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Coup de theatre.

The new theatre and flanking mediatheque at St Quentin-en-Yvelines, by the Franco-polish architect Stanislas Fiszer, opened to the public late last year.

One of the five satellite New Towns created from the mid-1960s round Paris, St Quentin-en-Yvelines has long lacked a fully fledged town centre. Development of a new formal urban space -- the Place Ovale -- has been under way since the early 1990s.

Fiszer's new building, with its theatre officially granted national status, is intended to provide cultural focus. Framed by a vast gantry portal, the theatre entrance front gives onto the middle of the Place Ovale and closes the western vista of the Avenue du Centre -- the main axi's of St Quentin-en-Yveline's new central district.

Fiszer is no stranger to working in the disorientating context of the Paris region New Towns which, despite their illusory planning logic on paper, are all too frequently in the harsh reality of their built forms inchoate not to say chaotic no-man's-lands. At Marne-la-Vallee, Evry, Cergy Pontoise and Melun Senart, in the late 1970s, Fiszer made a reputation for creating ex nihilo richly heterogeneous residential neighbourhoods and primary schools imbued with a sense of place, scale, varied incident and materials (see AR April 1982).

The St Quentin-en-Yvelines theatre and mediatheque building is one of several larger and more prestigious commissions won by Fiszer from the mid-1980s where he has been able to elaborate on a programmatic approach to the brief as a whole and to the enrichment of its component parts.

The original 1986 competition brief was for a conference centre, a 1 200-seat theatre and a 300-seat theatre workshop, an audiovisual studio, a cinema, shops and restaurants -- one 6f those ambitious multi-purpose projects then much favoured by French mayors, with an eye to offsetting the cost of a prestigious cultural centre against the lucrative potential of commercial Convention facilities.

Despite the stipulated requirement for the building to be realised in a single-phase contract, Firker and his team conceived the project as a group of self-contained elements, each capable of being built and run independently, This approach proved very wise. The market for conference centres was oversubscribed, then slumped, and only two elements of the original brief survived: the 1200-seat theatre and its 300-seat workshop. The mediatheque was added, and occupies space originally allocated for some of the conference facilities, whereas the remainder of the programme is still under negotiation.

The subdivision had other benefits, according to Fiszer, for it provided an opportunity to present the project realistically, as a juxtaposition of elements experienced both internally and externally from a multitude of viewpoints.

The main body of the 1200-seat theatre extends back on a deep site, taking advantage of the steep fall in ground westwards from the lip of the Place Ovale. The north side has a sheer, largely blind, but monumentally composed cliff of an elevation. But, to the south, facing a self-consciously picturesque lakeside quartier at the bottom of the declivity accessed f rom the Place by an expansive sweep of steps, the elevation of the flanking mediatheque rises through three generously glazed levels, above which a largely double-height top storey is set back, to allow for a pedestrian promenade-verandah running the whole depth of the building, from parvis and Place to the west, where stairs lead down to lakeside level. Here, a third phase of Fiszer's work is anticipated, backing onto the blind back walls of the present building and destined to provide an elevation worthy of the prominence and status of the edifice when approached from the west.

The main entrance to the mediatheque is from the lakeside esplanade. Designed to be flexible, the three lower storeys contain the principal public areas: reception and lending library on the ground floor, with timber-framed open-well stairs rising into the first floor reference library with an audio-visual room and record library beyond. A service and lift core, grouped around a top-lit spiral staircase, gives access to the second floor videotheque and children's library, with its story-telling alcove reminiscent of Fiszer's 1970s primary schools. All the furniture on these floors was designed by Fiszer.

The public also has access to the mediatheque's professional training facilities on part of the third floor, which is shared with an exhibition gallery run by the theatre management. Both these spaces give onto the external promenade-verandah f rom the Place.

The curved roof-space houses the mediatheque's administrative offices, and a vast book store extends back over the theatre scenery dock, behind the flytower.

The theatres are reached from the Place Ovale, via an entrance hall and box off ice at the foot of a glazed stair tower serving the theatre workshop. Located above the main auditorium, flexible performance space gives onto a spacious terrace overlooking the Place.

The lofty main foyer is treated as a theatrical space in its own right, with the milling crowd providing a spectacle, whether seen from the Place through large glazed openings or from the loggia which gives access to the auditorium balcony.

In the main theatre, Fiszer has attempted an idealised combination of Palladio's Teatro Olympico and the warm grandeur of the nineteenth-century theatre. The bold abstract design of the great curtain, by Anna Fiszer (the architect's mother) predominates. The seating, which he designed himself, is covered in dark wine plush, with the 800 seats in the stalls broadly curved on a gentle rake. The carpeting is brown-buff, the acoustic ceiling is black, otherwise finishes are fair-faced concrete, dark oiled concrete and natural beech panelling.

A maximum distance of 28 metres between spectator and stage has been sought. However, to accommodate a service cat-walk and a projection and control room, the 400-seat balcony is raised rather too high in relation to the proportion of the auditorium, and has a clumsy return curve to the slip seating on either side of the proscenium.

The subdivision of the brief into component elements is reflected by the use of a variety of materials and finishes, and stylistic associations. Indeed, Fiszer has relished juggling with subcontracts to achieve a multiplicity of surfaces, textures and details. For example, he has used in-situ fair-faced and sandblasted concrete for the foyer facade, precast concrete for the frame articulating the main elevation of the mediatheque and for consoled cornices, profiled metal cladding for the roofs and the theatre workshop lobby, grit-blasted and partly melted glass for the stair tower, and 7 cm-thick panels of grey-green Polish sandstone for the whole of the north flank and for the front elevation of the theatre workshop. This stone, which proved much cheaper than metal cladding, has been used to achieve contrasting smooth and rough-hewn finishes. Moreover, Fiszer has exploited the use of one per cent of the total building costs for art, not only to commission sculpture for the parvis but also for special moulds for precast concrete, for decorative aluminium castings encrusted in the theatre and mediatheque elevations, and for bronze door furniture specials used inside and out.

Delayed completion of works to the Place Ovale (a monumental but crude hippodrome of housing enclosing a floriferous traffic roundabout) has however meant that the panoply of embellishments and finishes planned by Fiszer for the stepped approach to the parvis or forestage of his civic cultural monument (plinths, sculpture, uplighters, and so on) has not yet been fully implemented.
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Title Annotation:St. Quentin-en-Yvelines theater and mediatheque in France
Author:Meade, Martin
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:1214
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