By Helen Elias
Close your eyes and think of a traditional Chinese lantern — one of those round, red ones that look like it might have been pulled out of the center of a concertina. Push the shape around just a little, until it is almost elliptical, and color it a bright, vibrant orange. Then scale it up. Keep going. Scale it up a lot — scale it up in your mind’s eye to the size of a 12,000 seat indoor state of the art performance arena. Then tie the whole thing down into a wide, clear site in Eckbolsheim, a district of one of Europe’s most ancient, historic and beautiful cities — Strasbourg — and open your eyes. You are looking at one of the largest fabric structures on the continent — and certainly one of the most colorful — the new 14,000m2 Zenith Music Hall, designed by Italian architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas.
The Strasbourg venue is the latest in a long line of Zenith performance spaces — 14 so far — to be built around France, in an enlightened program designed to provide regional, large-scale and accessible rock and entertainment venues. The first one opened in Paris in 1984, but the Strasbourg Zenith beats that hands down, being the biggest and brightest of all. A competition to design the new entertainment complex was put up by the City of Strasbourg in 2003, and won by award winning Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas working with his long term collaborator, Doriana.
Taking a lightweight touch to a massive concert venue is a brave design approach — these are buildings which by definition have to be robust, accommodating thousands of people, all of whom have paid to have a good time, want to get a good view of the stage and expect to hear the acts clearly. Understanding that a performance venue is itself a destination point, the Fuksas team chose to make the building into a beacon. By imaginative use of tensile fabric as a structural form they have created an iconic shape that is part of a new architectural renaissance across Strasbourg, leading the regeneration of the City’s infrastructure.
According to the architects, the concept of the design is based on a modular and a well balanced organization of the different elements: good views for all spectators, best acoustics and an optimized cost management already addressed during the concept phase of the design. They wanted their building to be understood as a single, unifying and autonomous sculpture.
The heart of the building is a central performance arena built in robust, reinforced concrete, a strong structure enclosed by a seemingly fragile, opaque outer skin created from 16,564m2 of translucent bright orange architectural tensile fabric. By day, the semi translucent fabric looks solid enough, just very orange. Sunlight filters in through the fabric to fill the foyer and circulation spaces outside the performance area with a happy, warming internal ambiance. Approach the building at night, and the place is transformed into one large glowing orange light sculpture. The building becomes the mother of all lanterns, with the fabric façade used as a massive projection screen to announce that evening’s events while the structure of the internal auditorium can be seen through the semi translucent textile membrane. The glowing building draws audiences towards it like bees to a honey trap.
By layering and rotating the ellipsoid metal façade structure that surrounds the performance arena, the solid central space is protected from the elements by a lively, dynamic outer skin. Five huge circumferential bands of steel wrap the core. They look as if they have settled into place almost as if they have been flung at random over the central performance structure like a set of hoops from a fairground hoopla stall. The glass and silicone architectural membrane, stretched between the bands under tension, work in monolithic unison to enclose the whole giving the building its distinctive, asymmetric form. The membrane form is supported by 22 steel masts that push out from the concrete performance core, connected with a network of thin steel tensile cables. Steel circumferential hoops push out in cantilevered steps to indicate the main entrance to this unique building, which has a form that can otherwise be read from any side, and viewed as a monolith from any direction.
The application of glass/silicone fabric in Strasbourg pushed the malleable boundaries of this resilient membrane to a new level. The material is known for its tensile resistance. Here, this has been tested to the extreme — with the factory seam welding of cut pieces including the addition of a bi-adhesive strip to edges that contains a silicone base — an innovation that allowed the folding, storing and assembly progress to progress more easily. All the membrane pieces were delivered to site with edges folded and welded to allow panels to be pre-assembled on the ground by feeding double barrelled aluminum inserts into adjoining pockets to unit sections. The inserts were then clamped to a perforated steel plate, and in turn welded to the supporting elliptical rings of the massive steel cable tensile structure that holds the membrane in place. Once all 10 panels were erected, thin strips of orange membrane were used to cover the joints, giving the façade its overall seamless monolithic quality. The speed of erecting the fabric membrane on site — an impressive 10 weeks — was facilitated by the amount of off-site materials peroration that took place.
The Zenith, Strasbourg is a visually startling concert venue that has immediately joined those few other iconic structures around the world that are talked about as much for the structure itself as for what goes on inside. It opened this summer to wide acclaim from the music world and architectural community alike, and is currently lining up appearances from a host of world class bands and performers from Coldplay to the veteran band leader James Last.