The Architecture of Sound

From Santiago Calatrava's magnificent opera house in Valencia to Frank Gehry's extraordinary concert hall in downtown Los Angeles, the sound of music is being rethought, refreshed, and transformed by master builders throughout the world.

Severance Hall, the 75-year-old home of the Cleveland Orchestra, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful concert spaces in America, yet it would never be built today. The Cleveland architectural firm of Walker & Weeks designed a templelike building whose imposing façade suggests that attending a symphony performance is a secret, privileged rite. Inside, all is sumptuously exotic—an amalgam of Art Nouveau, Deco, and neo-Egyptian. The hall's opening in 1931 capped a hundred-year building boom, during which grand auditoriums were constructed as monuments to patronage, social prestige, and cultural enlightenment: La Scala in Milan, the Palais Garnier in Paris, Royal Albert Hall in London, and Symphony Hall in Boston. (The Civic Opera House in Chicago, which opened in 1929, was even built in the shape of a throne.)

Today we're in a similar boom, but what's going up is very different. In places as far-flung as Singapore, the Canary Islands, and Los Angeles, some of the most acclaimed figures in contemporary architecture are designing spectacular buildings intended to celebrate not only music but also civic dynamism. Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; Santiago Calatrava's opera houses in the Spanish cities of Valencia and Tenerife; Jean Nouvel's Culture and Congress Center (KKL) in Lucerne, Switzerland; Christian de Portzamparc's Philharmonie in Luxembourg; Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Música in Porto, Portugal—these and dozens of other new venues are both catalysts of urban regeneration and cultural attractions in their own right.

"The function of arts centers goes far beyond being places for performance," Calatrava says. "They might not be explicitly religious, but they are civic and social spaces. You can see this very clearly in the way people respond to Frank Gehry's concert hall in Los Angeles. It is a symbol of the city's aspirations and a place where people want to meet one another and talk as much as it is a wonderful place to hear music."

Disney Hall—a furiously swirling mass of stainless steel that erupts from the sidewalk like an exploding flower—looks as though it arrived, as one critic wrote, directly from the architect's unbridled id. "I originally envisioned the hall in stone but switched to metal, which gives it a shiny presence at night, when most people use the place," Gehry says. The result is an exuberant beacon that announces, This is L.A.

That an arts center could attain the sort of symbolic significance of, say, the Eiffel Tower on the Paris skyline or of Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in Saint Louis dates from the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973. Danish architect Jørn Utzon's waterside arrangement of large white shells, with spaces for concerts, opera, ballet, drama, and restaurants, was not a mock palace but a flamboyant homage to the sailboats in Sydney Harbor. The protracted process of its financing and construction, which prompted the architect's angry departure at midpoint, also signaled that in the future such projects would grow out of complicated partnerships among politicians and business and cultural leaders, not from the largesse of a wealthy benefactor.

Each of the new halls has its own imagistic resonance. Portzamparc's Philharmonie resembles a giant musical instrument. Calatrava's Valencia opera house evokes the helmet of a space knight in Star Wars. Nouvel's KKL, on the shores of Lake Lucerne, suggests a giant treasure chest dredged from the deep. Koolhaas's Casa da Música has been likened to a meteorite, a mushroom, and a finely cut jewel.

All have in common features that distinguish them from their stately predecessors—notably, an openness to their surroundings, often through the extensive use of glass and a nonintimidating air that invites further investigation. These destinations are communal, not exclusive. They bustle with restaurants and cafés. Their lobbies are configured not simply as passageways to an auditorium but as gathering spots in which visitors can enjoy the sweeping spaces, with carefully placed vistas to the outside world and multiple points of access to outdoor terraces.

These qualities, Calatrava notes, give a building a kind of musical feeling. With the Valencia opera house, he says, "the different volumes of the building are stacked between horizontal promenade decks, which cantilever off the side of the structure. It is exceptionally open to circulation, inviting you to walk in and around and through, even if you aren't coming to a performance. The movement of many people through a building can be musical, if the movement is harmonious, rational, but full of life and feeling." Architecture has been called "frozen music," but this architecture is anything but frozen.

Before a concert several summers ago at the annual Lucerne Festival, Nouvel's KKL plaza swarmed with concertgoers, casual strollers, and backpackers down from a hike in the Alps. The town's grand hotels glittered just across the lake. The building and its enormous roof—which elegantly extends out like a canopy, nearly to the water's edge—beckoned passengers as they disembarked from boats. In the shiny undersurface of the overhang, the reflections of the crowd shimmered like a painting by Monet. Two manmade lagoons sealed the union of nature and art by bringing the lake, literally, into the building.

Everyone in this magical setting waited until the last minute to finish their drinks. As the sun set over the water, they ventured into the lobby of muted colors and dim lighting before descending to the auditorium (unlike the more typical pattern of going upstairs to reach one's seat). A gleaming wooden hull protruding from the back of the hall gave one the impression of boarding a galleon. Nouvel had another surprise in store: Darkness dramatically gave way to blazing lights inside the soaring, 1,800-seat space, clad in maple and white Braillelike panels.

In contrast with the grand halls and opera houses of the past, decorative embellishment is not part of the formula in auditoriums being designed today. Beauty lies in the forms, surfaces, and light. Perhaps the innovator here was Hans Scharoun, whose 1963 Berlin Philharmonic Hall is one of the most admired of all postwar concert spaces.

The interior of Gehry's Disney Hall, like many others, was inspired by Scharoun's nonrectangular, steeply raked auditorium. As in Berlin, the audience in Los Angeles is seated around the musicians in terraced sections rather than in the old arrangement of "orchestra" seats and balconies. (Scharoun called his configuration "vineyards of people.") In Disney, the feeling is that of "a living room" for the city, as Gehry has described it. "The trick," he says, "was to make the relationship between the audience and the musicians work, so that when you're onstage you feel like you're part of the audience and when you're in the audience you feel part of the orchestra."

For a long time it was assumed the ideal form for proper acoustics was a shoebox sealed off from the outside world. Symphony Hall in Boston is the perfect example of such thinking. But architects today think differently. Many have even introduced glass— shockingly—into their designs. "I installed skylights," Gehry says of Disney, "because I love going to afternoon concerts, when the light coming into the hall is really something."

Koolhaas went even further with his Casa da Música: During daytime concerts in the 1,300-seat auditorium, light pours in through two entirely glass walls—one behind the orchestra, the other behind the audience. Because glass scatters sound in unpredictable directions and risks letting in outside noise, Koolhaas used double panes with tightly rippled surfaces, set a few feet apart. Visitors to the hall, which opened in April 2005, report that any acoustic shortcoming is offset by the magical ambience. "If people feel good," Gehry says, "they hear better."

At the end of the day, it's the performance that counts—not just of the musicians but also of the hall itself. A paradox of the digital age is that the science of acoustics has been elevated almost to an art. Nowadays, music critics review a new hall as much for its perceived acoustic virtues or deficiencies as for the quality of the musical performance. Is the hall too "dry" or too reverberant? Does it favor one section of the orchestra over another? Is the sound variable or even throughout the space? Is it too clinical? Is there both warmth and clarity?

Today's music lovers, accustomed to the artificially engineered sheen of CDs, obsess over such questions to a fault, and woe to the auditorium that does not immediately deliver once the doors are opened, despite the fact that it can take years for a new hall and its principal orchestra to become properly attuned to each other. Some, like Avery Fisher Hall in New York, seem cursed never to get there, despite expert acoustic tinkering. When all is said and done, what makes a concert space great is as mysterious as music itself.

In this age of spectacle and impatience, few acousticians have risen to near-equal status with the architects. One is Russell Johnson, whose New York–based firm Artec has worked on scores of halls, from the renovation of such older venues as Orchestra Hall in Chicago and the Salle Pleyel in Paris to new ones in Singapore, Dallas, and Lucerne. In a career that started in the forties, Johnson has seen the role of the acoustic engineer progress from that of an advisor who was brought in after the hall's design was more or less set to that of a collaborator involved from the beginning. "My goal is to give the architect as much freedom as possible to create a great iconic building and make sure we come up with a hall that sounds great," he says. "Most architects realize that they don't want their name attached to a building with lousy acoustics."

What everyone involved in the creation of these complex enterprises—architect, acoustician, civic patron—hopes for is the kind of response that the superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli had to her first performance at Nouvel's hall in Lucerne. "I walked out onstage, sang three notes, and I knew immediately I could have sung all night," she told Johnson afterward. "It seems that this concert hall works beautifully for everything—strings, voice, piano, symphony orchestra. Everything." Judging by the audience's reaction, it all worked for them, too.