Is A Rattling Good Hall Needed?

Debates over the merits and value of new concert venues are raging in Paris, Munich and now London

Architecture Music Philanthropy
London’s Royal Festival Hall: Sir Simon Rattle once said of it, “The will to live slips away in the first hour of rehearsal” (photo: Cristian Bortes, via Flickr)

Suddenly, symphonic space is a hot topic. In three European cities this past winter, passions flared.

Days after January’s sickening Islamist attacks, Paris inaugurated a €390 million Philharmonie on the northern edge of the city, amid cries it was three times over budget and in the wrong place. Munich, shortly after, reneged on a pledge to build a new hall, opting to splash €200 million on refurbishing the ghastly 1980s Gasteig. “The prime minister cannot be trusted,” snapped the home-grown violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Into London rolled a Simon Rattle band-wagon, demanding a new concert hall as his price for becoming music director of the London Symphony Orchestra; the Chancellor, George Osborne, authorised a feasibility study. Elsewhere, Warsaw greenlit a new hall and Sydney scotched one.  Each and every one of these decisions was fundamentally flawed, based more on political instinct than cultural analysis.

A short history lesson is required. Until the Second World War building a concert hall was no big deal. Sketch a shoebox, insert 1,800 seats, add wood panelling and you’d be guaranteed a decent sound. Larger, rounder shapes, like the piano-curved Salle Pleyel in Paris or London’s Royal Albert Hall, compensated with grandeur for loss of clarity. Few complained of “bad” halls.

The war wiped out great halls in London, Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, Hamburg and Warsaw. Aside from Berlin, where the conductor Herbert von Karajan scrutinised Hans Scharoun’s “ascending vineyards” design for the Philharmonie, most post-war halls were seriously misconceived. Synthetic materials, acoustic guesswork and demands for a greater number of seats resulted in one mid-century disaster after the next.  New York’s Alice Tully Hall, opened in 1969, is in every way inferior to Carnegie Hall (1891). Washington’s 1971 Kennedy Center has clunky sound. In 1982, I sat beside a weeping, defeated acoustician during stage tests of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.

Matters began to pick up in the 1990s when Rattle mandated Russell Johnson, whom Jean Nouvel called “the guardian of the ear”, to create a sound in Birmingham that would put London to shame. Lucerne hired Johnson to boost its festival venue above Salzburg’s. The acoustician rose from best supporting role to co-star. In Los Angeles, Yasuhisa Toyota earned equal billing with Frank Gehry in the development of Walt Disney Hall, the jewel of what is now a multi-arts quartier that challenges Hollywood’s cultural dominance. Ours is, once more, an age of great concert halls. But at what cost?

All agree, for instance, that Nouvel has built Paris a modern marvel (even if the architect removed his name from the building over its over-hasty completion). The questions are whether the new Philharmonie is worth the money—does it represent £300 million of added value?—and whether it is needed at all. Paris took a political decision to stop orchestral music at the Pleyel because its audience was ageing and bourgeois. The Philharmonie is meant to attract young couples who live around the city’s periphery. But can they afford the tickets? Will tourists find it? In an age when people access concerts online, regardless of acoustic distinction, can a new concert hall be justified at the expense of a children’s hospital or an old-age home?

Munich thinks not. But its decision to save half the cost of a new hall by redoing the Gasteig is plain wrong. London has blown £200 million over 20 years on acoustic and structural refits of the South Bank and Barbican halls, yielding no more than marginal benefit. Munich, which has no fallback position, must retract its refusal or risk relegation from Germany’s musical summits.

Which brings us to London, the toughest call of all. London has got used to shabby sound ever since Queen’s Hall was bombed in May 1941. Rattle, however, has set his heart on a new hall. The proposed location, presently occupied by the Museum of London, is a concrete island in the thick of a permanent traffic jam. Not an auspicious start. Land in the City is scarce.

The cost, probably half a billion pounds, would be higher than Paris or Munich and the project would be resented across the nation amid gripes that London hogs the culture cash. Next problem: both the Barbican and South Bank are run on shoestrings. Like Birmingham, which built a state-of-the-art library but can’t afford to staff it, London could get a new hall with no stars on stage.

Set aside Rattle’s ego and London pride. Does London need a new concert hall? Musically, yes. Financially, no. Socially and politically? It can probably wait until the state of our public finances has improved.