Building Concert Halls, Part 2: Well-worn paths to failure

Performing arts venues are built for a variety of reasons, artistic, social, and political. Their operational success can often be predicted by how these reasons are prioritized. Halls built primarily for political reasons such as prestige and civic pride sometimes overlook basic needs and desires of performers and audiences in favor of some grand architectural monument representing civic identity.

These are the halls I sometimes describe as being built from the “outside in”, where the architect holds a concept for the exterior foremost and works through the lobbies, to finally arrive at the theater. Since few architects will design more than one or two performing arts centers in their professional life, but have great expertise in lobbies and exteriors, this path follows their relative “comfort zone”.

We have seen many examples of this approach over the years. The beautifully iconic Sydney Opera House is one famous example, where concert hall and opera house had to be switched to make the auditoria fit within their architectural envelope, and neither hall is acoustically or functionally excellent. The current effort to fix the problems is projected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

If you think this sort of occurrence is rare and could not happen today, earlier this year I was asked to comment on a theater being designed in Chile. Any acoustic issues became immediately secondary when I realized that, to accommodate the circulation levels in his beautiful lobby, the architect had created a second balcony that could not even see the performers.

These are extreme cases, almost jokes if they weren’t so expensive to correct. More often the mistakes I see are more subtle and come from simple inexperience:

If you knew that building a stage floor of wood directly adhered to a concrete slab would absolutely kill the resonant projection of the cellos and double basses, would you accept that construction? Of course not. Yet, a major performing arts center in Asia opened with just that condition a few years ago.

If you were familiar with the extreme dynamic range of classical music, where introducing silence is a routine and normal compositional technique, would you install lights above the orchestra each with their own noisy cooling fan? Again, no. Yet, I conducted in such a hall back in 2006.

One thing these examples have in common is that they were the product of architectural design competition process where visual form literally triumphed over functional substance.


Question: If you wanted to build a nuclear power plant, would your first task be to hire an architect to make it pretty, or to an engineer to make it an efficient power producer and safe to operate?

The question sounds rather silly, but isn’t this is in fact the way many of tomorrow’s concert halls are so often being proposed today? We see international competition after international competition for architects to design important concert halls, yet the choice of the winner often seems to rely on visual boldness rather than incorporating proven ideas of what works well for orchestral performance.

To be sure, most of today’s competitions do provide a rudimentary “acoustic brief” to the architect, but this advice is not always followed. The inclusion of the acoustician who wrote the brief on the jury is certainly a positive move, but unless the acoustician also possesses a uniquely persuasive personality (or is given “veto power” over the truly outrageous) his minority opinion will probably not greatly influence the selection of finalists.


Elbe Philharmonie concept

Paris concept

Unless an acoustician has already been selected by the client, the winning architects will probably want to employ their favored acoustician as part of the design team. In most instances the architects will have listened to these experts in developing their winning submission….a good start. But sometimes during the design process, an overly compliant acoustician may be relegated to simply applying acoustical “bandages” to expressions of architectural ego. While this effort may avoid the worst problems, the approach often sacrifices the possibility of creating rooms with their own unique sonic personality.

Now it is time for expert reader input: I have been trying to think of an architectural competition in the past two decades that has produced a truly outstanding concert hall. With a unique exception of Lucerne (which was totally reshaped after the competition by the client’s acoustician), I can’t think of a single example. Can you?

About Christopher Blair

As Senior Scientist and Principal Consultant, he collaborates on all the firm’s major projects, focusing in particular on room acoustic design. Chris’ contributions can be heard in the widely praised Schermerhorn Symphony Center for the Nashville Symphony, the Rosch Recital Hall at SUNY-Fredonia (photo, top right), Mixon Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and in renovations to the Eastman Theatre and the new Hatch Recital Hall for the Eastman School of Music, among others.Chris earned dual Bachelors degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Music from the University of Vermont and Masters degrees in Orchestral Conducting from the New England Conservatory, and in Acoustics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been a member of the faculties of M.I.T., UMASS/Lowell, Brown University, and Yale University, and currently serves on the Strategic Planning Committee of the New Haven Symphony and the Board of Directors of the Conductors Guild.

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8 thoughts on “Building Concert Halls, Part 2: Well-worn paths to failure”

    • I guess I will have to answer “yes” to both of these questions. “Surround” halls are certainly trendy these days, particularly with competition juries.

      The Copenhagan hall shown in my examples has already opened. By placing audience on most of the available wall surfaces the room acoustic is clear and dry with not a lot of envelopment.

      The Elbe and Paris concoctions display similar philosophies, and unless what is produced is actually different, I expect similarly disappointing results.

      This approach is not exactly new. Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall, built in 1978, was the first surround hall in the United States. This room is basically an arena concept with audience dominating the wall surfaces withsome modest upstand surfaces supposed to provide lateral reflections. However the heavy modulation applied to these concave surfaces sends energy mostly down and up, not laterally.

      An additional problem at Boettcher and elsewhere, not well understood at the time, was the large cubic volume required to achieve optimal reverberation time for the 2600+ seats rendered the reverberation weak relative to the direct sound effecting the blend and balance in many seating areas.

      This should not be a blanket acoustic condemnation of the surround approach, however. I believe it’s entirely possible, under the right conditions, to create a surround hall that possesses the positive attributes of envelopment and blend found in fine shoebox halls with the visual intimacy of surround examples. I am currently working on a concept for a concert hall in Brazil, which I hope will validate this view within a few years time.

    • Thank you for a possible exception.

      This room opened in September 1998, I think, some 8 months after I left Artec, so I did not hear it at the time. It was not one of my projects there, and I really don’t know how much was changed from the original concept (From the pictures, I suspect probably not as much as Artec’s complete reworking of Nouvel’s original concept for Lucerne.)

      I have heard that the room is a success, but have no first hand knowledge. I will have to put it on my listening list.

  1. Greetings to Chris. I can add a few things about Dijon, on which I was principal in charge. I contributed to both the acoustics and theatre design of the space. Bob Essert and Bill Allison were also centrally involved. Bruno Suner (Paris) was our acoustics sub-consultant. None of the Artec folk spoke French when we started, so sub-consultants were necessary.

    I departed Artec in 2001 and am now a Supervisory Consultant at Studio A – Acentech , and also an Associate at Planning Stages LLC. I’m also writing a book on the Development of Performing Arts Facilities—less a technical book than a guide to organizing and holding the mind as one invents, designs and completes a facility for the performing arts. I am attempting to teach the participants how to walk in each others’ moccasins.

    The Dijon Process:
    The project was a contest. We wanted very much to be on Arquitectonica’s team for the Miami project that had been birthing for 20 years. So we agreed to participate in the contest. With Bernardo, we designed a main floor, plus 3 tier opera house. After Arquitectonica won the contest, we learned that we had not won on the theatre, but on the look of the building and the way in which it fit in with the site and the future plans for that part of Dijon.

    In a meeting at the Construction Manager’s office I learned that they really wanted a building that resembled the sort of space that has been built for congress events and which music, dance, opera and theatre are then forced into in a number of French cities. So, my problem was to come up with a room that would satisfy both the congress folks and as many of the arts people as possible. The program was written like an opera/ballet theatre for 1600 seats. But it became clear that the client didn’t want anything that could be mistaken as duplicating their several centuries old opera house continuing to serve in Dijon’s Centre Ville.

    A visit to Nice’s congress facility taught Bill Allison and me what the desires were for the congress activities. We also saw one of the worst possible solutions to the concert shell or concert setting needs. It was terrible and required a big crew and a whole lot of time to set up. We pledged we would do something far better in Dijon.

    The design Carol Allen and I came up with back in Manhattan was accepted in full quickly by Arquitectonica and shortly thereafter by the client in France. Getting the project done in France was not easy, but was very educational to say the very least.

    The Results:
    In the several years after the room opened I experienced a number of performances there: Opera, theatre, dance, solo recitals, chorus, symphony and popular music concerts using the sound system. I found that when properly set up (the space is quite flexible) it works well for all these activities.

    This concert theatre has, I believe, the most effective change over system between stage and concert platform of any multi-use room. The concert setting is comprised of a ceiling and nesting, castered sound reflecting towers. The concert ceiling is deployed quickly and without holding up work on the floor or inhibiting theatrical flying at any time. The concert towers are quickly and easily moved from stockage to their position on the platform. We later suggested the same kind of concert ceiling for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark. The theatre consultant there did a less neat job of integrating the concert setting into the stage house.

    As far as the acoustics of the space are concerned, the ceiling and side walls utilize some of the same shaping approach we incorporated into the Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs a decade earlier. There are acoustic control banners and curtains.

    I hope this helps readers understand this space. There is also a 600 seat room in this center. Dijon is a great place to visit.

    If you have questions about the project, please give me a shout (email address above).

    • Thanks, Bob, for your history on the development of the Dijon project. Sounds like there was areal challenge to get things right. I look forward to hearing it someday.

      On a serendipitous note Carol Allen happens to be with me for meetings in Mexico City tomorrow. I will convey your regards.

      Hope you are well


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