Could it be that we’re entering a golden age in concert hall design? The very idea may sound a little crazy, given how adamantly some people insist that the audience for classical music is slowly dying off.
To those sceptics, the current explosion of new concert spaces may seem nothing but a last-ditch attempt to attract younger audiences. And there is some truth in the observation that the global cultural construction boom has more to do with drawing tourists than with satisfying a thirst for classical performances or the arts in general.
But plenty of the partnerships forged recently between orchestras and architects cannot be dismissed as acts of desperation or boosterism. Frank Gehry’s completed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; Herzog & de Meuron’s design for the Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, Germany; Jean Nouvel’s new Philharmonie de Paris project: These are not only breathtaking architectural forays, but also a radical rethinking of the concert hall itself.
Their exuberant forms and fluid interiors make the great halls of the late 19th century—from Vienna’s Musikverein to Carnegie Hall to Boston’s Symphony Hall—seem fusty by comparison.
The new halls seek to root classical music firmly in the present, and forge an intimate bond among orchestra, audience and music. Such experimentation surely has its risks: As architects push the limits of design, acousticians are venturing into uncertain territory. Yet, if these projects succeed, it could open the way to the rarest of achievements—a blissful balance between form and sound.
For more than a century, the conventional wisdom for creating a great acoustical hall was a narrow, high, rectangular “shoebox” model with a maximum of about 2,500 seats. But to contemporary architects the gold standard dates from 1963: Hans Scharoun’s 2,440-seat Berlin Philharmonie, an odd-looking cluster of concrete forms clad in yellow metal panels.
Scharoun’s masterpiece, erected alongside the barbed-wire and concrete barriers of the Berlin Wall, was an aggressive attempt to tear down the traditional social hierarchies of the classical music world.
Of the current crop of architects challenging Scharoun’s supremacy, the first out of the gate was Gehry, with his 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He was captivated by the intimacy of Scharoun’s performance space. “There’s a human feeling in it. It engaged you. It encouraged talk. It was the first time I experienced that in a concert hall.” But if Gehry was buoyed by the interior’s free-spiritedness, he eventually pursued a more compact, symmetrical form for his own. “I was intent on making a beautifully proportioned room,” he said.
As a result, he designed a building that is more voluptuous than Scharoun’s, yet also more cautious in some respects. Unfolding along Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, the building’s bold stainless steel ribbons enliven an alienating urban strip. Gehry lifted the bowl of the hall off the ground, allowing the streetscape to wind its way up through the building. Inside, Gehry wraps the 2,265 audience seats around the stage as Scharoun did. But the design’s luxurious wood surfaces seem almost baroque, a perfectly symmetrical play of convex and concave forms that seem to press in on the stage.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, said the close physical proximity prompted the musicians to reconsider their relationship with the audience. “Everyone is physically close, which means that everyone is mentally very close,” he said. “We didn’t have to overplay. We didn’t have to use excess physical energy.” In contrast, the swooping concrete curves of Santiago Calatrava’s recent concert hall in Tenerife, the Canary Islands, are an exercise in self-indulgence, and the acoustics are considered unremarkable.
Not that the high stakes have dulled the architects’ ambitions. One of the most tantalizing designs to emerge is Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s Elbe Philharmonic in Hamburg, scheduled to open in 2010. Its gritty site, a pier at the edge of the industrial harbour on the Elbe river, evokes the city’s long commercial shipping history. In an ingenious stroke, these Swiss architects proposed to place the translucent glass hall directly atop an abandoned 1960s-era brick warehouse at the end of the pier rather than demolish it. (The warehouse will serve as a parking garage.) Conceived as an extrusion of the brick base and crowned by a series of crystalline peaks, the hall evokes a ship drifting in the harbour. The roof of the warehouse will be transformed into an enormous public terrace just below the gentle contours of the concert hall’s underside, with a panoramic view of the harbour on one side and of the city skyline on the other.
Inside the 2,400-seat hall, balancing past and present becomes trickier. Like Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron began by studying the layout of Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonie. There are unmistakable similarities. Seats envelop the stage on all sides. Balconies tilt gently towards the stage, and a subtle asymmetry sets the room slightly on edge.
Taking a cue from their recent work on stadiums, the architects decided to include more seats for the audience at the back of the stage, so that the feel of the space would be somewhat like that of a bowl. The curving ceiling, designed as a result of acoustic analysis by Yasuhisa Toyota, who also worked on Disney Hall, will add to the enveloping effect. The balconies’ forms undulate back and forth as they rise, setting the entire room in dynamic motion.
If the space succeeds, one imagines, it could be a wondrous experience for concert-goers. But the bolder architects and their acousticians become, the further they move into uncharted territory, leaving us to wonder what the ultimate result will actually be.
Of all the concert halls on the horizon, Nouvel’s Paris Philharmonie may be taking the biggest risks of all.
Nouvel established a reputation in Europe as a concert hall designer with his KKL Cultural and Congress Center in Lucerne, Switzerland. Although the exterior is spectacular—its handsome, streamlined form jutting over a magnificent Swiss lake—the hall itself is more or less a sober classical design, with a series of stacked balconies wrapped in a tight U around a rectangular room.
A more daring hall for the Danish Broadcasting Corp., now under construction in Copenhagen, can be read partly as a homage to Scharoun: The interior is similar to the Berlin Philharmonie’s, although the architect nudges the asymmetry slightly further. The auditorium is encased in a rectangular glass box, suggestive of a space enclosing a precious object. At night, video images will stream across the exterior, transforming the enveloping world of the concert into a voyeuristic spectacle.
In his design for the Paris Philharmonie, Nouvel advances another step, brazenly tossing aside accepted conventions. Part of his mandate was to generate excitement about the site, a barren strip of land on the edge of La Villette park in working-class northeastern Paris. Nouvel first started working on his design while on vacation at a resort in the hills above Cannes, where he spent his evenings playfully moving food around his plate, contemplating potential configurations for the building’s layout.
The result resembles a series of gigantic metal plates stacked loosely atop one another, forming a dreamy mountainous vista at the park’s edge. Broad ramps rising from the park connect the structure to the Cité de la Musique conservatory by Christian de Portzamparc to the south and to the artery that rings the city to the east. In this science-fiction landscape, people can ascend the ramps to terraces and restaurants before slipping inside the hall, or continue up to the top of the mound for a sweeping view of the park.
Embedded in the stack is the silvery, amorphous form of the 2,400-seat auditorium, as hypnotic as a pool of mercury. Viewed from above, its interior layout looks vaguely familiar, with part of the audience wrapped around the back of the stage. Yet, the rest is an unsettling if exhilarating trip into the unknown. Concert-goers will make their way across narrow bridges to reach balconies suspended like horizontal pods inside the space. Once in their seats, they should feel as though they have entered a womb and are floating within the music.
Will it work? We’ll have to wait and see: The hall is not scheduled to open until 2012, and Nouvel is still working out his design. Still, the striking range of design approaches here suggests that the classical music world is entering a heady era. Each of these projects, in its own way, celebrates the communal experience, the links between musicians and audiences and the city that envelops them. They are reminders, in the end, that all great architecture is also an exercise in empathy. (INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE)
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