May 28, 2019
How the Vineyard-Style Concert Hall Took Over the World (and Changed How We Hear Music)
With its promise to make every seat great, the vineyard-style concert hall has proliferated. But this format is breathtakingly at odds with the spirit of the original vineyard halls.
It has been a banner five years for the concert hall, with grand debuts from Hamburg to Shanghai, as well as immense new projects being announced in Geneva, London, and Russia. The roster of architectural luminaries involved is lengthy, and includes Herzog & de Meuron, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Zaha Hadid Architects, and Frank Gehry. Despite this varied list of talent, all of these projects, both built and proposed, have one important element in common: They are all vineyard-style halls.
In a relatively short time, the vineyard hall—or surround hall—has gained complete dominance in the stagnating field of concert hall design. Ground zero was 2003 Los Angeles, with the runaway success of Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall propelling Japanese firm Nagata Acoustics toward its current monopolistic status. With the exception of the Philharmonie de Paris by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, which worked with the firm Marshall Day, every major concert hall built in the past decade and a half features acoustics by Nagata, including the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg (2017), the Kauffman Center in Kansas City (2011), and the Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen (2009).
The same rhetoric is invariably deployed in describing the aural experiences of these halls, placing the emphasis on visual and sonic intimacy with the orchestra, and a pleasing mix of direct and reverberant sound. Each generation of concert hall design has had a different acoustic ideal, and our generation’s is to homogenize the concert going experience by making every seat a decent one.
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Musicologist Mark Pottinger attributes this development to our obsession with making concert halls sound more like recordings. “The acoustically enhanced, technology-equipped concert hall of today is no longer a space for human-filled sounds,” he writes, noting the aural imperfections produced by callused fingers and shuffling feet, “but rather a temple dedicated to the fetishization of a ‘pure’ un-human sound for the individualized consumer, who more often than not hears music as a self-directed activity and not as a shared communal experience.”
This idea of a fetishized temple makes sense when you consider current architectural culture. The unique terraced shape of the vineyard hall conveniently serves as a pretext for the most athletic, expensive, and Instagrammable starchitecture. All that spectacular brandishing of form puts pressure on what are financially risky, often publicly funded projects. They must secure the highest return on investment, which is hard to do when there are bad seats.
This technocratic imperative to deliver a standardized product—the experience of listening to music—is breathtakingly at odds with the spirit that permeates the original vineyard-style halls. The type was first developed in the early 1960s with the design of the Berlin Philharmonie by architect Hans Scharoun and acoustician Lothar Cremer. Their experimental concept, Scharoun noted, aimed to eliminate “segregation between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’” of music to form “a community of listeners grouped around the orchestra in the most natural of seating arrangements.” According to the historian Michael Forsyth in his book Buildings for Music, the concept of “equality” actually preceded Berlin, with the proliferation of amphitheater-style, or fan-shaped, plans in the early- to-mid-20th century that gave everyone clear sight lines to the orchestra. But unlike the fan, the vineyard “gives everyone within [each terrace or] seating tier an identifiable ‘place,’ without their being socially classified as in the baroque theater. It creates, so to speak, the ‘individual within a democracy.’” Indeed, the differences between tiers are what make the concertgoing experience at the Berlin Philharmonie so special. The goal wasn’t for it to sound the same each time and in each place, but to offer a vastly different experience based on where one sits and also to ensure close proximity to the orchestra.
The Berlin Philharmonie was a product of postwar European social democracy, with its emphasis on egalitarianism, as well as strong financial support for the arts and sciences. This ideological basis gave Scharoun and Cremer the confidence to take several risks in their design—not only in the hall’s unprecedented shape (inherently tied to Scharoun’s neo-expressionist architecture) but also in its daring acoustic program. Its use of terraces and parterres provided listeners with the early lateral reflections that are essential for clarity in tandem with the hall’s large unoccupied volume, which provides a sense of spaciousness.
Berlin’s generosity of spirit was not lost on the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger. His Muziekcentrum Vredenburg in Utrecht extended Scharoun and Cremer’s idea of fostering community between listener and musician to the relationship between the concert hall and the city. Hertzberger surrounded his with galleries and shops, and so redefined the concert hall as an urban gathering place. But subsequent vineyard projects met with far less success, particularly those built in North America, where concert hall architecture was subjected to the rule of large revenue-generating seat counts. The almost-3,000-seat vineyard Boettcher Hall in Denver, containing a vast internal volume several orders of magnitude larger than Berlin’s, rendered music inchoate. Thus, the experimental wave set off by Berlin subsided until decades later, when listeners began to take notice of a new concert hall in Tokyo.
Built in 1986, Suntory Hall was Nagata’s first big hit with international audiences and responsible for reviving the vineyard format, albeit with some tweaks. The acousticians at Nagata reduced the number of seats behind the orchestra and narrowed the side walls to rein in excessive resonance caused by time disparities between early and late reflections. This hybrid approach mixed the acoustic and visual intimacy of the vineyard hall with the warmth and clarity of a shoebox-style hall. But it was only after the firm’s work with Walt Disney Concert Hall in the early aughts that the architecture community fully grasped the powerful potential of combining high-octane form-making with a rather conservative approach to acoustics. The rest is history.
When one judges the merits of both Berlin and Disney Hall, it becomes clear that experimentation—and often failure—is necessary for the development of any art or science. Architectural acoustics happens to straddle both. While Berlin emphasized the importance of early reflections for establishing musical clarity (a concept that was scientifically backed by Harold Marshall in the late ’60s), halls like Avery Fisher (now David Geffen) in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., proved that even a time-tested form like the shoebox could be rendered mediocre by being stretched to accommodate large, profit-generating seat counts. Venues such as Boettcher and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, California, which tried and failed to reconcile immense seat counts with cutting-edge acoustics and theater-rigging technology, only reinforced the point.
Concert halls designed to prioritize profit are often antithetical to the acoustic methodologies that make concert halls like the Berlin Philharmonie so successful in the first place. With Disney Concert Hall, Berlin’s quasi-heir, Gehry and Nagata found that a consistently well-performing concert hall shape could be easily adapted to a variety of athletic architectural configurations. Takeaway: The “Bilbao effect”—a term applied to cities that build huge, glamorous arts projects to capitalize on tourism—is equally relevant to acoustic design.
The entire model of live symphonic performances as a consumable product rather than a public good is dubious at best, considering the economics of classical music. Not only does this arrangement limit the risk that an acoustician can take, but it also puts pressure on governments to continue initiating over-the-top projects, because without a steady stream of money to be made on the music itself, concert halls must use photogenic architecture to sell an image and “experience.” This can be seen in Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s recently unveiled proposal for the London Centre for Music, in which the gestalt of friction-less consumption extends from the lobbies and foyers overlooking the London skyline to the concert hall itself, where “pods” literally segregate the visual from the aural.
In one case, this has led to a highly publicized failure—the interesting case of Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris—and, like all stories in the history of acoustics, it is a teachable moment. Haphazardly completed in 2015 and lampooned for its resemblance to a crash-landed spacecraft, the hall bore little resemblance to the glossy, effervescent building promised in the renderings. Nouvel later tried to disavow the project, claiming that the execution was “noncompliant” with his original scheme. However, the hall itself pushed the boundaries of acoustics, because its acoustician, Marshall Day, combined two concert hall techniques for the first time, essentially filling the coupled volume—a concept that relies on adjacent reverberation chambers to increase and decrease the amount of echo in the hall—with vineyard-style seating. The result is a well-balanced concert facility that is more acoustically flexible than its counterparts. It’s one of the rare exceptions where the hall sounds much better than it looks.
More experimentation has been happening in the development of small halls. Ironically, the two players that got us into this mess, Nagata Acoustics and Frank Gehry, have also put forward one of the more unusual halls of this generation, Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin (2017), whose rounded forms and floating balconies challenge the prevailing acoustic belief that round surfaces create incoherent, echoey spaces and are therefore verboten. The development of new acoustic materials such as the 3D-printed scalloped panels in the Elbphilharmonie, though much publicized by the press, has sparked heated debate among acousticians, and prompted more scientific investigation of 3D printing and mathematically derived pattern generation.
These are all baby steps: rounded balconies here, textured surfaces there. Imagine what strides acoustics and architecture could make if they were freed from the profit motive and expensive, budget-busting publicity projects, and were based, like the original Berlin Philharmonie, on the concept of the individual within a democracy, in which concert going—and music itself—is seen as a social good.
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