Respect for the past and innovation go hand in hand in this atypical design whose urban vocation is eminently symbolic.
The Chapelle Corneille, a listed heritage building built in the 17th century in a Baroque style through which the spirit of the Counter Reformation clearly transpires, has been home to high quality musical events for a number of years now, notably during festivals held during the summer and in October, gathering large audiences. Conscious of this success, the Région Normandie wished to reinforce the chapel’s role as a designated concert venue for non amplified music, offering upgraded facilities to meet modern day requirements in terms both of acoustics and accessibility, and providing professional amenities on a par with the musicians’ talent.
The architects were acutely aware of the need to breathe new life into the chapel while respecting the original building’s integrity, harmoniously integrating 21st century developments within the 17th century architecture.
The difference in height between the building and street level was sufficiently great for facilities catering for the needs of concert-goers and artists alike to be integrated into the basement. This solution also provided easy access for people with reduced mobility, creating a meaningful link between the building as a historical monument and in its modern day vocation.
The new entrance to the venue is sheltered beneath glazing running along the building’s eastern façade, leading the spectator to the reception area and lobby situated beneath the chapel, and from there on to the stairway and lift taking them up to the main auditorium itself. This layout also draws upon the building’s spiritual role, and, just as the believer moves from the ritual of meditation to the awakening of light, so the concert-goer leaves the hustle and bustle of everyday life for the miracle of music.
The access configuration does not complicate the visitor’s reading of the building, in no way interfering with the mainstays of its identity and, in its practicality, eloquently bridging today and yesteryear. The configuration also enabled the architects to endow the building with a façade on an equal footing with its vocation past and present.
A succession of steps trickle down from the main entrance in gentle curves to the seating area, espousing the incline of the plot. Inspired by the urban staging dear to architects of the Baroque period, in which a building was seen uniquely from the standpoint of its surrounding context, the dark grey tones of the stone stairways set off the chapel’s magnificence, its primarily white facades already revelling in this play on light and dark. The people of Rouen are clearly keen to embrace the revisited edifice, and they naturally wend their way across the series of surfaces, both organic and urbane, showcasing a heritage building which for too many years had been abandoned to the stranglehold of the surrounding urban fabric.
A common entrance is situated on Rue Bourg-l’Abbé for use by both the general public and musicians. The latter may go down the imposing exterior stairway to reach the stage-side entrance hall positioned on the ground floor of the chapel and connecting the auditorium with the dressing rooms.
A mural frieze runs above the slope leading up to the ample reception hall, retracing the chapel’s history from its origins to the present day.
The box office and basement foyer are situated in the reception hall, where a bar awaits spectators, while the cloakrooms and toilets are also positioned in the spaces created beneath the chapel.
A lift and staircase in varnished crude steel lead up from the basement foyer to the auditorium, voicing their presence like two contemporary sculptures.
A second foyer on ground floor level has been positioned in the first bay of the nave, and also offers a light refreshment service, in complement to the basement level bar which is for its part connected to the water and electricity supply.
The particular requirements of the musicians have also been taken into account, as the project specifications stipulated. The adjacent building already used to house the dressing rooms has enjoyed total renovation and now offers two vast communal dressing rooms and individual dressing rooms for men and women. A meeting room has also been provided, along with a production office, technical office and logistic zone, all of which have access to a spacious terraced area. A physical bond has been created between this building and the chapel, thereby strengthening the functional and symbolic unity of the whole.
Acoustics and Staging
Sound reverberation in the Chapel Corneille is good, rather too good in fact, and the acoustics needed a greater level of control. To achieve this, a number of devices have been implemented, combining a sense of interior staging with acoustic comfort.
The ceiling light hangs directly above the crossing in the transept and is composed of two hemispheres, one of which is equipped with a convex lens. This serves to reflect sound back towards the audience and musicians. An optimal effect was achieved by increasing the diameter of the light to 6.5 metres. The second hemisphere is equipped with lightemitting pendants and a dimmer switch makes it possible to adapt the intensity of the light produced to create the required atmosphere.
This globe serves to condense the ideal image of the centred layout initially intended by the chapel’s architects. When the audience enters the nave from the side, they come face to face with the chapel’s anamorphic double and this mirror image is an evocative reminder of the artifices and illusions so popular during the Renaissance, and particularly the Baroque period. As our grip on prosaic reality is thereby loosened, the audience is made ready for the enchantment of music.
Individual chairs were preferred to tiered seating, and as for all venues open to the general public, the chairs are joined together for safety reasons. They fit together in pairs; each chair has three legs and is joined to the next. Two heights have been chosen – 45 cm for those in the front and middle, and 65 cm for those at the rear, to improve visibility.
The chairs in the back rows and to the side are fitted with 2.5 m high acoustic deflectors, ensuring that sound is reflected back to the spot where the concert is being given, maintaining it at that point. This greatly improves the auditorium’s acoustics.
In terms of staging, visitors to the auditorium discover a ‘hall within a hall’ functioning like an artistic installation. This naturally leads the audience from the religious sphere into that of music and entertainment.
In addition to this, curtain soffits operate as sound absorbers, for use in specific circumstances. The soffits stand on pantographs, and are positioned around the auditorium thus – eight on the four platforms around the crossing in the transept and a further ten evenly distributed around the chapel, creating homogeneous sound absorption.
Lighting for the chapel’s interior and exterior spaces was designed to have a minimum level of impact on the existing architecture of this listed heritage building and a maximum level of integration within the newly erected areas.
The most remarkable elements of the chapel’s interior architecture and its fine volumes are subtly underscored by spotlights fixed to lighting supports suspended from the keystones some 12 m above the floor. Spotlights also project downwards from the lighting supports into the main volume of the chapel.
In addition to the spherical ceiling light described above, lights have also been placed on stone consoles, positioned 3 m above the floor, to create soft lighting effects. They contribute greatly to the overall atmosphere inside the auditorium and offer lighting in the side aisles of the chapel. The relatively moderate height of their positioning creates a sense of reassurance within the building’s vast interior volume.
The exterior lighting is an emanation of the project’s architectural logic – the building’s volumes are underscored by light projected upwards from the ground, emanating from the basement now housing the auditorium’s reception areas. The lighting effects highlight the chapel’s horizontal lines, as the building seemingly rises up from its base. On the main façade, the lighting again brings out the building’s horizontal architectural rhythms and graceful statues.
Location: Rouen, France
Areas: building: 1,140 sqm / surroundings: 1,200 sqm
Architects: atelier d’architecture King Kong
Chief project manager: Paul Marion
Project manager: Flora Beth
Heritage architect: Aurélien Dufour
Photographs: Eric Peltier