by Jerry ElengicalFeb 15, 2022
Said to have been a site for human settlement as far as the Neolithic period, the Domaine de Bayssan Estate is steeped in the history and cultural traditions of its setting near the town of Béziers in the Hérault department of Southern France. During Gallo-Roman times, the area was host to flourishing viticulture enterprises, occupied by farms whose primary exports were wine and cereals. The property changed hands numerous times over the years, with churches - including the chapel of Saint Félix - as well as other monasteries and castles occupying its grounds. In this capacity, it was a major contributor to Béziers' economic expansion as well as its identity.
However, the seeds of the 160-acre property’s current cultural significance were first planted in the 1980s when the Département de l’Hérault (Departmental Council of Hérault) purchased part of the plot to maintain it as a land reserve. Over two decades later in 2006, the site became home to a canvas marquee installed by the council to function as a performance hall in association with the Theatre Sortie Ouest - a purpose it fulfilled for 10 years. Following this tenure, the council enlisted Paris-based firm K architectures to replace the tents with a more lasting venue that would form a hub for performing arts, events, and culture, complementing the estate’s historical significance.
Founded by Karine Herman and Jérôme Sigwalt in 2000, K architectures is a practice that is on a quest to realise architecture driven by essential materiality and contextual sensitivity in order to exude unvarnished meaning. Concerning their initial thoughts on the prospect of developing a permanent home for the theatre, Co-Founder of K architectures, Jérôme Sigwalt, shares, “Domaine de Bayssan was one of the great wine farms that built the beauty of the landscapes of this region of Southern France in the last century. The light stone and terracotta tiles of its buildings harmonised elegantly with the countryside alternating between wild nature and small groves. Today, the site has been jostled by numerous road infrastructures, but the overall aesthetic of those happy times is still clearly noticeable.”
The designers decided to draw from the ephemeral forms and characteristics of the circus tents that had previously dotted the plot’s margins, noting that their bohemian nature stood out from the landscape, but also grew to exist in consonance with it. Sigwalt explains, “The central idea of the project was to find the shapes and materials most compatible with the place. We had to write the continuation of a long story that had been suspended almost a century ago. We could have relearned an old language and invented anecdotes from another time, but instead, we chose a narrative based on wood.” He continues, “This material seemed to us, most naturally linked to the rural context and its components - such as trees, wild grasses, and stones, from neighbouring examples of vernacular architecture.” Furthermore, wood was also selected owing to its ecological benefits over more conventional materials.
According to the architects, the Theatre Sortie Ouest boasted a diverse programme of activities and events, but was still entrenched in circus culture, catering to both the general public and more frequent, informed visitors. The old marquee’s flexibility and adaptability were also taken into account during the design process, to allow the new structure to facilitate interactions between guests and a plethora of artistic ventures and creative individuals. Preserving the area’s roots in circus culture, K architectures’ intervention takes the shape of three architectural entities whose forms and edifices have been designed to mimic the essential qualities of circus tents. Coming into view along a path of protected trees - some nearly a century old - the three buildings form a physical perimeter between nearby developments and a courtyard to the estate’s rear which is restricted from public access.
In order to stay true to the transitory and malleable nature of circus complexes, the esplanade surrounding the buildings is devoid of any permanent structures, granting space for caravans, stages, banquets, marquees, and all kinds of other temporary facilities to crop up and supplement regular programming at the venue, as necessities arise. Moving through the site, visitors first encounter the semicircular amphitheatre, followed by an open public space, which leads towards a pair of circular tent-like structures at the other end of the plot. The smaller of the two buildings, between the open-air amphitheatre and the larger auditorium, functions as the reception, providing common facilities for both spaces.
K architectures explained that the two tent-like structures were developed by moulding and reinterpreting the imagery of the circus tents into a modular construction system. This resulted in a façade design that mimics radial geometries seen in canvas tents, alongside the stitching patterns that is often seen on their surfaces. Wooden slats cladding the exterior surfaces impart a measured rhythm, overlapping and intersecting in layers, guided by triangular motifs. Sigwalt relays, “The volume of the envelope was sculpted to evoke the folds of stretched canvases. Then, the wood was fitted onto the facades to approximate the lightness of the envelopes of the circuses.”
The smaller reception structure also hosts ticketing offices and public toilets, as well as a restaurant at the heart of its circular enclosure. “The structure, cladding, and lining of the interior design are all made of wood. Placed in the centre of the project, its appearance of a 100 per cent wooden tent evokes all the symbolism of this architecture,” shares Sigwalt. Reinforcing this imagery is the lighting layout along the wood-finished ceiling, radiating out from the structure’s apex in cone-like patterns and replicating the visual qualities of circus tent roofs to a tee. This space is internally connected to the larger auditorium building by a short hallway.
While the exterior of the larger building is dressed in triangular patterns of pleated wood, the 423-seater auditorium features an enormous 15 m x 22 m stage with a 65 sqm proscenium in matte black, seemingly pulling spectators into its immersive environment through the sheer gravity of its visual presence. Sigwalt elaborates, “The theatre’s design called for very significant staves and overloads for its framework to the right of the stage. Metallic elements were used in this part to economise material usage and reduce its influence on scenographic installations.” Technical and logistical spaces occupy the zones flanking the stage, with dressing rooms placed towards the courtyard side. Furthermore, the theatre's three-tiered seating has also been designed to be retractable, as per the need of the hour.
On the site’s front end, the monumental amphitheatre extends the design language and circus tent themes of its neighbours but refashions them under a more industrial and contemporary aesthetic as per its functional requirements. Capable of seating 965, the venue boasts a total standing capacity of 1440, but is interestingly not fixed to an embankment in the style of its predecessors from ancient Greece. Instead, the rear massing is relatively slender for a building of its scale, with public toilets and service areas settled in the space beneath the bleachers, accessible from side galleries in the lower section of the structure. A pair of staircases and elevators grant access to the seating from the upper tier. Concrete was chosen as the primary material for the seating areas and vertical walls due to the project’s timeline which eliminated the possibility of using stone in its place. The seating fans out in a semicircular arc around the main 12m x 20m stage, which is fitted with a mobile front stage and a flexible 80 sqm proscenium. An orchestra pit for the 30 to 60 musicians has also been incorporated into the design.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this structure is its adaptation of circus-style architecture in its matte black roof, which only crowns the main stage area, displaying triangular ridges in its profile. Sigwalt states, “The complex geometry borrowed from the world of stretched canvas capitals was very difficult to adapt to our more conventional frames and the cover of the amphitheatre was the most delicate to transcribe.” He adds, “Nothing was akin to this structural logic - the geometries of which did not correspond to those of large cantilevered spans capable of withstanding very significant overloads of equipment for the show. We had to carry out particularly detailed studies to adapt this structure according to a design process opposite to our habits. Here, it is the form that guided the structure and not the other way around.”
Celebrating the estate’s contextual and historical significance while injecting a new air of dynamism and vibrancy into the site, K architectures’ endeavour has successfully recontextualised the iconic qualities of the circus tents that once occupied the estate. The product of their labour of love is an immediately striking postmodern architectural expression, that is likely to enrich the already revered legacy of the Domaine de Bayssan Estate, crafting an enduring new identity for it in the eyes of generations yet to come.
Name: Domaine de Bayssan Theatre
Location: Béziers, France
Client: Département de l’Hérault
Year of completion: 2021
Design Team: K architectures Herman Sigwalt
Project Architect: Thomas Ehrhardt
Scenography: Changement A Vue
Landscape Architect: Atelier Volga
Structural Engineer: Batiserf
Services Engineer: Bet Choulet
Building Economist: BMF
Acoustical Consultant: Altia
Civil Engineer: Ateve
Construction Manager: Aia Mamangement