By Evyan Gainey
In the age of the ever-popularizing genres of hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll and pop music it would seem unlikely that worldwide concert halls boasting the elite sounds of opera and classical music would slowly but surely be winning over the hearts and minds of patrons. Well over two centuries after the deaths of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, it also seems farfetched that such a change would be facilitated ever again. Surprisingly, however, the trend appears to be exploding thanks to the innovative architecture of concert halls and opera houses, and because of the revolutionary visions of architects and their designs.
Acoustics: The Ancient Greeks had it Right with Epidaurus
It is no surprise to music lovers everywhere that the importance and exploitation of acoustics is imperative to the very quality of sound projection. Interestingly enough, even the Ancient Greeks understood this. As far back as the fourth century B.C., the Ancient Greek theater Epidaurus was designed with the concept of acoustics in mind. Despite the large size of the theater—capable of housing 15,000 spectators—acoustically there was virtually no need for amplification of spoken words, according to Platon Mavromoustakos, director of theater studies at the University of Athens. Revolutionary for its time, Epidaurus was designed so that high frequency sounds from the stage reigned supreme over the low frequency sounds of the crowd, thanks in part to rows of limestone seating. Indeed, regardless of seating placement, anyone in the audience could perfectly hear a match struck from the stage without a problem.
With this in mind, the innovative concert halls and theaters of the current age offer a whole host of unprecedented and highly anticipated architectural improvements, ultimately offering a wonderful spectacle of both sight and sound. Smaller, more intimate venues are quickly replacing large, uninviting theaters of the past. Theaters are quickly becoming acoustically adjusted to perform both contemporary and classical music, and the public—particularly an unprecedented amount of young people—is embracing the less formal and expensive nature of many of the new concert halls being erected in cities worldwide.
Alice Tully Hall: Asymmetrical Design Outdoes Horseshoe Shape
A great example of such a structure is the Alice Tully Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center. For decades it was believed that concert and music halls should be designed around a symmetrical “horseshoe” shape because the design allowed for a greater transfer of acoustics. However, newfound architectural research and insight has helped developers find that a slightly asymmetrical design—such as that found in Alice Tully Hall—produces altogether better acoustics and overall sound for the audience. This is largely thanks to the fact that an asymmetrical design allows for the greater transfer and ricochet of sound vibrations throughout the theater, producing a higher degree of sound quality for the audience to enjoy.
In regards to the building’s exterior, the entrance to Alice Tully Hall was originally designed with a concrete façade that was generally considered uninviting. Victoria Newhouse, an architectural historian, pointed out in a PBS interview that such a design was ultimately punned “brutalism” by critics. Brutalist architecture signifies the often blockish and fortress-like nature of an architectural space, commonly complete with concrete construction. Now, the transparency of the hall is hailed by many as entirely innovative and architecturally inviting to patrons.
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre: Multiple Stages Help Transmit Sound
In an attempt to merge acoustics and architecture, architect Daniel Libeskind, designed Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Formerly known as the Grand Canal Theatre, the building was completed in 2010 and is used for everything from rock concerts to opera performances. A design based on stages within the hall allows for phenomenal acoustics, with the stages of the piazza, theater and theater lobby designed in tandem to transmit sound with perfect pitch and quality.
As of late, the theater has become more relevant to the public eye, acting as the main façade of a large piazza complete with hotel spaces and office residences. Thus, the theater lobby itself doubles as a social gathering place, complete with views of the Dublin Harbor. Libeskind also points out that the erection of social structures such as music halls are, in the end, more about renovating and reviving a city, as well as adding an architectural and artistic footprint to the masses. The theater was renovated and restored from an abandoned industrial site that virtually no one dared tread near at one time. A public partnership was created to allow a publicly accessible theater to be built. Such spaces are not just acoustical, but indeed, highly visual for patrons to enjoy as well.
Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre: Stacked Design Gives Stagehands a Rest
In regards to cutting-edge technology engraved in the very design of a concert hall, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre situated in Dallas, Texas most easily comes to mind in the world of architecture, although it is acoustically reliable as well. Originally completed in 2009 as a drama theater, the acoustics turned out to be so amazing that it now serves multiple functions as a theater, concert hall and opera house. This component is thanks to the unprecedented vertical, “stacked” design of the theater that allows for a more open sanctuary for sound pitch. However, the building’s national acclaim comes from the extraordinary fact that it is capable of being reconfigured with the click of a mouse. Countless man-hours moving around stages, seats and furniture have become unnecessary, and whole balconies can be altered and set in place from the control of a computer screen. With the push of a button, entire sets can roll easily, quickly and efficiently in a matter of minutes, a process that would have originally taken stagehands all night to complete.
Although great acoustics are an incredibly important and beneficial element of a truly captivating concert hall, the overall design aesthetic and outward appeal are arguably the most influential elements that decide the fate of a hall’s future success and patronage. Dozens of worldwide concert halls take advantage of such appeals and although most have seen varying degrees of success, it is undeniable that all are exhibitions of entirely revolutionary and innovative design and architecture.
Oslo Opera House: Walking on the Roof
Easily one of the more famous opera houses constructed in recent memory is Norway’s Oslo Opera House. Completed in 2007, the opera house is home to the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Newhouse cites in her recent book, “Art and the Power of Placement,” that architects involved in the project’s design famously believed, “if you can step on it, you feel you own it.” In keeping with his belief, patrons are literally able to walk on the sloping roof of the structure, as well as stroll out on the sides of the concert hall in all directions. The Oslo House has other qualities that defy the typical notion of such a building, including the fact that it is situated completely on water and stands away from the center of Oslo. Such a design, needless to say, has caught on with the public. As a result, patrons frequent the hall at all times of day—not only as a center for the arts but also as a site of recreation and wonder as well.
Sydney Opera House: Design is Still Years Ahead of its Time
Perhaps best known for its mesmerizing architecture, the Sydney Opera House is one of the most iconic buildings on the planet. To architectural historians, including Newhouse, the design of the Sydney Opera House is still considered years ahead of its time, even though the opera house opened in 1973. Danish architect Jørn Utzon took inspiration from Sydney naval charts and ancient Mayan temple platforms. When designing the building, such inspiration provided the backbone for planning one of the house’s grand staircases and the plateau on top, which are components essential in allowing patrons to acquire an “other-worldly” feeling. Even the outside lining of the opera house provides a beautiful sight for patrons during the daytime. The white-tiled exterior reflects radiant sunlight, providing a stark contrast to the surrounding city. Despite such innovative design successes, Time magazine reported that the opera house has undergone numerous acoustical tweaks over the years to improve the quality of acoustics. Architects blame the interior design of the hall and have since installed plated sheets to seating terraces situated on the sides of the theater, which is now allowing for proper reflection of sound.
Longevity of Opera Houses and Theaters
Although the design of the concert venues mentioned are certainly a feast to behold for the eyes and ears, many question the potential longevity that such structures can have in a community, based on a variety of factors. Michael Kaiser, director of Washington’s Kennedy Center for over a decade, can easily explain such potential hardships. In a recent Huffington Post blog post, Kaiser admits that, while new concert halls can certainly generate tremendous amounts of excitement, the ultimate challenge is to maintain such enthusiasm after the halls are opened. Another significant problem is that arts organizations are simply not strong enough to use the facilities in the ways intended. China’s Guangzhou Opera House remains dark for much of the year simply because there is not enough funding to keep the doors open. Ironically, it would seem that although there is funding for buildings and architecture in general, there is not overwhelming support for programs relating to the arts.
However, some, such as world-renown concert soprano Renee Fleming, still remain optimistic despite such setbacks. In a BBC interview, Fleming contests that the newfound passion and appreciation for concert halls by the public, thanks to innovative architecture and design, has the potential to combat such issues. Music halls are increasingly becoming public settings for patrons, thus illustrating a sense of greater accessibility and comfort. This, in turn, allows for the introduction of the arts to the public. Such a factor is quickly becoming important in this day and age, Fleming argues, considering arts education in many public schools is increasingly hard to come by. It would seem accessibility alone can mean the difference in attracting patrons to concert halls for years to come.
In the end, the revolutionary and nouveau architecture being constructed worldwide certainly counters any perceptions of what a theater space or music hall should look or feel like, shifting away from the traditional formula of design used for literally hundreds of years. Indeed, it is the art that leaves the largest lasting mark on society and culture in general. Ultimately, this has the proven potential to entice and entrance many to embrace the art of music and architecture now and for generations to come.