The Philharmonie de Paris concert hall by French architect Jean Nouvel
The Philharmonie de Paris concert hall by French architect Jean Nouvel © Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty

Why are concert halls so expensive? Why is it that, of all building types, they consistently seem to run so wildly beyond budget, are delivered so late and become so controversial? From the saga of the Sydney Opera House (10 years late, 15 times over budget) to Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Hall (16 years in the making) and Copenhagen’s Koncerthuset (in 2007 the most expensive concert hall ever — almost destroying its client, Danish National Radio), the contemporary concert hall has become an architectural nightmare. They are a cocktail of visionary ambition and urban boosterism, the quest for sonic perfection and the pain of a protracted, searingly expensive construction process.

That pain has resurfaced in the two most controversial concert halls of the modern era. The first is Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, a striking structure piled high on top of a brick warehouse in the city’s docks and designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Six years late and four times over-budget, this towering presence on the city’s skyline is a reminder of the potential conflict embodied in concert halls (it is now due to open next January).

In Paris, meanwhile, the city’s new Philharmonie opened last year. Highly controversial in its expense (€390m), location (on the edge of the Périphérique) and completion (its architect Jean Nouvel refused to have his name attached to it, claiming it was too hastily finished), the hall is a monster, albeit one with superb acoustics.

These buildings, both brilliant in their own ways, have generated thousands of words of hostile press coverage and editorial invective. So much so that Herzog & de Meuron actually included in an exhibition at the 2012 Venice Biennale the adverse press reactions to the Elbphilharmonie. It was a room that spoke of the sheer effort of architecture — but also, ironically, of a city genuinely engaged with its built expression.

Concert halls are visual and sonic status symbols for cities. But why are they so difficult to build? The answer is tied up partly in pride (or perhaps hubris), partly in the economics of orchestras, partly in politics and also, a little, in the complexities of acoustics. The strange thing is that if you ask any professional — musician, conductor or director — about which hall has the best acoustics they will almost invariably cite two venues: Vienna’s Musikverein (1870) and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (1888). These two buildings are both what is known as “shoebox” halls: long, tall rectangular boxes. Simple as that. Acousticians have studied space in intense detail, and it transpires that this kind of proportion is pretty much the best. Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall? A box. Boston Symphony Hall? Another box. So it should be easy: just build a box.

Vienna’s Musikverein
Vienna’s Musikverein © Reuters

But nothing is ever that simple. Both of these halls have a seating capacity of less than 2,000, and the seats at the back are considerably worse acoustically and visually than those at the front. For the economics of the modern orchestra to work — paying the musicians, their expenses and the star conductor — you need more and better seats.

So architects have turned to another model for inspiration: arguably the finest and most influential concert hall of the modern age, Hans Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie. Built in 1963, this was a truly radical building. A reaction to the symmetry and hierarchy of traditional concert halls, one-time expressionist architect Scharoun designed an egalitarian building that appeared as much like landscape as architecture. Still looking remarkably contemporary (look at that roof profile and compare it with the Elbphilharmonie) this was a deliberately anti-monumental building, a riposte to the Nazi obsession with classicism, symmetry and solidity.

Scharoun’s auditorium is itself broken into parts, its volume fragmented and made informal through a series of staggered terraces that create a topography around the stage. This is the musical version of theatre in the round in which there are no inferior seats. Accommodating 2,440, it proved a brilliant way of expanding the audience without compromising on closeness to the orchestra or acoustics.

This “vineyard style” became the default layout. Today, almost every major international venue, from Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles via Nouvel’s Paris Philharmonie to Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House is a variant of this design.

Herzog & de Meuron have arguably taken the model even further, wrapping seating all round the orchestra in the manner of a stadium (they designed the Beijing Olympic stadium and are currently redesigning Chelsea Football Club’s ground). All this means that any new entrant wanting to match the acoustics and capacity of these halls is destined to use a similar form.

Such venues are expensive to build but they also present a problem — which is architectural expression. If you look at a plan of a modern concert hall, very little of the building is occupied by the auditorium. They are instead made of endless layers of foyers and restaurants, circulation spaces, green rooms, hospitality suites and education centres. There are shops, bars and toilets and perhaps public terraces (as in Paris). These are virtual cities.

This disassociation of form from function presents a problem. What shape should the halls be? If all that money is being spent, the argument goes, a city should get something that at least looks expensive. The expectation is of an icon.

If we take China, we have four acoustically superb concert halls: the National Centre for the Performing Arts near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Suzhou Culture and Arts Centre (both designed by French architect Paul Andreu), Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House and the Xi’an Concert Hall (DDB International). They are, respectively, in the shape of a metal egg, a horseshoe, a spaceship and a Chinese palace. Together they would make a theme park of extreme contemporary architecture.

Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House
Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House © Alamy

The Paris Philharmonie meanwhile is coated in spangly stainless steel sequins like an exploded disco ball being consumed by silvery snakes. It is designed, at least in part, as a shiny road sign directed at the Périphérique beside it and the banlieues beyond: an attempted gesture of embrace — look, this is for you! Gehry’s otherwise wonderful Disney Concert Hall was initially so shiny it dazzled motorists and had to be dulled down. Renzo Piano’s over-designed Parco della Musica in Rome looks like a pod of beached metallic whales.

The massive nature of these auditoria has made them standalone objects, not integrated into the city or the streetscape, and the fragmented nature of their plans — which stems from the slightly chaotic nature of the hall and radiates outwards — instigates a curious spatial anarchy.

It is not the only solution. Barcelona architects Barozzi Veiga recently caused a stir with their new concert hall for Szczecin in Poland. A spiky white envelope evokes the industrial buildings of the city’s docksides but is also ethereal and fits remarkably comfortably into the city centre. It is a lovely building, integrated into the streets, and one in which the jagged roof of the auditorium reflects its striking profile — interior and exterior are strongly related.

A new concert hall on the waterfront of Bodø in Norway also rejects the language of the sculptural icon in order to create a more recognisably civic space. Designed by British architects DRDH, it is a fine, understated and underrated work. Both these halls are simple boxes, something reflected in the cogency and coherence of their architectural expression as urban tissue rather than standalone monument.

Next on the list is London. Despite the Royal Festival Hall having undergone a £100m revamp less than a decade ago, and having at the Barbican a large, very well-appointed hall, alongside smaller venues such as the Wigmore and Cadogan halls, London is deemed not to have an adequate concert hall. Which is probably true. Certainly Sir Simon Rattle, who arrives for his new post as director of the London Symphony Orchestra next year, wants a new hall. His last one, incidentally, was Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie.

The site earmarked for the new London hall is an odd choice: a traffic roundabout abandoned by the Museum of London — an unappealing, exhaust-fume-polluted hole in the middle of the sparsely populated City. It will inevitably present problems. The pressure to produce an icon, the competition with international venues to boast acoustics as good as all the others (here complicated by traffic and Tube train noise) and the necessity for scale to recoup the outlay from ticket sales, make realising a new hall a minefield.

London’s new venue will probably be good. It will almost certainly lift the city’s cultural scene, but the arguments made for it are going to have to be strong. Concert halls are, apart from nuclear power stations, the trickiest buildings to build and one thing can be guaranteed: it won’t be cheap.

Photographs: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty; Reuters; Alamy

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