Officially opened in the spring of 2011, L’Astrada is a music venue and home to the renown Marciac jazz festival which prior to its construction had no permanent quarters to stage the international artists who come to perform each year. Marciac is a hive of activity during the festival, and an ever more numerous public of jazz lovers flock from home and abroad to enjoy the top notch facilities and finely tuned spatial arrangement of the new venue. L’Astrada has received unanimous acclaim from architecture critics and historians alike.
The decision to set the new concert hall within Marciac’s fortified Medieval bastide was part of a wider project for the town as a cultural pole. It triggered the redevelopment of a portion of the urban fabric to the north-east of the town centre, obliging the architects at King Kong to give careful consideration not only to the practicalities of the new building and its architectural context, but also to ways in which it could serve to revitalize this somewhat isolated neighbourhood as part of an urban design project still in the process of becoming. Their solution was to deftly graft the new building onto the existing grid layout and the result, while it refuses to unsettle the order of the town’s urban composition, does, like so many of King Kong’s designs, offer elements of surprise.
The road was marginally deviated from its rectilinear trajectory to make way for a new esplanade within which the building lies in ensconced. At once inconspicuous, such is the subtlety of its integration into the dense fabric of the surrounding constructions, L’Astrada also offers festival-goers, visitors and local residents the exciting vision of a work of contemporary architecture set against a rich historical backdrop. The empty space of the courtyard has been reworked as a transitional element in a structured succession of public squares.
The architects decided to extend the line of the Rue des Lilas reserved for traffic to encourage people to travel through the neighbourhood on foot. It is now possible to walk from the Place du Chevalier d’Antras to the esplanade in front of the primary school, and from there on to a smaller square which in turns opens out into the esplanade in front of L’Astrada. The smaller square is lined with shady plane trees beneath which the stroller may rest for a moment on a bench. Its overall layout is structured around existing elements and time-honoured practices – a lawned area has been preserved, along with a low wall, and a dirt and gravel area has been created to host a range of activities, including boules. The concert hall itself is an unpretentious building which slips effortlessly into the context of the town’s Medieval past, rubbing shoulders with a number of interesting architectural vestiges of a religious nature. Some shed light on the Meridional Gothic architecture once the vogue in the Gers region and to an ensuing taste for formal rigour and economy of means. L’Astrada dips unrestrainedly into the architectural idiom of its urban context, reworking its main characteristics in contemporary vein, in deference to the past but refusing hollow pastiche. It echoes back the straight lines and regularly recurring rhythms which shape the essence of the bastide’s soul. The authenticity oozing from the town’s low-lying houses with their simple, unadulterated walls is inspiration for the use of stamped or exposed-aggregate concrete, deliberately left untreated in the main surfacing, while the glazing, however functional, is reminiscent of Gothic ogee arching. The rustic wood panelling evokes the decorative trimming still visible on the exterior of many of the bastide’s historical abodes.
The building’s exterior cladding is at once smooth and forceful, voicing with unaffected simplicity the distilled embodiment of the fertile substance deposited through the centuries of the town’s architectural past. Refusing all sense of pretence and artifice, it echoes back the homogeneous plurality of Marciac’s rich identity. There is no misguided nostalgia, no backward-looking regret, nor does it imprison the town in its preordained role as a centre for tourism. Rather, L’Astrada has equipped the town with a first rate facility on a par with the extraordinary festival it hosts each year, a fitting reflection of its vitality and reputation. The wholesome purity of its architecture bears witness to the building’s filiation with Marciac’s rich historical legacy, while offering exciting new horizons for days to come. The concrete casing creates both forceful and gentle contrasts with the natural wood also used. The latter’s shades vary with the shifting atmospheric conditions, creating a rich dialogue between yesterday and tomorrow, redolent with unceasingly renewed sensations. Past and future come together here, each with their own specific part to play, in a mutually respectful union of rich and subtle complicity.
The Concert Hall The design of the concert hall itself is underpinned by a desire for form, and for a space and volume which may be adapted to varying uses. In this light, the main architectural challenge was how best to marry the specific functions required – here essentially for music, although not exclusively – while retaining a sense of unity, global organisation and spatial quality. The idea was to build a musical performance area with something of the jazz club about it, without forasmuch sacrificing its purpose as a major concert hall. This meant establishing a balance between a compact space, with the spectators in close reach of the musicians, within a sufficiently ample volume for excellent acoustics to be provided. The tangible emotions aroused in the spectator during performance were given pride of place, but not at the cost of the sound quality delivered to their ears. These considerations are reflected in the hall’s design, based on an array of asymmetric balconies, slopes of varying gradient, sweeping aisles and acoustic panels. The position of each seat is totally different to any other, without this in the least destroying the pleasure of partaking in a communal experience. The seating is arranged in concentric tiers of varying gradient to ensure all spectators enjoy an equally good view.
The overall height of the tiering is relatively limited, thereby maintaining a sense of warm reciprocity between the spectators, musicians and/or actors. The lower and intermediary entrance points are designed in such a way as to provide easy access, notably for those with reduced mobility. The aisles, passageways, access points and balconies provide a sense of space and serve as an invitation to chat or wander.
The central aisle leads directly to the lounge area and dressing rooms… The stage and backstage areas, along with the main stalls are all on ground floor level, enabling the public, artists or technicians to circulate freely through each designated areas. This is a great asset both during preparation periods and performances. The acoustic volume of the stage is determined by an array of lateral sliding panels. When open, they provide sound-reflecting or absorbing surfaces, as required, along with access to the wings. When slid along their rails into the closed position beneath the flies, they serve as additional leg drops to accompany the traditional side curtains.
The overall form thereby obtained fans out towards the edges of the stage, blurring its defined limits. The sliding lateral panels may be used to reduce this effect and recreate a clearly defined frame (and this is often the case for shows, notably). They also increase the acoustic quality of the hall as a whole. At the proscenium, they are used to hold equipment for sound and lighting. At the back of the hall, the main control desk commands the sound and stage lighting instruments. The aisles, tiered seating and balconies also allow room for mobile control desks without impeding the spectator’s view of the stage, and may be positioned at the top and foot of the intermediary level of tiering. Service facilities The overall design gives pride of place to compact distribution of space, thereby reducing the ratio of net surface area to usable interior space. Even though corridors and passageways are sparing, the general public and offstage staff evolve in separate zones.
The backstage area is flush with the rear of the stage, while the dressing rooms are on the upper floor, providing maximum privacy for musicians and actors. There is also a lounge area with a fine view over the square, in which spectators may sit and chat, or even chance upon their favourite musician or entertainer.
The projecting volume at the entrance provides protection from the elements. Once inside, there are two points of access from the foyer into the main concert hall - on the ground floor and first floor. There is also a multi-purpose bar-cum-reception desk. The layout of the foyer guides one naturally towards the concert hall and reception areas, gently leading the spectator to the building’s beating heart and the magic of performance it encloses.