Phantom of the Opera

architect Odile Decq
project Phantom restaurant of the Opera Garnier, Paris, France
written by Alan Kostrenčić


Time becomes a subject because it is the folding of the outside and, as such, forces every present into forgetting, but preserves the whole of the past within memory: forgetting is the impossibility of return, and memory is the necessity of renewal.[1]


Architectural interventions in historic buildings, particularly in those with a rich history deeply rooted in our cultural memory, are always a delicate operation that can potentially either be exceptional or go horribly wrong. Their success arises notably from the active relation of remembrance and perceived contemporaneity, expectations and surprises. The temporal polyphony of different courses of inner time: perception and remembrance, linear and cyclic time, although inherent to the process of thinking, becomes most important in experiencing ‘new’ architecture ‘interpolated in the old’. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty states ‘It is of the essence of time to be not only actual time, or time which flows, but also time which is aware of itself.’[2] ‘Time which is aware of itself’ is constituted by the stream of consciousness that perceives the polyphony of different times.


The Palais Garnier, named after its architect Charles Garnier and built at the end of the 19th century, is probably the most famous opera house in the world. To its glamour and symbolic value we might also mention Gaston Leroux’s famous novel The Phantom of the Opera (Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, 1910) which was later made into an equally celebrated musical and film by Andrew Lloyd Webber. To create architecture in a building as charged with memory and symbolic significance as this one necessitates a very measured but also bold approach. The intervention by French architect Odile Decq corresponds to the area beneath the columns of the Palais Garnier’s eastern façade that was originally an access for horse-drawn carriages that would drop off distinguished personages arriving for a performance. This intervention was quite limited from the very beginning by conservation constraints. These constraints required that the architectural intervention could be removed without any damage to the existing structure. In other words, interventions to the walls, columns or ceiling were not possible. This canny constraint of French conservationists gave a freedom to the intervention, because should it prove unsuccessful it can be removed without damaging the original building. Indeed, this created the premise for more daring interpretations that otherwise might have been unlikely.


Odile Decq’s architectural concept is an intelligent interpretation of the conservationists’ constraints that plays with its literalness. The whole interior playfully pulsates in a baroque manner by ‘elusion’ of the existing load-bearing structure and so transforming architecture into dance. The restaurant’s façade is an undulating glass veil which has become almost self-bearing. Although there is no visible structure to hold the glass, it is kept in place by a single strip of curved steel which runs along the arched curved ceiling. The steel strip is affixed to the upper cornices of the columns with stainless steel connection rods; thus everything seems to be magically held. The light shell that seemingly has no construction and the wondrous impression of elusiveness between existence and evanescence, achieved by the glass veil that resonates between transparency and reflexion, results in the almost spectral (non)existence of the ‘body’ interposed into the Opera.


The restaurant provides for 90 seats which, due to the limited space of the ground plan, required the interpolation of an upper section. Of course, this additional space had to be made separate from the old surface. A steel skeleton covered with white plaster processed from the ‘inner side’ and the red leather (velvet?) are coherent with the logic of the opera’s finery and coquettishness. The relation between the (non)existing curved glass skin and the sensual substantiality of the interpolated upper section creates a new tension, or the above mentioned dance. This interplay results in the formation of the restaurant’s space and furthermore provides different levels of privacy for certain tables.


It seems that gastronomy has never been so highly appreciated in Western popular culture as today, and the most significant moment in this shift was perhaps the appearance of Ferran Adrià, former head chef of the el Bulli, at Documenta 12 in Kassel. Thanks to him, cooking became associated with esoteric terms like ‘molecular gastronomy’ and ‘deconstructivist cooking’, and gastronomy started to be more like its ancient, medieval ancestor – alchemy; cooking as an art of transformation of matter. Majestic culinary artistry is synthesis, experiment, and acts of mixing and melting have more prominent status than analysis, subtraction... Almost in a gastronomic way, Odile Decq ‘prepares’ her architecture with luscious ingredients of glamorous architecture from the late 19th and early 21st century. Her ‘cuisine’ evolves between counterpoint and mimicry, remembrance and imagining, the past and contemporaneity, but its main ‘secret ingredient’ is the relationship with ‘time’ or, moreover, ‘times’. Edmund Husserl said that the flow of consciousness is time-constituting, that is, that the continuity of consciousness and its absolute subjectivity gives the sense of time.[3] The difference (notably in materials) and continuity (in ambiance and finery) of the opera’s original space and new restaurant creates a new ‘local’ time. If we would like to represent Time with metaphor and analogy: line, circle, pyramid, spiral, maze... than Odile Decq has ‘cooked’ us a fine ‘time crystal’.[4]


[1]  Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, London and New York: Continuum, 1988, p. 108


[2]  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, London, Routledge, reprint 2008, p. 477.


[3]  Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, London, Kluwer, 1991, p. 382.


[4]  The ‘time crystal’ refers to a notion of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze which he uses to describe the way of being in time that grants the uniqueness of an event.