The Best Buildings You’ll Ever Hear

June 04, 2007


Architecture

The Best Buildings You’ll Ever Hear



By NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF

Published : June 3, 2007 / The New York Times




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 skeptics 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 Paris Philharmonie project: these are not only breathtaking architectural forays but 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, they 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 “shoe box” model with a maximum of 2,500 or so seats. The holy grail was Vienna’s 1870 Musikverein, a Greek Revival invention of the Danish-born architect Theophil von Hansen.



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. Gone were the grand stairs, classical colonnades or golden interiors. Instead he planted the concrete bowl of his main performance space on canted columns, so that the underbelly of the hall became an extension of the street life outside. Draped over this interior, the strange yellow, tentlike skin was a joyfully democratic expression of the hall’s public character and a landmark of communal solace in a divided city.



Yet what most intimidates today’s architects is the performance space; 44 years after its completion, it feels even more radical than it did then. Rejecting the classical proscenium stage and uniform rows of seats, Scharoun created a vineyard pattern, a terraced landscape spilling down toward the stage on all sides. A few subtle shifts in the design break the symmetry, charging the room with energy.



In an instant Scharoun’s creation seemed to wipe away a century of bourgeois formality and jolt classical music into the present. If the Musikverein in Vienna remained the model of acoustic perfection to some listeners, his hall offered a more relaxed, egalitarian experience that was in tune with a modern audience.



Acoustically the hall may not have quite the resonance of Vienna. But after a bit of fine-tuning it was soon considered one of the best halls in Europe. What is more, it reinforced the importance of what some experts describe as psycho-acoustics: the idea that a hall’s visual characteristics could affect the way the audience takes in the music.



Yet the real lesson of Berlin, some orchestra managers and conductors say, was that the late-19th-century hall was no longer necessarily the ideal. Given the striking changes in musical programming, there was no longer a single acoustic recipe. That realization has encouraged architects to push creative limits.



“I think even Vienna is a bit of a myth,” said Ernest Fleischmann, the former general manager for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “The hall is rather small. You can’t put the really big orchestras on that stage. A Mahler symphony there is terribly cramped. The Eighth can hardly be accommodated at all.”



Of the current crop of architects challenging Scharoun’s supremacy, the first out of the gate was Mr. Gehry, with his 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. When he got started in 1987, Mr. Gehry was beginning to work with a sculptural freedom that Scharoun could barely have imagined.



He was captivated by the intimacy of Scharoun’s performance space. “I went to maybe five or six concerts there, and I was knocked out by it,” he told me recently. “The floors were concrete, the handrails were painted metal — all the things that when you’re designing that sort of thing seem antithetical. But there’s this human feeling in it. It engaged you. It encouraged talk. It was the first time I experienced that in a concert hall.”



But if Mr. Gehry was buoyed by the interior’s free-spiritedness, he eventually began to pursue a more compact, symmetrical form for his own. “I was intent on making a beautifully proportioned room,” he said. “I knew my architecture would be difficult for the community already, and I thought of the symmetry as a kind of handrail to help you along.”



And then there was the endless fretting over the acoustics. Mr. Gehry recalls an argument that arose one evening when he was dining in Berlin with the Japanese acoustician Minoru Nagata, an early adviser on Disney Hall, and Lothar Cremer, who had worked with Scharoun in Berlin.



Both were well respected in the music world, but over dinner they could not agree on a preferable acoustical model. As Mr. Gehry remembers it, Mr. Cremer said the hall should be shaped like a coffin, wider at the orchestra. Mr. Nagata firmly favored a wedge.



“It wasn’t quite a food fight,” Mr. Gehry said. “But it was a big argument. So I said innocently, ‘You’re both the best acousticians in the world, and you can’t agree on this?’ There was no answer.



“I realized it was like art,” he said. “You could make it great, but it was intuitive. There wasn’t a formula for it.”



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. Mr. Gehry lifted the bowl of the hall off the ground, allowing the streetscape to wind its way up through the building.



Inside, Mr. 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.”



“We understood that we couldn’t just continue to play as we used to play things,” he added.



Since then the appreciative response to Disney Hall has emboldened orchestral institutions and architects to experiment far more aggressively, raising the question of when the risks outweigh the dividends.



Acoustically, some of the most respected concert halls built over the past decade are in Japan: Suntory Hall in Tokyo, for example, and Kitara Hall in Sapporo. But neither hall is particularly adventurous. With its kitschy facade Kitara Hall could even be called an architectural dud.



By 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.



Such mixed results suggest the daunting challenges architects and their clients must surmount to create a great hall.



“Simply speaking, the hall is the instrument of the orchestra,” said Christoph von Dohnanyi, the chief conductor of Hamburg’s NDR Symphony. “If you mess it up, the orchestra will be a mess. There are some orchestras that don’t sound good because they play all the time in a bad hall.”



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 harbor 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 harbor.



The design reaffirms how inventive some architects have become in situating their work in a city’s specific physical and historical context. By placing the hall atop the warehouse, for example, Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron have embraced the tough, heroic landscape of the European industrial age rather than trying to obscure or supplant it. 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 harbor on one side and of the city skyline on the other. The terrace’s vast scale and low height should create an intense sense of compression in the interstices between old and new.



Inside the 2,400-seat hall itself, balancing past and present becomes trickier. Like Mr. Gehry, Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron began by obsessively studying the layout of Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonie. There are unmistakable similarities. Seats envelop the stage on all sides. Balconies tilt gently toward the stage, and a subtle asymmetry sets the room slightly on edge.



Eventually, however, Mr. Herzog decided to stop pondering Berlin. “It was too perfect,” he said in an interview. “You can only fail. You can never do better.”



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 concertgoers. 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, Mr. Nouvel’s Paris Philharmonie may be taking the biggest risks of all.



Mr. 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 Corporation, 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, Mr. Nouvel advances another step, brazenly tossing aside accepted conventions. Paris has never had a great concert hall. (Its resident institution, the Orchestre de Paris, is also viewed as a second-tier orchestra.) And 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.



Mr. 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. Concertgoers 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 Mr. Nouvel is still working out his design. We have no way of knowing whether his Paris space or Herzog & de Meuron’s Hamburg hall will equal or surpass the wonders of the Berlin Philharmonie or Disney Hall.



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.









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