s reconstructed Musée d’Orsay and the massive Arche de la Défense building in eastern Paris designed by the late Danish architect J. 0. von Spreckelsen.

For Ott, those complaints have been only part of the controversy that has dogged his project since Mitterrand, in 1983, called for a new centre for modern, popular opera at the site of the former prison that the people of Paris stormed on July 14, 1789, in one of the earliest acts of the revolution. The 42-year-old architect, born in Uruguay and based in Toronto, was by his own admission “a complete

unknown” who had worked mainly on commercial buildings when Mitterrand chose his design ahead of almost 800 competitors for the Bastille opera. Some critics speculated, half-humorously, that Mitterrand had mistaken a watermark on Ott’s design for the seal of a more famous architect. After that, Ott says, he faced a “steeplechase of hurdles” that were more often political than architectural.

Chief: He persevered through governmental changes, redefinitions of the building’s purpose and, earlier this year, a bitter management dispute. In that public squabble over money and

music, Mitterrand’s chief of opera theatres, Pierre Bergé, the president of the Yves Saint Laurent fashion empire, fired the Bastille opera’s artistic director, Israeli conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim.

That action led several international musical stars to say that they would boycott the Bastille in protest.

Operas: There are also nostalgic complaints about moving operas entirely out of the grand old Palais Garnier—better known simply as l’Opéra—the gilded marble building that will now become ballet’s home under director Rudolf Nureyev. That elegant but faded theatre was one of the power centres

when Paris ruled the arts

world in the final quarter of the 1800s and well into the present century. The new Bastille opera and the revitalization of museums of the graphic arts are designed to recapture a more prominent cultural role for Paris in the modern world.

Ott’s contribution to that cause is about $500 million worth of building that the designer himself has described as “really a big pachyderm.” Critics say that it is less like an elephant than a rhinoceros squatting in a bathtub. A spare interior in black, grey and white with burnished wood trim is calculated to concentrate attention on the color and action on the stage of the 2,700-seat main opera hall and in smaller studios and rehearsal rooms. But the architect has invited the enlivening bustle of the Bastille quarter inside his building by installing Métro stations and shops, public walkways and bars, while incorporating an old restaurant already on the site. To those who claim that his building is bleak or out of fashion, Ott responded in a Maclean ’s interview, “We

are trying to build a building

that will last two, three, four or five hundred years—a classical, timeless building that is not part of a fad.”

Sets: Even critics of the building’s exterior have marvelled at Ott’s achievement in creating an atmosphere inside the spacious main theatre that, in the words of David Stevens, music critic for the Paris International Herald Tribune, feels “intimate and immediate.” Technical features are equally impressive. Five backstage areas are arranged so that sets can be erected and moved electronically on rails.

Acoustics have been finetuned with the help of laser monitors. Heat is pumped from underground springs

and air conditioning provides different temperatures for the audience, orchestra and singers.

Although a number of its features are still incomplete, Mitterrand will officially open the new building on July 13, the eve of the Bastille Day national holiday. An opening performance of song and dance will be staged for VIPs, including the government leaders in Paris for the annual seven-nation economic summit of major industrial nations. The building is due to open for opera on Jan. 10.

Looking back on the hurdles and disputes that surrounded the project, Ott says that the whole undertaking was trying. “It was horrendous, and sometimes there was a lot of anguish,” he says. “I had to play a delicate role between the opposed requirements of the president and the prime minister, the minister of culture versus the minister of the economy, between different political parties, factions, campaigns. I had to play that role alone because the problems were very confidential.” But, he

adds with a boyish smile: “Would I do it all again? Yes, starting tomorrow morning.” The pressure of the Paris project left Ott with little time since 1983 to visit his daughters, Cecilia, 16, and Josephine, 13, who live with his former wife in Toronto. Being absent during their formative years was “the most expensive price, the greatest sacrifice I made in these five years,” he says. There were other setbacks. His house in Toronto burned down, destroying most of his watercolors that he had planned to exhibit at a Paris art gallery this spring. As well, Ott says that he was devastated over his rejection in a competition two years ago to design a new

home for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Ott, who notes that he was the only competitor who had experience building an opera, was not selected as a finalist. “I always considered that I had done a lot for the perception of Canada’s architecture, at least the perception from Europe,” he says. “I was extremely sad and very disturbed emotionally. That day, I could have burned my Canadian passport.”

Project: He says that he is waiting for a chance to design a prestige project in Canada. Meanwhile, he will return to the field he knew best—development of commercial properties. Cadillac Fairview Corp. Ltd. has awarded him a contract as principal designer of a development east of the projected new CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto. Ott, a principal with the Toronto architectural and engineering firm NORR Partnership Ltd., is architect for two office towers in suburban North York. And he will design a regional office for IBM Corp. in his birthplace, Montevideo, Uruguay. He may also

undertake projects in Asia.

But he concedes that it is difficult to imagine a project that would be as challenging—and carry as much prestige—as the Bastille opera. Said Ott: “I hope this is a sublime building that will bring a new perception to different kinds of music—that it will give new feeling to music that already exists, but hopefully, above all, that it inspires a new kind of music that will be composed to take account of the many possibilities of this building.” For a project that surmounted controversy to commemorate the tumult of the revolution, that would be a fitting destiny for the Opéra de la Bastille.

BRIGID JANSSEN in Paris