THEATRE OF HISTORY by Heiko Hansen for Cluster issue No.03 2004, Turin, Italy



img_01: left, Architecture by Alphonse Cusin; right, Light installation on the facade of the Gaîté by Nathalie Junod Ponsard, 2003


Paris is planning a centre for electronic art and contemporary music, the Gaîté Lyrique, which is scheduled to open its doors in 2006. The comparison with other centres for digital art will be unavoidable: the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnology in Karlsruhe, Eyebeam in New York or Ars Electronica in Linz amongst others. Aiming high Christophe Girard, cultural policy advisor to the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, already dreams about the Gaîté being "the head of the European media art network".

So, we know the future, of more interest is the past. Everything started in 1759 in a fairground hut in Saint-Germain - a theatre for dancers and "bungy jumpers". In the mid-nineteenth century, the theatre moved to Boulevard du Temple, which was known as the Boulevard of Crime. This street of spectacles, with ten thousands of people promenading at night, was torn down by Haussmann in 1862; and the Gaîté was rebuilt in nearly identical form in its current location by Alphonse Cusin and Jacques Hittorff [img 01]. The latter provided Paris with one of its most defining structures, the Gare du Nord. In the 19th century the Gaîté was home to the famous operas of Offenbach and in the beginning of the 20th century to ballets of Serge Diaghilev. The theatre faced troubled times again in the 60's, when it was left without artistic direction and the necessary renovation work was on hold. A high point was the staging of Le Regard du Sourd by Robert Wilson in 1971.

In 1987, with the support of the Ville de Paris, the interior architecture of the Gaîté is demolished leaving two historical 19th century rooms. The Planète Magique, a gigantic adventure park for children, is erected following the plans of Jean Chalopin, the inventor of comic characters like Inspector Gadget and Mystérieuses Cités d'Or. This vast utopian world included a futuristic rollercoaster [img 03], time machines in form of rotating elevators, bars in which robots should serve [img 05], full scale stage settings from the space comics of Chalopin [img 02/04], a big pink interactive Barbie piano flute, to name a few. Planète Magique was open to the public for 14 days. Today, the precise reason for its closure remains unclear, although the project was plagued by technical and financial problems.


img_02: settings from the space comics of Chalopin

img_03: rollercoster inside the Planète Magique



This amusement park was conserved in a snow-white sleep, a Disneyland after dark, until last year when it was woken up by Anne Roquigny and Pierre Bongiovanni (Centre International de Création Vidéo CICV) who where appointed by the City of Paris to mount a programme of digital art events within the remains of the Planète Magique. Roquigny and Bongiovanni created an electric series of debates, festivals, temporary exhibitions and improvised happenings. Their programme took place within a bizarre mix of mid-19th century style (in itself an eclectic mix of the classical and the baroque) and a dusty untouched 80's avant-garde theme park.



It has to go, all of it. Rollercoster, Barbie flute and the rest, all apart from the two historical 19th century (eclectic) Haussmannian rooms. Design, music and fashion have long time ago welcomed the 80’s style back into the family circle of creative respectability. Does architecture still struggle with it’s recent history? Or, are some people happy to see the last traces of this giant flop to be cleaned away for ever? The mayor of Paris at this time was Jacques Chirac current president of the Republique.

Manuelle Gautrand, who won the architectural competition to turn the Gaîté into the French centre for digital art cannot be blamed for taking out this truly authentic piece of 80's architectural hedonism. Her concept is exciting and distances itself from her competitors; designed as a system that can be oriented to the needs of artistic production whilst at the same time integrating the visiting public. Next to the more traditional performance spaces, Gautrand has proposed a system of modular blocks, the Éclaireuses [img 06], which can be shifted around the building, horizontally as well as vertically, using a lifts. These blocks have different functions ranging from presentation rooms, spaces for residence artists or outdoor structures to mediate between the inside and the outside of the building. Underlying these ideas was Gautrand's objective to "create a 'permissive' place that includes whatever is random and unexpected, a place that defines itself without predefining everything".


img_06: left spacial configuration of the Gaîté Lyrique; right, the Éclaireuses; © Manuelle Gautrand, 2003



At the same time the question remains: How can architecture support media art? In the initial phase for the architecture of the ZKM, the proposal of Rem Koolhaas had to be abandoned (because of budget constraints) and the project was moved to the site of an old munitions factory. Perhaps historical references help in creating the new, as Manuelle Gautrand puts it: "Contemporary art has an element of recycling". The ephemeral activities within the Gaîté over 2003-4 were set out clearly: "Retrouver la mémoire du lieu": to restore the memory of a place. Pierre Bongiovanni and his team have collected hundreds of interviews with visitors, historians and engineers, who discussed their memories of the Gaîté and the Planète Magique. They have been assembled into a beautiful, ghostly online interface. In some ways the Gaîté might already reboot itself from its own history. Manuelle Gautrand says that it will be dedicated to dance, theatre and media art. The disciplines are set, technology is not been emancipated from the performing and visual arts: Technology is transversal.




So how will the competitors fair? In New York 2008, will all the new inventions of media artists and designers settle into the brand new Eybeam? Manuelle Gautrand praises the two-layered architecture of Diller+Scofidio and she is less enamoured by the un-contemplative way she experienced the Ars Electronica setup in Linz. Is all this just part of a larger architectural discourse, in which a suspicion is arising against what we might call the exterior shell? Empty shells everywhere: ingenious algorithmic exterior constructions, but with no contextual relation to their interior activity. Perhaps the most notorious icon is London's Millennium Dome, the giant dome structure, which today remains empty without function. It gives hope when Gautrand talks about contextualising architecture to take in and invent new uses and therefore new content.

In the process of restoring the Gaîté, it has been discovered, that the eclectic mid 19th century surfaces are not authentic. Older layers of wall-painting and ceiling frescos have been found and will be restored [img 07], which will take time and money. If there will be no further complications, the Gaîté Lyrique will open it's 10000sqm surface to the public in 2006. Estimated budget: 50 Million Euros, roughly the amount "Planète Magique" cost in 1987.


This article has been written after interviewing Anne Roquigny, Manuelle Gautrand and Mathieu Maguerin.

images by Heiko Hansen / Gaîté


Links Anne Roquigny and Pierre Bongiovanni www.cicv.fr / www.la-gaite-de-paris.info

Manuelle Gautrand www.manuelle-gautrand.com

Mathieu Maguerin www.mainsdoeuvres.org