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Concert Hall Hopping with Kate Wagner

By · Title Image © Nuri Oh · Date 08/17/2017

In film and childhood memories, concert halls darken and the audience murmurs. They begin exerting force on you long before the first note is played. So why can watching a live orchestra—with its reverent circumstance—feel a little like sitting in an elaborate wedding cake or complicated wicker-basket?

Maybe it’s because getting acoustic music to fill a room of up to 2,000 people is like a magic-trick, and making that sound good is tantamount to sorcery. The leviathan buildings that squat within our cities’ cultural districts consist of a complex chemistry of budgeting, architectural vision, acoustics, and straight-up luck. In an effort to shed some light on their inner workings, and the industry whose business it is to play God with sound, I met up with Kate Wagner—the critical eye behind popular architecture blog McMansion Hell, as well as a musician and acoustician. Over the last year, Wagner has been picking apart ugly houses on her blog, while teaching about urban planning and the social significance of architecture. We took a stroll through Berlin to check out some concert halls, and talk sound, space, and socialism.

En-route to the Ostbahnhof, we pass Berghain, whose façade—as has been well documented—is an imposing lump of socialist realism. Its walls, like the concrete interior, are heavy, almost featureless, and visually cold. In contrast, our conversation takes an early turn toward ornament. “They have all that shit on the walls, like naked women and stuff,” Wagner tells me when I ask whether the décor in older concert halls is acoustically significant. “They didn’t know it had a function, they were just building in the style of the time, but it actually scatters the sound and lets it breathe.” The traditional shoebox concert hall, with four walls and a high ceiling, “is a safe way of building,” according to Wagner, and for some is the key to making music more emotional, though the latter perhaps has more to do with imagining oneself in the presence of Francesca Cuzzoni than it does with the shape of the box you find yourself in.

Photo © Oliver Heissner
Photo © Oliver Heissner

Attempting the traditional style without flamboyance risks a flop: “There was a hall that was built, I think in Minnesota, and because they had no ornamentation, it sounded like ass,” Wagner tells me. Not that acousticians need to start carving ornate statues for their ideas to work. “[Renowned acoustician] Yasuhisa Toyota understood that what made the old ones good was the ornamentation. He had this very sparse textural detail on the sides of the halls, and these halls that he did [in the ‘80s and ‘90s] were very successful.”

Toyota is a passionate advocate of the now-revered “vineyard style” concert hall, which places the orchestra in the center of the audience. The first of its kind is the Berliner Philharmonie, whose acoustics have made it world famous. “No one really knows how they did that hall or how they knew to do it,” says Wagner, “it’s just astonishing because they tried, it was a one-off, and it’s perfect. We’ve spent 40 years trying to understand it and we still don’t.”  

As we discuss this happy accident of modern architecture, we walk down the Straße der Pariser Kommune, flanked by GDR-era Plattenbauten—tall, concrete tower blocks of East German construction. On a day like this, they strike an elegant silhouette against the blue sky, but on overcast mornings they drag the drab clouds down to street-level. Having lived in them on the street myself, they serve as a good reminder that architecture—like music—has a distinctly experiential effect on the individual.

After a short train ride, we briefly check out the Pierre Boulez Saal, the much-anticipated chamber space that saw Frank Gehry and Toyota working together as they did with LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, albeit on a much smaller scale. Unlike the grandeur of Berlin’s larger halls, the Pierre Boulez Saal is tucked within an unassuming block. Its interior continues Toyota’s penchant for vineyard-style spaces; no seat is lower than the musicians, and the furthest seat from the conductor is only 14 meters away. “The vineyard hall is very egalitarian, an almost communist goal,” Wagner says half-jokingly, “which is wherever you sit, it’s going to sound fucking sick. There’s no hierarchy of seats, that’s always the goal.” The Pierre Boulez Saal, home to the Barenboim-Said academy, aside from being a stunning piece of design, aims to accommodate different ensembles and types of performance through its adjustable modular design.

Photo Dave Herholz (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo Dave Herholz (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As well as enabling a diverse program, accommodating multiple styles addresses the political issue of spending eye-wateringly large amounts of money on venues suited to a relatively limited range of music genres. Two-thirds of the 32 million euro building costs for the Pierre Boulez Saal were met through public funding—it’s hard to imagine this kind of government commitment to electronic music or jazz venues. “It seems unfair, the reason why they spend so much money [on classical concert halls] is that it’s an architectural arms race essentially. The fact that it’s a music hall is secondary to the fact that they hire the biggest names in architecture because it’s a tourist thing. The music comes second to the star-value,” Wagner tells me. This is essentially a gamble on the Bilbao effect, named after the Spanish industrial port city whose tourism income increased massively after the completion of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. “Other cities in Europe and the U.S. saw this and started this ‘starchitecture’ arms-race,” Wagner explains. “So like the Paris Philharmonie, which is another recent one, nobody needs an excuse to go to Paris—it’s fucking Paris—but they built that hall to draw younger people to classical music through insane architecture, and I think it’s worked.”

But regardless of how good they might sound, or what urban planning speculators think they might bring to an area, the extravagance of public spending on concert halls has not gone unchecked. The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, which was completed 700 million euros over budget, has been criticized by some as being symptomatic of a “symbol for elites and a culture for few.” “That hall was such an international sensation, I think the saga of it—of all the bullshit, the opening over budget—the anticipation that builds up. When that hall opened, people I hadn’t talked to in six years sent me articles about it,” Wagner says. As her blog makes clear, speculative focus on building projects is symptomatic of a wider problematic attitude toward urban planning. The gamble of the Elbphilharmonie, however, seems to have paid off despite very mixed attitudes toward its construction. “The grandeur of the project is what really draws people in, though I think in this day and age that model is really beginning to wane. People have become tired of the budgetary Olympics that goes along with these massive projects. [It’s not that] classical music is more important than other types of music, it’s that concert halls and museums are the two things we can build that can be tourist attractions, because you can just let architects go insane.”

Photo © Johannes Arlt
Photo © Johannes Arlt

It’s a fair point, and one confirmed as we cross the street from the Pierre Boulez Saal to the Gendarmenmarkt, at the center of which stands the more conspicuous early 19th century Konzerthaus Berlin. Although it remains closed for most of the day, a viewing area allows tourists to glimpse into the opulent shoebox hall, and tour groups flock in patches, taking photographs on the square outside. Aside from the addition of a few panels above the orchestra and near the shallow balconies, the Konzerthaus’ acoustics are the result of its ornamentation, which the GDR government reconstructed in the original style after damage sustained during World War II. “For a space this small, the ornamentation does make the best of it,” Wagner tells me as we peek inside. “For what it is, it has the stuff of legend in it, so it’s going to sound good.” She adds, “I’m kind of under the belief that there’s no such thing as a bad seat in a 19th century shoebox hall. Not a lot can go wrong. You can’t sit in a hall like that and not have a good time.”

It’s a positive point of view, and one that reinforces Wagner’s opinions on concert hall design as much as it does her opinions on gaudy U.S. mansions. “As acousticians, we have to be cognizant of the past when we’re over-engineering a concert hall—we made the worst-sounding halls for 40 years. It was only with the Berliner Philharmonie that we stopped making horrible-sounding halls.” Something of a relief is the fact that we find ourselves at the end of a century of experimentation, and that the odds for new halls sounding good are pretty high. I’m left wondering if the high-end experimentation and computer modeling is worth the kind of cost attributed to projects like the Elbphilharmonie—especially as audiences seem perfectly content with the likes of the Konzerthaus. As Wagner suggests, perhaps not everything that goes into the most recent projects has the purely auditory experience in mind—the spectacle takes precedent. “Looking good is half the battle of sounding good,” she tells me. “I think a lot of people, when they walk into a truly great concert hall, know it’s a truly great concert hall.” ¶