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Amplified music as part of urban design: Toulouse copes with the inherent complexities

Samuel Balti


In Toulouse, the urban development project that was consolidated at the end of the 2000's has led to repositioning culture as a lever in favor of metropolitan construction. A broad-based steering committee reached out to the city's artistic actors in seeking to define a novel project involving amplified music that called for, among other things, construction of a complex dedicated to the local performing arts scene, known as the "Metronum". Inaugurated in 2014, this facility is intended over the long run to bolster a territory that had been weakened by a lack of venues of artistic creation and performance. The location chosen in an outlying district of Toulouse was also aimed at easing the social and geographic transformations shaping a metropolitan area, where buoyant growth had stretched the urban fabric over a much broader scale. However, the roundtables held on integrating music into the urban planning and development process attested to the presence of tensions between the political and artistic communities, opposing the desire to facilitate widespread musical activities with artists' tendency to spontaneously converge their craft at the city center. This article shows the extent to which the study of amplified music reveals a city's unique spatial dynamics, capable of undermining the priorities of an urban design project.

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1Since the 1980's, culture has inserted itself as a strategic driver into urban development policy. Revitalization programs, initiated in distressed Northern European cities, have promoted artist relocations and urban renewal projects across derelict districts (Landry 2000, Mommass 2004, Ambrosino and Andres 2008, Grésillon 2014). These revitalization policies, which in the past offered an alternative to declining industrial cities, are presently applicable to all types of conurbations. Culture has now moved to the forefront in the use of public spaces; it molds the various strategies aimed at enhancing geographic appeal and facilitating spatial transformation. In the context of revamped production systems, cultural activities embody wealth and usher in jobs and economic development (Scott 2000, Leriche et al. 2008, Liefoghe 2015). The infrastructure behind artistic pursuits can be deployed in a given territory by locating facilities or clusters, which serve to guarantee a level of proximity among the various cultural actors and stimulate their creativity. Entire urban districts are thus being developed specifically for artists, designers or creative types (Markusen 2006, Pilati and Tremblay 2007, Terrin 2012). Moreover, such projects are typically laid out to match the other urban planning designations (residential, transportation, open space, etc.) to ensure rationality of new construction at the metropolitan scale (Bonnin and Caro 2010).

2During this same period in France, amplified music have gradually crept into discussions held regarding urban and regional planning priorities (Raibaud 2005, 2009, Guibert 2006). "Amplified music" or "modern music" is defined as a set of socio-spatial practices that make use of electricity and sound amplification as part of the artistic creation and public display processes: rock and its various subgenres; reggae, ska and funk; blues, jazz and soul; hip-hop and electronic music; the French songbook and world music (Touche, 1996). In coordination with local public authorities and music industry professionals, the State has adopted a durable policy of support for creation and public expression. Meetings were organized in 1995 between music professionals and policymakers (Gema 1997), leading in 1998 to adopting the first labeling mechanism called "Modern Music Scenes" (Scènes de Musiques Actuelles” or Smac). To compensate for the limited artistic availability and foster exchanges among professionals, the State has sought to lay out a network of venues across France. A first generation of facilities specialized for amplified music was launched in French cities at the end of the 1990's, then pursued during the 2000's ("Florida" in Agen, "Chabada" in Angers, and the Barbey Theater in Bordeaux), with such a good outcome that today the majority of cities actually feature an auditorium bearing such a label. Today, some 150 SMAC facilities or related venues exist in France. Now on a par with other cultural activities, amplified music is gradually being introduced into the strategies behind building programs in shaping the identity of creative cities.

3However, while reliance on such a creativity argument has become more prevalent in cities, researchers have also underscored the paradox inherent in some of these public policies promoting urban and cultural development (Pratt 2010). In seeking to orient the city around a creative constituency, the cultural project actually raises the urban quality of a district yet might also contribute to its gentrification, causing dislocation of the least privileged socioeconomic categories (see, among other references: Territoires en mouvement, 2013. Creative artists and territories in Europe). The goal of imprinting a creative image on a city runs the risk of favoring the construction of large-scale facilities, in the form of powerful and emblematic architectural symbols vying with those of other cities. Such building projects however could overshadow the lack of a substantive policy backing cultural events and programs (Vivant 2009). Furthermore, the use of culture as part of a strategic mission dedicated to social, economic and urban development is often denounced by the arts community for its failure to adequately consider their craft or out of fear of losing their artistic freedoms (Brandl 2009). These few examples accurately display the difficulties involved in coordinating the various priorities inherent in public action (Offner 2006): enhancing a city's competitive positioning and solidarity among residents, while facilitating the transformation of urban areas and nurturing the vitality of the local arts scene.

4In Toulouse, culture has long been considered outside the main concerns of local policies and challenges tied to urban planning and development. This situation is perhaps due to the special identity associated with this city, which is not as dependent on culture as others to enhance its attractiveness. It also stems from an underlying assumption by municipal staff, whereby the local cultural scene, which already enjoys widespread popularity, relies on the initiative of private actors, who possess expertise the local authority can draw upon. Yet major changes have occurred over the last two decades. For starters, a catch-up policy was implemented as of the end of the 1990's, allowing Toulouse to complete its endowment of major cultural facilities (Zénith, National Theater, Museum of Modern Art). Next, a municipal department dedicated to urban cultural affairs was set up at the beginning of the 2000's to accompany emerging cultural practices. A change of political party in power with the 2008 municipal elections served to reposition culture within the political discourse, elevating it to strategic status (Balti and Sibertin-Blanc 2016). The new municipal team faced challenges including responding to the needs of the local arts community by constructing venues, laying infrastructure and strengthening synergies on the one hand, while enhancing the metropolitan area's appeal, supporting territorial shifts and mitigating a number of socio-spatial vulnerabilities on the other (Escaffre and Jaillet 2016). For this reason, in 2008, a joint task force was convened with leaders of the arts community for the purpose of crafting the content of a cultural project (Balti and Sibertin-Blanc 2009).

5The present article sets out to reexamine this particular project. The project's ability to respond to the needs of the local arts scene while still conveying a strategic vision of Toulouse's metropolitan development will be addressed first. The analysis will then focus on the spatial dynamics associated with the local arts community, in paying special attention to key community actors: venue occupants, partners joining the venture and building close relationships with the city. The impetus will thus placed on demonstrating how a study of the co-construction of an urban planning project involving amplified music can reveal the existence of tensions tied to difficulties in meshing artistic and urban development priorities. These findings have relied on a series of surveys conducted during a thesis study program (Balti, 2012). A census of musical actors was first undertaken based on a review of several documentary resources (professional directories, local cultural calendars and online social media). Semi-directive interviews were then conducted among a panel of representative actors: artists, venue managers, and association actors in one group; elected officials, technicians and institutional actors in another. Moreover, observations of the co-construction process as it applies to the cultural project were recorded over a period of time, by means of attending the various public meetings, first those leading up to defining the cultural project and next those serving to accompany its implementation.

Co-construction of a project involving amplified music

The context surrounding the 2000's decade

6Toulouse, France's fourth largest city, had until the end of the 2000's constituted an exception in the French musical landscape by virtue of offering no public venue dedicated to the practice of amplified music. The demands for artistic creation were being met by some fifteen small rehearsal studios: the facilities in place were aging and unable to satisfy the requirements of amplified music (obsolete sound system, poor quality acoustics, overcrowded premises). The broadcasting sector could count on a few large auditoriums to accommodate headliners with tour dates in Toulouse; sector professionals however were adversely affected by loss of the "Bikini", an iconic concert hall destroyed by the AZF plant explosion in 2001, which would not reopen until several years later (Sibertin-Blanc 2004). With the exception of a meager number of specialized venues showcasing certain musical styles ("Halle aux Grains" for classical music, "Nougaro" auditorium for world music or jazz, "Bijou" for French variety), cultural programming mainly involved finding one-off sites, consisting for the most part of bars, restaurants or multipurpose rooms renting out their space to host artists on a semi-regular basis for evening gala celebrations.

7This type of space tends to be poorly adapted to staging concerts and fails to become a fixture within the local arts scene. Some establishments actually prefer to avoid scheduling relatively unprofitable concerts; others are forced to cancel due to neighbors' objections and more restrictive regulations (soundproofing of premises, renovation of exits to streamline audience evacuation, enhanced public safety, etc.). Given the absence of auditoriums suitable for hosting concerts, the organizers of such events were hard-pressed to find available venues whose layout was adapted to a particular artist's profile.

8Faced with these multiple difficulties, cultural actors got together towards the beginning of the 2000's to form a consortium called "Couac", in order to lobby for (among other things) greater recognition of cultural activities (Sibertin-Blanc 2008). At the regional scale, an institutional group Avant-Mardi, in existence since the 1990's, has sought to rally both private and public actors to the cause of tightening the network of musical infrastructure and partnering in the economic development of project sponsors. While the lines of communication established between private and public actors were very cautious at first, even conflictual at times, they gradually opened to a point of shaping a meaningful joint reflection regarding the region's cultural and musical identity, which included laying the groundwork for a dedicated facility hosting amplified music and fast-tracking initiatives in central Toulouse.

The participatory process

9In 2008, the newly-elected municipal team sought to ride the co-construction momentum already underway among the various cultural actors. Very quickly, a Cultural Roundtable was organized: some thirty public hearings took place within a span of six months, gathering some 5,000 participants. For these newly-elected officials, the mission consisted of meeting with actors in the field, in relying on their experience to fully grasp the local arts scene and elaborate the contents of a project dedicated to culture. The initial exchanges served to share the assessment of a local musical scene that glaringly lacked a venue for creation and public performance. The proposals received from all sides reiterated a handful of priorities, principally in support of a territorial consolidation around multiple centers or nodes, accomplished through networking the various actors. The discussion was thus spearheaded by one overarching question: should the strategy adopted favor building new venues or support those already existing by improving their ability to respond to local needs?

10This question was explored in greater depth during meetings reserved for professionals, encompassing the need to reconfigure the artistic territory around a unifying cluster. This approach led to adopting the Toulouse Cultural Project 2009-2014, calling for the construction of a dedicated amplified music facility (Toulouse City Hall 2009). This venue was being hailed as a conduit for local musical energy. To bring the project to fruition, its design entailed an auditorium with limited seating capacity, several rehearsal studios and ancillary services dedicated to professional development. Another survey conducted among local artists was expected to underscore their expectations for this new venue, particularly in terms of geographic location. The initial proposal addressed to them focused on the city center, which was an option that had already been examined by the previous municipal team, in conjunction with the rehabilitation of a derelict cinema located adjacent to the allées Jean Jaurès. The second proposal targeted an outlying district, featuring the construction of a new facility. This latest initiative revealed that a majority of actors were expressing their support for a city center location. Alternatively, the designated host district needed a pre-established reputation as a premier nightlife spot (Meckel 2010).

11Between 2011 and 2013, the final stage of the public hearing process was coordinated, this time under the aegis of the Avant-Mardi regional promotion group, at the request of the Toulouse City Hall's Cultural Affairs Office. Several working groups were assembled for the purpose of fleshing out this facility design project, in a manner consistent with the city's cultural ambitions. Some 60 musicians, troupe actors, producers, trade representatives and national experts held a meeting to discuss subjects relative to strengthening the territory's artistic disciplines and developing its musical locales. The topics raised, spanning rehearsal premises, artistic guidance, job creation, public performance and labels, were all assessed with respect to this new building project for actors influential on the local scene.

A multipurpose venue to build excitement around a new district

12This new amplified music facility called the "Metronum", which had broken ground in 2008, opened its doors at the beginning of 2014 in the Borderouge district (see Fig. 1). The ultimate choice of a peripheral geographic location resulted from a process that took into account the multiple urban, political and financial parameters. This musical infrastructure must in essence shape the revitalization of a residential district undergoing rapid transformation; its purpose extends to rebalancing a cultural offering characterized by an overconcentration of facilities placed in the heart of Toulouse's old quarter. The Conservatory, the School of Fine Arts, the "Abattoirs" Contemporary Art Museum, the Augustins Museum, the Capitole Orchestra, and the Toulouse National Theater (TNT): such are the primary cultural institutions located in the Toulouse city center. From a political standpoint, choosing the "Borderouge" made a statement about breaking with the former municipal team's vision and its "city center"-driven project. But this strategy was also more advantageous financially, as the new structure would be less costly to construct than rehabilitating an old building like a cinema, given the difficulties inherent in complying with specifications calling for a truly multipurpose facility.

13A 550-seat auditorium, with a 200-seat "music box" as the showcase, three rehearsal studios and a recording booth are the various spaces constituting the present Metronum; they were all designed to meet the needs of inspiring Toulouse-based creation and performance. The Metronum was thus conceived as a gathering place, a resource center and an artists' residency. It also hosts the newly-created Municipal Office of Contemporary Music, along with a cluster group run by 14 actors involved in organizing shows, promoting artists and producing albums. Facility management was placed in private hands overseen by a majority city interest, yet associated with a consortium of private artists devoted to rotating Board representation. This model was set up to encourage openness to local creation; by insisting on the constant involvement of "field" actors, management de facto contributed to the facility's more flexible operating style (e.g. adjusting opening hours to accommodate artists' schedules). The Metronum was thus slated to become a major driver of the local arts scene, at the head of a network and a leading voice in all matters related to the Toulouse musical scene. However, its site location in Borderouge implied an even broader mission since the venue is the focal point of animation for a primarily residential district.

Figure 1: The "Metronum" facility

Figure 1: The "Metronum" facility

Figures 2a and 2b: Views of the neighboring district from the "Metronum"

Figures 2a and 2b: Views of the neighboring district from the "Metronum"

14Set in the northern outskirts of the Toulouse metropolitan area, the Borderouge district has been the target of a major urban development project launched during the 1990's to absorb a share of the area's growth. Even today, the locality is undergoing extensive transformation, as attested by the presence of many construction sites and continued population increases (Fig. 2a). The Metronum is located in the immediate vicinity of Maourine Square, an 11-hectare public space surrounded by a supermarket, a few retail shops and personal services businesses. With little foot traffic, this square basically serves as a transit corridor, offering a park-and-ride station with metro access for commuters from northern suburbs heading to the city center. The artistic dynamic fashioned around this venue might help energize the district, strengthen community bonds, perhaps even attract other activities while raising its own appeal at the metropolitan scale. By selecting Borderouge, the objective was also to bridge the socio-spatial divide, perceived to stem from a highly imbalanced distribution of metropolitan area functions coupled with a void in this northern section of Toulouse. Such were the objectives targeted by politicians, who decided on the Metronum's site location. The name assigned to this facility conveys a certain meaning, since "Metronum" is in fact an amalgam that recalls both the phonetics of "metronome", the instrument responsible for setting musical tempo, "metropole" and even "metro", the means by which this district enjoys connections with the city center. Put otherwise, amplified music now provides Toulouse with a strategic lever to implement an urban project; moreover, it serves to galvanize the development of new districts and helps consolidate the area's multi-nodal layout, which has experienced rapid transformations requiring revised territorial configurations at a wider scale (Toulouse Metropolitan Area Council 2011).

Figure 3: The "Metronum" venue amidst the Borderouge District

Figure 3: The "Metronum" venue amidst the Borderouge District

Spatial dynamics at play on the Toulouse musical scene

Landmark facilities and polarization of musical resources on the outskirts

15On the local map of amplified music sites, the Metronum location has enhanced the equilibrium of venue offerings, which had already been highly polarized across the outer reaches of the metropolitan area. Since 2007, steps have been underway to boost outlying Toulouse neighborhoods, with the opening of two concert halls: Bikini in Ramonville-Saint-Agne, and Phare in Tournefeuille. Auditoriums in suburban locales have added to the season's arts program; some are actually located at the periphery of Toulouse proper (Zenith, Casino Barrière, Nougaro), while others have been built in the suburbs (Altigone in Saint-Orens, Grande Halle in l'Union, Odyssud in Blagnac). Moreover, in a number of suburban communities both close to the metropolitan center and further away, several multipurpose rooms are also being used as backup venues, often on a spur-of-the-moment basis, by performing artists or to stage association events.

16The location of both the Bikini and Phare venues stems from municipal initiatives forged within the scope of partnerships entered into with music industry professionals. To the southeast of Toulouse, Ramonville-Saint-Agne established contact with the Bikini artistic team subsequent to the 2001 AZF plant explosion. The city made its reception room available to accommodate Bikini artists in the aftermath; this facility wound up being used for six years despite its poor acoustics. During this experience, the two parties built a strong trusting relationship, and city officers even offered the Bikini a sizable financial package towards construction of a 1,500-seat concert hall with an acoustic quality designed to meet professional requirements (Bikini, opened in 2007). West of Toulouse, Tournefeuille was interested in building a concert venue (Le Phare, opened in 2007) with seating capacity for 3,500 within the framework of a dynamic cultural policy that had already helped raise the profile of the city center, where several cultural facilities (media library, cinema, music and dance school, auditorium) were built. To ensure a robust cultural calendar at this venue, the Office of Cultural Affairs initially relied on the expertise of an association, called Première Pression, recognized for organizing large-scale events like the Garorock Festival in Marmande (New Aquitaine region).

17This territorial configuration is distinct from traditional cultural layouts, in that none of the metropolitan area's specialized facilities are actually located in central Toulouse. The geography of musical venues has thus altered our assessment of urban hierarchies to the extent that the Toulouse outskirts are playing a central role. The reputation of Ramonville-Saint-Agne is now associated with its vibrant musical calendar, while the city of Tournefeuille boasts the region's second largest theater, and the Borderouge District neatly completes this network as a pivotal node dedicated to fortifying the local scene.

18Yet the fact remains that many of the region's musical activities are still based outside of traditional infrastructure: in music halls, bars, restaurants, clubs or even record shops, in art galleries and media libraries. Let's not overlook the importance of local private promoters in bringing events to the majority of Toulouse area musical venues, be they specialized auditoriums at the outskirts or other less conventional spots.

Private initiatives and actors' rationale

19Local event sponsors enjoy close ties to the national and international music industry markets, with connections to the organizers of artists' tours. A partnership is created whenever a local promoter informs a tour organizer of the capacity to accommodate an artist, to shoulder all costs related to the staging of a concert. The partnership then gets cemented once the promoter actually books a venue on the local scene. On the Toulouse scene, Bleu Citron is the most influential promoter; a key player over the last 30 or so years, Bleu Citron is extremely well connected and has been responsible for most bookings at the Bikini, which then handles all of the concert's logistics.

20Besides Bleu Citron and a few other Toulouse area producers, some 100 smaller organizations, often operating at the artisanal scale, also exist. These entities typically exercise their craft without a fixed assigned venue, and their physical address would overlap with the residence of one of the association members, most likely the president. Moreover, they cobble together several activities: promoting artists' careers (manager, advisor), organizing tours (booking agent), producing records (label). Beyond a financial objective, this imposed versatility is driven in particular out of: passion for the music, the desire to have an artist perform at a home venue, or assistance provided in accomplishing a project. Many concert schedulers are also musicians or were at one point, i.e. they have acquired previous experience as an "artist". By taking part as an "actor on the musical scene", they jump at the opportunity to build a network of relations and, in return, spur the development of their own artistic career. Some local promoters, like What A Mess Record?, have successfully established long-term artistic networks through exchanges and common experiences; their concert lineup is based on a personal chemistry with the artists and certain shared values outside of the business deal. The ties woven between local, national and European artists gradually extend through word-of-mouth and a sharing of protocols. These various approaches illustrate that a musical scene is not merely a physical structure built into the local geography, but also embodies a whole set of socio-spatial relations playing out at interconnected scales bonding the local with the global (Crozat 2008).

21Yet bringing a concert project to fruition must still be rooted in local reality. Private promoters have access to a wide array of venues for selection based on their capacity, layout, rental cost or geographic location. The choice of venue is constrained by economic profitability criteria; it must also take into account the artist's level of popularity and demands (regarding acoustics, logistics, financial conditions). For these various reasons, auditoriums on the Toulouse outskirts are not typically used by small concert organizers, who lack the financial resources needed to cover facility rental and operations; moreover, the scheduled artists, often without widespread renown, do not provide sufficient guarantees in terms of audience generation. As such, the Metronum, whose breakeven point remains more easily attainable, has helped improve the conditions facing these local organizers. While a portion of the schedule is reserved for in-house production, or production sponsored by Bleu Citron, the facility is made available to all actors on the local scene, including those more in the association or artisanal mold. The Metronum also facilitates partnerships dedicated to hosting major productions, "open stage" concerts or "shared events". Among the concerts staged since 2014, over half have been scheduled by local actors.

Invisible connections with the city center

22In addition to the Metronum and the metropolitan area's major facilities, some 80 venues receive artists during concert tours, which represents a full third of the total number of concerts organized during the cultural season (Balti, to be published). Among these venues, only a few are directly involved in artistic scheduling and event organization: these are cultural spots widely recognized in today's Toulouse cultural landscape (Bijou, Connexion, Cri de la Mouette, Dynamo, Saint-des-Seins). In contrast, most of them consider concert organization a secondary activity to be delegated to external teams, i.e. typically small-scale entities sponsoring a particular concert tour and meeting with venue management to propose a partnership. As opposed to how large auditoriums are run, these entities are also responsible for organizing the evening event, in handling room preparation, catering, artist's lodging, and event-related communications (posters, flyers, web ads).

23Early on in the negotiations, the relations between local concert promoter and tour organizer are often finalized via tacit arrangements. Such ties serve to guide the economics of an informal scene, whose transactions avoid public scrutiny and do not require any filings with authorities. For developing artists or those already with a following, this mode of operations expands their possibility of gaining a foothold on the performance circuit. For local organizers, this informality offers the advantage of reducing certain production costs that may otherwise be prohibitive. Given the financial vulnerability of such entities, proceeding informally is sometimes the only alternative available to realize a project. Event-related communications are thus more discreet since the activity is not always openly declared, and public reception facilities might not necessarily comply with all acoustic and safety standards. This mode of operations, which remains in the "shadows" (Finnegan 2007, Guibert 2007), can also be assimilated with a territorial anchorage strategy, yet one that differs from what was laid out above. The impact of a multipurpose public hall, like the Metronum, is not as readily apparent regarding such practices taking place off the stage or with private actors, who accept to host an event without scrutinizing its informal organization.

24These smaller venues, traditionally associated with festive gala type events, are also quite popular among the concert-going crowd: actors exchange, comment on current musical events, discover new artists and finalize their projects. Bars, restaurants and record shops serve not only as hosting grounds, by accommodating musical events, but also as conduits, where information circulates and networking promotes knowledge sharing and solidarity. Moreover, they are places for proximity, among actors, music lovers and regulars, where the audience of these "invisible" stages forms and shows its loyalty. By the density of its socialization scene, the city center offers the kinds of amenities that stimulate the initiatives and dynamism of a local arts scene. From this standpoint, the buoyancy of a musical scene is less correlated with the territory's capacity to rally locally around a network of facilities than with the capacity of these private initiatives to take root in small venues, in the aim of spreading interconnectivity.

Figure 4: Spatial dynamics shaping the Toulouse music scene

Figure 4: Spatial dynamics shaping the Toulouse music scene

Conflicting territorial interests

Musical diffusion and urban density

25The observations recorded over some ten years on the local scene have revealed a high turnover rate among small venues associated with the "invisible" scene (Balti 2012). The trend is quite clear: economic and legal constraints have depleted the level of musical energy. These weaknesses however are also correlated with the painful juxtaposition of festive venues, which potentially cause a noise nuisance due to the lack of investment in soundproofing, and residential zones. This concern is exacerbated by the fact that central Toulouse constitutes a very dense urban fabric. While the designation of neighboring land use is a prerequisite to maintaining musical activities, it also brings a level of uncertainty to a very attractive city where real estate pressures have continuously prompted efforts to locate and relocate. Some very prestigious venues on the local scene have thus been forced to lighten their schedule, or even envisage solutions of fleeing to other districts. Such is the case in particular with Dynamo, a very busy concert hall with 300 events organized a year, which despite its location in the very lively Saint-Aubin quarter had to suddenly suspend its activity when a hotel was introduced into the same building.

26The debate focusing on the role of music in the city has been widely shared with civil society, where some residents have railed against the increasing pressure being exerted by festive or party venues. Over the past few years, several associations have been formed to defend living conditions in central Toulouse, also known as the "right to sleep". Two districts renowned as student hangouts, Gabriel Péri and Saint-Pierre, have been specifically targeted, along with a few of Toulouse's iconic concert venues (Connexion, Saint-des-Seins). In this conflict, the union representing the city's café owners lobbied for the right for the city center to host entertainment and parties and moreover sought to strike a compromise with neighboring residents. The majority of small concert halls had banded together as well by joining the Bar-Bars network, a national lobby aimed at earning recognition for drinking establishments as bona fide cultural venues. Musical scene actors also resorted to original strategies to mitigate tensions with neighbors, open a dialogue with local residents, and even debunk certain negative perceptions. For example, squatters on the derelict site of Pavillons Sauvages, located in the more outlying district of Les Minimes, expressed interest in transforming this site into a public open space offering services (Internet connection, child care, gardening workshops, etc.) or accommodating residents' initiatives like sharing meals with neighbors. Though the venue became a fixture in the Toulouse underground scene, with a very robust schedule of rock, punk and heavy metal music, it still contributes to specifically "district-serving" facilities, which have bolstered residents' trust in their underground scene.

27These initiatives however remain somewhat tenuous given the concessions granted over the past few years by politicians in a pitch for greater social harmony. Some measures have led to temporary or definitive closures of several venues, while others have resulted in proposed relocations from city center to outskirts. The "Borderouge" option, which was ultimately selected for the Metronum, thus projects a certain kind of continuity in public action, which regardless of the political party in power has, during the past several years, presided over the abandonment of musical activities: Mix’Art Myrys in Ponts Jumeaux; Music’Halle in Sept Deniers, or Samba Résille and Musicophages, which for a time had been planned for the emerging Cartoucherie district. Here again, compromise became necessary since even though the artists were being offered larger premises with more amenities, they still had to relinquish their proximity to the city center hubbub and to the density of movement and interactions that inherently boost their artistic project. Besides the easing in real estate pressure and the concern over protecting neighbors in a dense urban fabric, this trend of decentralizing amplified music reveals a more widespread strategy of public action seeking to uphold the urban quality of the city center, which is currently undergoing an extensive open space improvement program, in addition to applying for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This effort to promote public policy nonetheless conflicts with the practices of artistic actors and the habits of residents, whose spontaneous movement has become polarized by the concentration of entertainment spots in the city center. It now seems legitimate to ask: how can a dedicated amplified music venue like the Metronum contribute to energizing the local scene by being relegated to an outlying district of Toulouse? The answer appears to differ depending on whether one takes the perspective of the artist, the audience or the urban planner. More generally, the Metronum example provides a glimpse of the full complexity surrounding Toulouse's metropolitan growth (Jaillet and Escaffre 2016).

Musical dynamic and neighborhood animation

28The choice of where to locate the Metronum, which is perfectly justified within the scope of an urban project, seems to have complicated the role of this new community service cluster. Obviously, the facility is easily accessible and directly connected to central Toulouse by a metro line. Yet it is still quite removed from the bustle of the city center. Borderouge is a residential district, where cultural resources are still lacking and whose residential appeal stems not from local animation but instead from a neighborhood park drawing many young couples with kids. Missing here are the amenities that build a musical infrastructure: a density of festive / party venues that provide a source of creativity by stimulating the socio-spatial dynamics among artistic actors and that help build an audience whose propensity to attend shows is based on the principle of proximity and serendipity between spaces. Comparatively speaking, the Metronum by itself seems too small-scale to significantly affect district life and stamp its identity on the local scene.

29The choice to locate a musical activity in Borderouge nonetheless remains a very opportunistic strategic option given the district layout, in terms of spatial separation between the venue, the residential neighborhoods and the traffic corridors. Moreover, the project owner held a large parcel for construction of a new building, whose architectural design could be configured for high-quality soundproofing. Its concrete roof offers an effective noise buffer (Fig. 1). Let's also note that the facility was installed prior to developing many housing units, which undoubtedly wound up streamlining acceptance of a concert venue in the neighborhood since any decision to move to the area was made with full knowledge of the land use. However, noise issues also breed concerns over opening the venue to the district. From this point of view, the concrete roof might be reflective of a building looking inward.

30In France like elsewhere, local residents' adoption of a facility is both a longstanding and complex problem to resolve, by virtue of addressing in broad terms the thorny question over cultural democratization (Donnat 2011). Field surveys conducted just before inaugurating the Metronum revealed local residents' unfamiliarity with this venue, despite an intense communication campaign spearheaded by the Toulouse City Hall. It should also be observed that amplified music concerts are perhaps an artistic sector offering little compatibility with district life, especially regarding the typical operating times for a facility of this nature, since concerts are evening events and local residents while predominantly young still tend to live in working households with young children. For this reason, lots of background work was undertaken by the artistic management team, which now features in its program schedule shows for "younger audiences" on Sunday afternoons. This decisive effort to adapt the venue to local realities can also be witnessed in other initiatives aimed at raising the level of cultural education and art appreciation, seeing that "open house" and "good citizen" days or "roundtable discussion" days are regularly organized. These events reflect not just the desire to strengthen bonds between the district and the venue, but also a metropolitan area-wide strategy to build a "knowledge society" (Balti and Sibertin-Blanc 2016).

31Several conclusions can be drawn. First of all, it is clear that the Metronum is responding to an artistic need, even if its geographic location might seem inappropriate given musical practices (contradicting with expectations announced several years prior and confirmed during the consultation) intended for a central city venue. At the same time, choosing Borderouge necessitates changing perceptions relative to this cultural facility, which from the outset was viewed as a "next generation SMAC" by actors involved in the artistic project (Survey conducted in 2012 among members of the new Office of Contemporary Music). Moreover, the change in location imposed additional steps, namely: appropriation by the artistic actors, and instruction provided to local residents. The venue would also need to find its place within a system reliant on symbolic depictions. In the Toulouse municipal context, when tapping into the collective imagination, the layout of its artistic territory still displays a sharp dichotomy between "sociocultural facilities" (i.e. associated with stimulating the outlying districts) and "cultural facilities" (i.e. associated with showcasing artistic excellence in the heart of the city).

Musical nexus and multiple urban nodes

32Locating the Metronum in Borderouge supports the impetus to rebalance a territory marked by deep-rooted partisanship, since the focus lies in better distributing cultural resources nearly exclusively concentrated in the Toulouse historical center. This effort will serve to spread culture to the city's northern districts, which appear as removed from the metropolitan zone's main functions, illustrating an area's socio-spatial divide. However, in seeking to rebalance urban and cultural territory, the Metronum location decision has simultaneously contributed to further destabilizing the amplified music landscape according to a specific diagnostic. Let's recall that the main auditoriums equipped to stage a music concert are already located on the outskirts, in Ramonville-Saint-Agne or Tournefeuille, in citing just the specialized halls.

33Moreover, while the Metronum is intended to consolidate Borderouge's position within a multi-nodal metropolitan layout, the question can be raised as to what extent is this choice of venue type relevant to "centralizing its image", i.e. creating a following and attracting an audience from across the metropolitan area. As opposed to other cultural facilities located on the Toulouse outskirts, this one has not been designated to draw leading national or international artists. Its 550-seat capacity has been planned to accommodate less renowned artists; it corresponds to an artistic project that at the outset emphasized local creation and newly discovered artists. A lack of entertainment spots in the vicinity of the Metronum and the presence of well-established nightlife patterns in the city center constitute an obstacle to drawing an audience for more specialized or less renowned artists. The experiences of relocating small concert venues have effectively demonstrated the added difficulty of filling an auditorium on the outskirts (survey conducted among local concert organizers, 2012).

34The amplified music concert hall represents a strategic driver of urban development, yet these successive observations have shown that the urban project implies a number of challenges to the artistic project, which in turn must adapt to its environment. An analysis of the Metronum's concert lineup, after less than three years of activity, reveals a subtle equilibrium since local, national and international artists each occupy one-third of the artistic season. It should also be pointed out that 30% of concerts featuring national and international artists announce a local opener using the auditorium's official communication channels. This distribution attests to the impetus to remain faithful to the project, which calls for supporting the local scene; it also shows the need to appropriate this new venue into the cultural landscape of Toulouse and the region. By scheduling a few headliners, another aim is to assert the visibility of a new site, shifting the center of gravity of one local scene to Borderouge. Since district nightlife has not picked up, would this peripheral location be a constraint capable of diminishing the facility's dynamism or perhaps transforming the artistic project? Will the scheduling of major productions, undoubtedly more successful at drawing an audience to the outskirts, run the risk of gradually reinforcing the current model of musical polarization in Toulouse suburbs?


35This multitude of variables, both artistic and territorial, undermines the balance of this delicate equation associating a amplified music with an urban development project.

36In Toulouse, the approach initiated at the end of the 2000's in favor of repositioning culture as a driver of urban development marked a milestone in the metropolitan area's identity, in pursuit of a more "creative" image, while adding greater "balance" and "solidarity". As such, amplified music made their way into the heart of the public debate. The objective of shaping a musical territory, provided it meets the needs in terms of resources and artistic practices, is also one of nurturing the transformation of a metropolitan area whose recent reconfiguration has entailed reevaluating the territory's geographic layout. The choice of where to locate the Metronum, the very symbol of this cultural project, turns strategic here in that it becomes part of a rationale aimed at reinforcing the central image of an outlying district tasked with capturing a share of the area's urban growth. Besides the project intended herein to improve the balance of a metropolitan area by making culture more accessible to one of its districts, the new auditorium for performing amplified music is also expected to help strengthen community ties.

37As some rationale is found when formalizing such a cultural and urban project, then in response tension is palpable once this project clashes with both the spatial dynamics of the musical scene and the expectations expressed by artists during the consultation process. The choice of where to locate the Metronum thus appears to be less strategic from this lens. On the one hand, the venue obviously participates in rebalancing cultural and metropolitan functions yet also preserves the imbalances of the amplified music landscape renowned for its heavy polarization of outlying zones. On the other hand, this project is centered away from a less visible arts scene, which draws its energy from a swirl of private initiatives whose stamp on the urban space is effectively weakened by the lack of specialized facilities. Despite the difficulty in coexisting with other city functions, the operations of these smaller artisanal entities and their resulting socio-spatial practices strengthen the case to support the traditional notion of a central location.

38Between the artist's and urban planner's territorial views, the groundwork is certainly not ideal for developing an urban and cultural project. This underlying tension illustrates the stakes involved in city co-production and the need for various partners, public and private actors, in order to strike the compromise, e.g. that of a central location, to implement an action plan over the long run, in the aim of encouraging a change of habits, moving the center of gravity of a musical scene and providing the tweaks necessary to successfully operate a new facility.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: The "Metronum" facility
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Title Figures 2a and 2b: Views of the neighboring district from the "Metronum"
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Title Figure 3: The "Metronum" venue amidst the Borderouge District
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Title Figure 4: Spatial dynamics shaping the Toulouse music scene
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Electronic reference

Samuel Balti, Amplified music as part of urban design: Toulouse copes with the inherent complexitiesArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 15 | 2017, Online since 07 May 2018, connection on 22 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Samuel Balti

Associate lecturer, researcher at the Laboratoire de Recherche en Architecture, ENSA Toulouse

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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