August 2011, La Gaîté Lyrique



La Gaîté Lyrique
3 bis rue Papin

75003 Paris

Adjacent the Square Emile Chautemps in Paris’ Marais, Théatre de la Gaîté was home to the premieres of Jacques Offenbach’s early operettas and Serge Diaghilev’s ballets russes, not to mention Victor Hugo’s 70th birthday. Occupied ten times and reclaimed twenty during the world wars, Théatre de la Gaîté’s strange and magical life in the 70s and 80s included stints as a street theater center, circus school—complete with a stable of elephants—and the ill-fated Planète Magique, a short-lived amusement park popularly described as a “low-tech Disneyland." The once-grand building sat abandoned after Planète Magique closed its gates and was referred to among locals as “the sad mute.”

Two decades and 83 million euros later, the newly restored Théatre de la Gaîté, re-opened its doors this March as an international center for digital art and contemporary music, La Gaîté Lyrique.

In 2002, Paris mayor Bertrand Delano undertook the reconstruction of the Gaîté as one of his major cultural projects. With such a long and varied history—the Théatre de la Gaîté is approaching its 150 year birthday—it is not surprising that the commissioned architect for the project, Manuelle Gautrand, describes relating to the building as a “living being.”

“When I discovered it for the first time in 2003, only two beautiful spaces remained,” Gautrand writes in a statement about the commission, “The hall built in the Italian style had disappeared, the historical foyer and the lobby had been stripped of their original style and had been redecorated with vulgar colors and statues, which gave them a fake nineteenth century feel.” The French architect has described the building as waking up from a long dream. Or rather a nightmare: before its renovation the building’s dwindling, decrepit historic spaces were almost entirely overtaken by kitsch and the structure had fallen entirely into disrepair.

In its newest incarnation, second empire meets space-age. Seven floors of studios and exhibition spaces comprise the new arts center, from hot-pink listening labs that look like a cross between Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey and Sylvie Fleury sculptures to an ornate 19th-century café decorated with flying saucer chandeliers.

Helmed by Jérôme Delormas, the former director of Lux-scène nationale de Valence and of the Ferme du Buisson's art center, La Gaîté Lyrique’s interdisciplinary program includes concerts and performances, alongside a permanent library and gaming area. The range of spaces and activities incorporated into this ambitious new project is indeed staggering. After the redesign and restoration of a practically derelict building, the newly designed Gaîté is now home to a concert hall, “sound spaces,” studios and galleries, a media center and film and music production studios.

The theater’s exploratory approach is reflected in its design. Two kinds of space comprise Gautrand’s design for La Gaîté Lyrique: performance spaces and what the architect calls breathing spaces—adaptable spaces that “evolve with time” and “take on a different ambience” depending on the needs of a performance or exhibition.

Functionally and aesthetically diverse spaces are connected with dodecahedronal structures that Gautrand calls éclaireuses (“girl guides” in English). These small, mobile units are found throughout the museum, cordoning off dressing rooms, used as desks, seating or bars. “Our objective was to create an ‘adaptable’ space which can take on the unpredictable and the unexpected,” Gautrand explains, “a space which defines without predefining everything.”

Flexibility forms the core of La Gaîté Lyrique’s conceptual and aesthetic identity and Delormas’ program reflects the dynamic redefinition of art and culture enabled by digital technology and the practices it shapes. As such, he describes the Gaîté as "a tool box," a "place of continual evolution" and a "laboratory of cultural motivations." Keeping with its workshop/laboratory approach, La Gaîté Lyrique produces a number of multi-media workshops, as well as a magazine with coverage ranging from Senegalese rap to “outlaw” cinema.

Jesi Khadivi

Jesi Khadivi is a curator and art critic based in Berlin. She regularly  contributes writing about art, film, architecture and pop culture to Dazed and Confused and SOMA, among many other publications. She is also the director of Golden Parachutes, a contemporary art gallery in the Kreuzberg.

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