Innovation & Design

Concert Halls Hit High Notes


Once merely built to house an orchestra and host events, halls are becoming social centers and tourist attractions. Still, architects keep acoustics in mind

When the new, Jean Nouvel-designed Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen is completed in 2008, it will be hung with a projector screen, on which will be displayed films and footage of what's going on inside the building. Inside, will there be regal chandeliers, imported marble, gold-plated embellishments, and thick velvet curtains? Probably not. In recent years, architects have been reinventing the classic concert hall auditorium.

And while the end goal remains the same—to present perfectly projected classical music in an unamplified yet gorgeous environment—the design techniques used have become increasingly sophisticated and elaborate. Soundproofing, "floating" architecture, areas for socializing, the use of bare spaces or sustainable materials—all these and more have been put to use in the name of providing classical entertainment.

The Musikverein in Vienna has long been held up as a paradigm of interior acoustics. Completed in 1870, the acoustics of this "shoebox" style auditorium (a layout which places the audience directly in front of the musicians) have been copied by other notable venues the world over, including Amsterdam's Concertgebouw (1888) and Boston's Symphony Hall (1900). And because the layout provides reliable sound quality, it's still used today in new halls such as the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA)-designed Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal (2005).

Computers Don't Have Ears

In 1963, German architect Hans Scharoun decided to shake things up a little. His design for the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin, Germany, placed the concertgoers around the orchestra. It was a bold attempt to involve the audience in the performance, and the intimate, circular arrangement has proven popular, adopted by spaces such as Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003). The layout has provided a whole new set of challenges for architects and designers, particularly those responsible for the space's acoustic quality.

As technology has improved, creating optimum acoustics has become more science than art. But even the experts acknowledge that a computer can only help so much. "Of course, we use calculations and we use a computer, but those techniques cannot do everything," says Yasuhisa Toyota, company director of Nagata Acoustics, whose credits include 50 world-famous halls, including Suntory Hall in Tokyo (1986) and the soon-to-be-completed Danish Radio Concert Hall. "There could be 100 attempts to get the wonderful acoustics of a successful concert hall."

Toyota's work begins with an architect's initial vision and includes analysis of everything from seat upholstery to building materials to room shape. Toyota estimates that Nagata's acoustic projects take about four years to complete and cost about 1.5% of a building's total budget.

Making the Hall a Landmark

"It was one large acoustic exercise," says OMA partner Ellen van Loon of designing the Casa da Música in Porto. "[Musicians] basically use every square centimeter to perform, even the [outdoor] hall square." This concert hall includes a room for presentations of electronic music along with daylight-filled backstage areas—an unexpected treat for musicians more accustomed to cramped, drab surroundings.

Increasingly, a concert hall is marketed as much more than just a place to hear the occasional classical music concert. Developers are keen to encourage a slew of eager visitors to stream through the building on a near-constant basis. The Berliner Philharmoniker offers tours, and young musicians studying at the onsite Orchestra Academy are regularly to be found hanging out. Other spaces, such as the Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles, blend bold interior and exterior architecture as a way to lure tourists to the site. In this, they perhaps hope to mimic the success of Sydney's Opera House, now the most visited landmark in the Southern Hemisphere and a huge source of civic pride—and tourist-based revenue.

Some halls are housed within bigger complexes looking to integrate a city's offerings. For example, the auditorium within the China Central Television (CCTV) building in Beijing (BusinessWeek, 10/9/06), designed by OMA's Ole Scheeren and Rem Koolhaas, is one element of an environment offering everything from restaurants and hotels to TV studios and a business center. The Shenzhen Concert Hall (which opened in China in 2006) offers 20 five-star hotel rooms and four VIP rooms.

Sound is Supreme

For Owen Young, a cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, architectural innovation is one thing, but sound quality remains the only thing that counts. "Sometimes the sound is too dry and you have to work harder," he says of some of the newer concert halls. "There's usually only so much you can do to change from a dry, brittle sound to something that's a little warmer." The challenge remains clear: marrying enticing architectural design with topnotch sound quality to hit the right notes for audience and building-owners alike.

Dizik is a BusinessWeek.com project assistant.

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