London’s new concert hall must be built on sound principles

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London’s new concert hall must be built on sound principles
The new Paris Philharmonie, designed by Jean Nouvel: ‘architecturally interesting in a Vegas sort of way’ / © Dominique Faget
London’s new concert hall must be built on sound principles
The new Paris Philharmonie, designed by Jean Nouvel: ‘architecturally interesting in a Vegas sort of way’ / © Dominique Faget

If London is given the go-ahead for the new concert hall Simon Rattle dreams of, it must, above all, get the acoustics right – and avoid the flashiness that big sponsors love

It’s an amazing thing that for the sake of some fractions of a second of reverberation time, and some other acoustic niceties, and for the sake of acoustic properties that can only be described with vague adjectives such as “warm”, it is proposed that several hundred million pounds be spent on a completely new concert hall in London, to improve on the existing Royal Festival Hall (built in 1951, extensively renovated in 1964 and 2007) and the Barbican (built in 1982, extensively renovated in 1994 and 2001).

This is what Simon Rattle, future music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, is saying, and he has got George Osborne and Boris Johnson to support him. Rattle says that London needs the best possible concert hall, where you can “experience the sound of a great orchestra with brilliance, immediacy, depth, richness and warmth”, to attract the best possible musicians, which means shifting very many tons of building materials to fine-tune the vibrations of air. And if there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on in this contentious project (why spend so much in straitened times? Wouldn’t it be better to back performers directly rather than their carapace? Should so much be spent in culturally well-endowed London?), it is that the acoustics of the city’s existing large auditoriums definitely don’t work well enough.

Which means that if this project is to go ahead, it definitely, absolutely, without a shadow of doubt, must get its acoustics right. And although computer modelling techniques have enhanced the design of acoustics hugely since the days of the Festival Hall and the Barbican, it is still what one architect with experience of such things calls a “dark science”. Frank Gehry, who in Los Angeles and Miami has designed some of the most successful recent spaces for music, has said that if you got the world’s two best acousticians together, you can be sure they will say the opposite of each other. […]

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