A New Lincoln Center

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of City Journal, who first published it in the Autumn 2000 issue of their magazine.

It’s time to start thinking hard about tearing down Lincoln Center and building up a new, much better one – an architectural masterpiece that will signal New York City’s miraculous recovery over the last decade and its renewed confidence that it will be the capital of the twenty-first century as it has been of the twentieth. To start that rethinking, this issue of City Journal offers plans by leading architects of what a new Lincoln Center could look like. The dramatic differences among the schemes, all of which are classical but each of which envisions the arts complex in a new and original light, suggest what a range of possibilities for improvement exists. Any one of the three would be splendid, a major enhancement to the city in many ways.

A pipe dream, you say? Consider this: Lincoln Center is in terrible physical condition, requiring, according to its management, $1.5 billion – yes, billion – to repair it. Its travertine marble facing is melting away like sugar in Gotham’s polluted air; its flimsy modernist architectural construction needs major restoration, in a hurry. That $1.5 billion would go very far toward paying for a completely new complex of buildings. And were it spent to restore the current complex to its original condition, the same underlying structural problems would almost certainly require another gargantuanly expensive restoration only three or four decades in the future. So every future generation will have to pay for Lincoln Center all over again.

If Lincoln Center were an architectural treasure – even if it were only acoustically and technically a superb machine for presenting the performing arts – the huge cost would make sense. But tearing it down is no desecration. From the time the building first went up, architectural critics have dismissed it as mediocre, and music critics have rated its sound as nothing special, even after Avery Fisher Hall’s endless and expensive acoustical remodelings and the New York State Theater’s current, desperate experiment with electronic amplification, to the derision of opera lovers.


In fairness, Lincoln Center is a triumph of city planning, its symmetrical layout and formal, fountain-adorned plaza an embodiment of the City Beautiful urban vision advocated by such turn-of-the-last-century architects as McKim, Mead, and White and Richard Morris Hunt and realized most fully in the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. New Yorkers like the plaza; even if they deprecate the individual buildings, they take pleasure in the formal, ceremonious, celebratory public space the ensemble forms.

It’s a city-planning success in a more down-to-earth way, as well. Parks Commissioner and Gotham planning czar Robert Moses first envisioned the Center in the mid-1950s as a lever to uplift the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan, then in deep decline. New York had first permitted single-room-occupancy residences in 1939; 15 years later, an influx of the poor living in such SROs and in rent-controlled apartments, including thousands of new immigrants from Puerto Rico, made observers fear that the Upper West Side was fast decaying into a permanent slum, dirty, crime-ridden, and fear-inspiring. Time has proven Moses right: the building of Lincoln Center, creating a real sense of place with its graciously proportioned outdoor room, was the first in a series of events that led to an emphatically revivified section of the city, with businesses flourishing and property values skyrocketing in a wide swath around the complex and stretching many blocks to its north. As then-Center president John D. Rockefeller III put it, the complex was intended as “a new kind of city therapy.”

But as architecture, oh dear. The Center was deplorable, as critics recognized from the start. Despite the mountain of money lavished on it, despite the vast expanses of travertine, despite its almost endearing anxiety to look monumental, it looked cheap and cheesy. Philip Johnson’s New York State Theater presented to Columbus Avenue – the ceremonial front of Lincoln Center – a blank wall, as if, having run out of ideas after he’d finished with the front, he had tacked up travertine like sheetrock around the rest of the building. Inside, while tiers of galleries rising above the atrium lobby turned the audience itself into a festive spectacle during intermission, critics complained from the start that the galleries looked like a maximum-security prison in their metallic angularity, especially since the whole soaring space culminated in an unadorned ceiling that again seemed testimony to architect Johnson’s mental exhaustion.

Max Abramovitz’s Philharmonic Hall, renamed Avery Fisher Hall after the hi-fi magnate gave $10 million toward the gutting of the acoustically challenged structure and reconfiguring it so that it sounded adequate and the musicians could hear one another, [and subsequently renamed again after David Geffen gave even more towards redeeming the hall] gives the concertgoer the sensation of being in an extremely upscale shopping mall, all its adornments failing to disguise the plain concrete box it really is. Its low-ceilinged lobby and workaday escalators create a sense of placelessness that makes you wonder as you ascend if you will emerge into a food court dominated by Wendy’s and Domino’s Pizza. But no: instead you emerge into a space dominated by Richard Lippold’s appalling “sculpture,” composed of giant copper and zinc alloy blades suspended from wires like the sword of Damocles and looking like a tort suit waiting to happen.

As for Wallace Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera House, architecture critics couldn’t resist the comparison with Miami Beach hotels, and they observed that two giant blank walls almost right up against the glass facade necessitated the huge Chagall murals to cover them, like colossal “Hallmark Chanukah cards,” as Lincoln Kirstein dismissed them with Olympian asperity. At least the design as built was better than an earlier version, in which the five great arches on the facade resembled the toes of a giant foot.


Most critics, as the individual buildings opened between 1962 and 1969, charged that they failed because they weren’t modernist enough. In fact, the reverse was the case: they were insufficiently traditional. As it was, the architects of the three principal buildings fell between two stools. As they attempted to cling to their modernist principles while at the same time making a nod toward the tradition of classical architecture, they created a kind of proto-postmodernism: modernist buildings with some traditionalist doodads tacked on. Lacking postmodernism’s smart-aleck “irony,” though, these buildings really are nothing but kitsch – sentimental and insincere evocations of something meaningful, without any understanding of, or passion for, the underlying ideal. So perhaps the best critic of the complex was Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, who at the Opera House’s opening gushed: “Ah have an impression of red; Ah have an impression of gold; Ah have an impression of chandeliers.” Crude impressions of bygone elegance, shreds and patches of tradition, is what Lincoln Center’s architecture is all about.

The instinct of these architects to make at least a gesture toward classicism was understandable. As the managers of the Metropolitan Opera correctly perceived, classical architecture was the appropriate style for the entire complex – real classical, not stagey pastiche. Lincoln Center was to be an acropolis for New York; in a secular city, it was to be a shrine for the arts, a testament to man’s capacity to imagine and represent an ideal world of beauty and harmony, of self-discipline in the service of an ideal, of the communal celebration of man’s spiritual nature and noblest aspirations. To use for this purpose the architecture that the Greeks invented to build temples makes perfect sense. Lincoln Center, moreover, was to be a living museum of our cultural and artistic inheritance, where we prove every day that the masterworks of our ancestors – of Handel and Mozart, Verdi and Wagner – speak to us just as movingly and meaningfully as to their contemporaries of the human spirit, its yearnings and ideals. Why not, then, clothe it in the architecture we inherit from Palladio and Michelangelo, from Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren – another living tradition? Finally, what could be more suitable than the architecture of democratic Greece and republican Rome for a project that, like such great New York public spaces as Central Park and Grand Central Station, was to be a gathering place for all New Yorkers?


Understandably, the men of the late fifties and early sixties would have found it hard to take this course. Modernism wasn’t just architecture’s prevailing orthodoxy but indeed its sole dogma. Established architects of the era spoke with reverential familiarity of “Corbu” and affected his little round glasses. They believed that modernism was the only possible style that spoke to the present and the future. To us, half a century later, modernism is beginning to look tired and dated. The boring grid-wrapped boxes that fill our cities are so alike and uninspired – just look at the New York Times’s recently published photos of proposals for its new office building – that it’s hard for us to understand why modernism’s champions defended this style as original. Today, too, as the hierarchical corporations that built their headquarters in this style have flattened and decentralized their management structures, the modernist grid that expressed that structure looks as dated as Charles Bluhdorn’s Gulf and Western or Hal Geneen’s ITT. To us today, the modernist grid speaks not only of soul-deadening, anti-individualist technocratic bureaucracy but of something much more sinister – of the totalitarianism of the central planner, who sees the Big Picture into which the mass of mere individuals must fit for their own good, whether they like it or not.

Today we are quite unembarrassed about finding the Beaux Arts skyscrapers of lower Manhattan inspirational, with their wealth of classical details and sophisticated traditional vocabulary – infinitely preferable to the dull mechanical boxes that the last 50 years have crowded into the city. If given the choice, most of us would prefer the classical limestone buildings that lined Park Avenue in midtown at mid-century to the glass and steel structures that replaced them, and we’d take the Flatiron Building, with all its lively humanity, over even the best of the modernist creations, Mies van der Rohe’s chilly Seagram Building, with its doctrinaire uniformity of light fixtures and window blinds. Today’s New Yorkers love the restored Grand Central Station and Public Library reading room and the grand new Greek galleries in the even grander Metropolitan Museum. This classicism is the architecture of Gotham at its pinnacle of twentieth-century greatness; it is the fitting style for New York’s moment of twenty-first-century greatness, as well.


This is an extraordinary epoch in the city’s history. A degree of public order and civility and safety reigns that longtime New Yorkers thought we’d never see again. Businesses both small and large are flourishing. New Yorkers have created vast amounts of wealth by financing the corporate restructuring that has retained American industrial supremacy and by establishing Internet businesses that hold out the promise of future prosperity. A restored and reclaimed Bryant Park and Central Park are indices of the city’s recovery, both civic and economic. And so great is the turnaround that our own turn-of-the-millennium tycoons are moving back into the mansions that the Gilded-Age magnates built but that only institutions have been able to use for most of a century.

Even so, New Yorkers have the sense that we can never really equal the extraordinary inheritance we have received from our Gilded-Age forebears. As we glide up the Metropolitan Museum’s grand staircase, we can’t help thinking that we could never again build something as magnificent. We could never replace Penn Station, which our own era barbarously destroyed, along with the many other ingenious lovely things that are gone.

But why not? We have the wealth. The grand classical style belongs to us and is our city’s defining idiom. We have shown, in Kevin Roche’s excellent but little-heralded 1993 addition to the Jewish Museum, that we have the technical skill to build as beautifully in stone as our ancestors built. So why not build a monument like those sketched out in the plans that follow, financed by our modern Medicis? Why not build a Lincoln Center that will last for centuries and testify that we knew how to conceive a city and build it as splendidly as any great urban civilization did?


To build this way is not an exercise in Disneyland nostalgia, as the champions of modernism and postmodernism would charge. One of the astonishing qualities of the classical idiom is how it lends itself to continual renewal and reinvention. No one could say that Stanford White or Charles Follen McKim or Edwin Lutyens were not both of their time and original, even while they took their places in the great tradition that Vitruvius first codified in Roman times. Who would mistake the Century Club or the buildings of Columbia University as belonging to any other era than around the turn of the twentieth century, for all their correct and utterly confident classicism?

So too with the plans that follow. Each one interprets classicism in its own twenty-first-century way. Each conceives of the urban space in a different way, with Quinlan Terry hinging the Center organically to the grid of the city by means of a triumphal arch and a tempietto, and Robert Adam similarly enlarging the Center’s space by creating a Lincoln Square where none now exists and, in the process, making some sense out of the confusion of the crossing of Columbus Avenue and Broadway. Each one of these schemes is designed to last; each one declares that New York confidently takes its unique and original place in the great procession of Western civilization.

To suggest such a course is naturally to invite others to come forth with their ideas, too. Such a vision of possibility is bound to fire many fertile imaginations. Some will come to the defense of the existing complex: it’s hard not to feel affection for a place where we’ve all spent so many happy and uplifting hours over more than three decades. Almost certainly, the New York Times’s Herbert Muschamp will come forward to suggest a postmodernist scheme: one of Frank Gehry’s giant titanium coprolites, say, or some slick pastiche by Christian de Portzamparc, whose one or two classical details – stage-set simulacra, really – always make you wonder why the property owner couldn’t afford the real thing. These will look dated as soon as built, however.

Why not build instead something that real New Yorkers, not just the elites, will love, and that will show our posterity – and us, too – that we can build for the ages?

Quinlan Terry

The proposal for the redevelopment of New York’s Lincoln Center is for a group of new buildings in the great American Renaissance classical tradition. The buildings would be in Indiana limestone in load-bearing masonry and therefore built to last for many generations. This is in contrast to the buildings currently occupying the site, which are already suffering from the familiar problems associated with frame construction.

The new principal buildings of Lincoln Center are grouped around a new public square in a similar position to the existing plaza. The square is approached along an axis from Central Park through a new triumphal arch announcing the main entrance. To the left and right are the new Theater and Concert Hall; these are based on Roman basilica and bath buildings with their expansive vaulted interiors. Facing the square directly is the new Opera House, based on a Roman temple with a giant Corinthian portico. A cross-axis passes through this portico and leads to gardens to the north and south.

The arrangement of the site sets up a variety of views of different buildings, in the tradition of Picturesque planning. Two circular temples are placed at opposite sides of the site, linked by a visual axis running diagonally across the main square. These temples are intended for a wide range of outdoor performances. The remaining buildings are a theater and new premises for the Juilliard School, built around a courtyard.

The proposals would add to the collection of great classical buildings in New York, which includes City Hall, the Metropolitan Museum, and Grand Central Station. This would therefore be a powerful display of twenty-first century classicism, a statement of defiance against the construction of flimsy and ephemeral modern buildings. In this way, the new Lincoln Center would represent a rich investment for the enjoyment of present and future generations.

Robert Adam

Lincoln Center is a curiosity. It is as if modernism lost its nerve and, bankrupt of any vocabulary for civic building, turned to crude classical planning and the distorted vestiges of columnar arcades. Now, even its concrete structure has let it down. There is no credibility left. New York deserves better.

The cartoon version of Michelangelo’s Piazza di Campidoglio, with the inevitable fountain in place of Marcus Aurelius, has none of the subtlety of the hilltop original, with its trapezoidal space and elliptical paving. The entrance plaza sits up and apart from Broadway and creates a barren precinct that ignores the possibilities of one of the few avenue intersections of Broadway that elsewhere create such great spaces as Union Square or Madison Square. The block-wide avenue to Central Park that was proposed in the 1950s failed, and now the whole complex is a monument to the bankrupt dreams of ordered modernity that seemed to offer so much in the years after World War II. With a new start, something more than a cultural ghetto can be handed back to the city.

Why enter the complex from the center of the block? Other than the lonely triangle of Dante Park, there is no logic, except for a misunderstanding of axial planning. Lincoln Square, another lonely triangle, is at least closer to the 66th Street subway station. If we were to combine it with the bare space in front of the Juilliard School, and with a new plaza at grade on the southwest corner of Columbus Avenue and 65th Street, we would create a significant new urban space.

An expanded Lincoln Square could give a more public face to the Vivian Beaumont Theater and Avery Fisher Hall. The design of these buildings, individual and imposing, would add to the sum of the new space and give an identity barely offered by the blank face of the Juilliard School or assisted by the cold commercial buildings across Columbus Avenue.

Diagonally across the new plaza, a distinctive new tower and a view of a massive Doric portico show the way to a large square at the heart of the block. In contrast to the public gesture of the plaza, this square is a pedestrian sanctuary from the clamorous roads outside. All the public buildings bound the new square. The Doric portico announces the entrance to the Metropolitan Opera House. A long Corinthian loggia flanks the south side of the court and leads to the New York State Theater. The Vivian Beaumont Theater and Avery Fisher Hall form the other sides of the square, and a rotunda gateway opens onto a relocated Damrosch Park.

Any suggestion of the monotonous repetition, grinding symmetry, and crude axiality of the original are scrupulously avoided in the buildings and spaces. Great spaces do not always have major entrances exactly in the center of each side. When buildings have different functions, they can have different characters. Classical architecture has an epic history; it has looked across the endless variety of the centuries, and there is no limit to invention. All the excitement, sophistication, and nobility of this tradition should be made available to New York in this, its cultural center.

And why should culture be purged of commerce? Culture belongs in the throng of the multitude and thrives on the wealth of the people. Space made only for refinement runs the risk of sterility and exclusion. The addition of apartments and commercial buildings to Lincoln Center will add not only vitality and daylong activity to the space but also will enhance the value of the real estate.

The apartment tower has as its plinth the blind fly tower of the Metropolitan Opera House. Elevators rise to a public rooftop garden and restaurant and to the entrance to the apartments. Further elevators link the roof to Damrosch Park by way of a circular tower. On Columbus and 62nd Street, a low office building acts as a corner link between Avery Fisher Hall and the New York State Theater.

What an opportunity would be lost if the crumbling Lincoln Center were just to be patched up for the same cost as starting again. Since it was built, we have re-learned forgotten lessons about civilized space and civil architecture. Now is the time to create great monuments to the civilization that is America.

The elevation to Fountain Square shows, from left to right, the Opera House Tower apartment building, the Metropolitan Opera House, the Rotunda gateway to Damrosch Park, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, and the new bridge to the Julliard School.

The view from Fountain Court looking southwest shows the New York State Theater, left, and the Opera House, right.

The elevation to Columbus Avenue shows, from left to right, the Quadrant office building, the subway entrance, Avery Fisher Hall, and the Beaumont Theater.

The view from Broadway, looking southwest, shows Avery Fisher Hall at the left, the Beaumont Theater at the right, with a portion of the new Lincoln Square in front of it.

Michael M. Franck, Arthur C. Lohsen, James C. McCrery II

Lincoln Center was built at a time when architects believed that the present was so vastly different from the past that the past no longer had meaning. The atom had been split, polio cured: no problem seemed too great for the application of cold, scientific reasoning. Modern architecture was an expression of that attitude, and Lincoln Center was a collaborative effort of the most notable modernist architects of a generation.

While it was noble that the designers loosely followed the urban form of Michelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome, Michelangelo’s subtleties make Lincoln Center pale in comparison. Our proposal builds upon the legacy of Lincoln Center – or at least upon the Campidoglio model that inspired it.

Our buildings come out to Columbus Avenue. Their facades hold to the street edges; their great porticos embrace the street and sidewalk approaches. The difference in elevation from the street level to the courtyard level enabled us to create a grand staircase that spills onto Columbus Avenue, connecting the entire complex to the city. The New York State Theater and Avery Fisher Hall, twins, define and contain the plaza. The plaza facade of the twins follows more closely the Campidoglio example through the simple gesture of angling the facades – a device that further defines and contains the plaza. The main halls of each of these buildings open onto the plaza, and two-story arcades along the north and south sides of the plaza shelter small cafés, which enhance the celebratory character of a quintessentially urban space.

The Metropolitan Opera House, both central and removed, sits upon its pedestal above the plaza but is also a full participant in the formation of that space. The composition of the facade brings scale to the building and to the plaza. Large panels on the front facade, similar to those on the Columbus Avenue facades of the twins, will frame banners promoting current and forthcoming events, and a temple-like front portico serves as the ceremonial entry. The friezes and panels on all the buildings invite inscriptions commemorating great composers or conductors.

The plaza – its character and shape defined by the architecture of the three buildings that contain it – is unlike any other urban space in New York. Arcades and stairs ensure a pedestrian flow in and around it, making people central to its drama, and the obelisks, statues, fountains, pedestals, and flagpoles that enliven the space provide places for people to gather.

The complex along Amsterdam Avenue again holds to the avenue’s edge, participating in the endeavor of all great urban architecture: making good streets. The buildings house retail spaces along their Amsterdam Avenue side, with offices above. To the north of the Opera House, the new home to the Vivian Beaumont Theater and Library is arranged in a manner that encloses an exterior garden intended for outdoor musical performances. The south facade of the Opera House incorporates the proscenium and stage for a new outdoor amphitheater.

The new Lincoln Center would be much easier to visit. A three-lane drop-off at grade would be sheltered by the porticos at the New York State Theater and Avery Fisher Hall. Four entrances lead down into a parking structure beneath the entire site. Loading docks are likewise below ground, removing such eyesores from the pedestrian’s realm. A smaller, graceful bridge replaces the virtually unused brutal concrete structure that now connects the plaza to the Juilliard School, opening 65th Street to light and air.

The architecture of the new Lincoln Center is classical – an architectural language shared by all of Western society, developing over thousands of years and capable of dynamic development in the present and future. It is founded on the human form and has human scale, even in the largest of buildings. It is an architecture of curves, of shifting shadows, of subtlety. It seeks, unashamedly, to be harmonious and beautiful.

Classical architecture is physically and stylistically durable. Most buildings today are built to last 25 years before major renovation or replacement. Classical architecture employs solid materials and construction methods that have been developed and improved over millennia to shed water and hold buildings together. That means that our children will not have to rebuild what we leave them. Fifty years from now, our grandchildren will be evaluating our decisions, as we are now evaluating the original Lincoln Center. Should we not leave behind us an embodiment of the timeless values of humanity?


The Concert Hall, Reimagined

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Architect magazine, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, where it first appeared.

The Philharmonie de Paris, a new concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, opened last year. While the construction was costly and the remote location at the northeastern edge of the city remains controversial, the hall has received plaudits for its musical ambience. “From first impressions it seems acoustically marvelous,” wrote Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times. Alex Ross of the New Yorker found the sound to be “rather wonderful,” although he characterized the building itself as a “menacing presence.” The Guardian’s architecture critic, Oliver Wainwright, went further and described the exterior as “a tyrannical hulk of a thing.” Tyrannical or not, a concert hall conceived as a “thing” – a freestanding object – is pretty much par for the course these days.

Philharmonie de Paris. Image credit: Guilhem Vellut.
Philharmonie de Paris. Image credit: Guilhem Vellut.

The freestanding concert hall, in a plaza, on a waterfront, or in a park (the Philharmonie sits in the Parc de la Villette), sends the unmistakable message that culture is a thing apart. Today, when all urban concert halls aspire to be iconic landmarks, it’s easy to forget that they used to be designed quite differently.


The $505 million Philharmonie replaces the Salle Pleyel as Paris’ chief orchestral hall. The Salle, which was built by the renowned French piano maker Pleyel et Cie in 1927, was designed by Jacques Marcel Auburtin, André Granet, and Jean-Baptiste Mathon. The building sits on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the fashionable 8th Arrondissement. The flat façade is cheek by jowl with the flanking apartment buildings and is distinguished chiefly by the different scale of its fenestration, its Art Deco detailing, and the bare hint of a marquee. The front of the building contains practice rooms and penthouse apartments; the 3,000-seat hall is located at the rear of the building, deep inside the city block. There was nothing unusual about this arrangement of lobby on the street, auditorium behind: Broadway theaters traditionally used a similar solution, as did the early movie palaces.

Salle Pleyel. Image credit: PLINE.
Salle Pleyel. Image credit: PLINE.

Integrating a concert hall into the urban fabric by hiding it goes back to the 19th century. In 1899, the distinguished architect Thomas Edward Collcutt, who was responsible for D’Oyly Carte’s Royal English Opera House, designed Bechstein Hall in London’s West End for the famous German piano maker C. Bechstein. The four-story Renaissance Revival façade, with its bay windows and central gable, has a similar scale to its neighbors. This is possible because the 545-seat hall is tucked into the rear of the lot, with service access from a back lane. Renamed Wigmore Hall, this concert venue remains one of the best small halls in Europe.

Urban theaters and opera houses have a long history, but the concert hall is a relative newcomer. Civic symphony orchestras were organized at the end of the 18th century, and about a hundred years later purpose-built concert halls started appearing: Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, Vienna’s Musikverein, and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw. These large buildings were a distinctive presence, but their architects went to great lengths to integrate them into their urban surroundings. The halls followed building lines, hugged the sidewalk, avoided unseemly blank walls, and deployed an array of conventional architectural devices – arches, columns, pilasters, windows, balustrades – to soften the impact of the bulky auditoriums.

American halls of the 19th century were similarly integrated into the city. Chickering Hall in New York, built in 1875 by the Boston-based piano maker Chickering & Sons, stood on Fifth Avenue at West 18th Street. Designed by George B. Post and considered one of the architect’s best works, the brick-and-brownstone pile contained showrooms on the ground floor and signaled the presence of its 1,450-seat hall with a set of tall arches, glazed on the front and blank on the side. It was impressive but not out of place among the mansions which then lined Fifth Avenue. Chickering was soon superseded by the much larger Carnegie Hall (whose largest auditorium has 2,800 seats), designed by William Burnet Tuthill in 1891. Like Chickering, Carnegie Hall was designed to completely fill its corner lot, fitting in rather than standing out.

Auditorium Building in Chicago. Image credit: Vctor Grigras.
Auditorium Building in Chicago. Image credit: Vctor Grigras.
Auditorium Building section.
Auditorium Building section.

Another way to successfully integrate a bulky building into the smaller-scale fabric of a city street was to wrap it in something else. That is what Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan did in 1889 when they designed Chicago’s Auditorium Building. The 10-story structure occupied an entire city block. The huge hall, which was originally intended for opera, was buried behind a hotel and an office building.

Steinway Hall. Image credit: Museum of the City of New York.
Steinway Hall. Image credit: Museum of the City of New York.

Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore adopted a similar strategy in 1925 when they designed Steinway Hall, another piano maker’s hall. Across the street from Carnegie Hall, the narrow frontage on West 57th Street is given distinction by a three-story limestone base with a frieze containing portrait medallions of great pianist-composers including Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt. The Steinway & Sons showrooms were on the ground floor (Steinway moved out in 2014); the 250-seat hall was on the second floor, and the upper nine floors were rented offices.

Combining a concert hall with commercial space, as was the case with both the Auditorium Building and Steinway Hall, is a strategy that might benefit financially strapped orchestras today. Instead of sinking money into iconic buildings, whose aim – not always successful – is to catch the attention of big donors and the public, it might be wiser to exploit prominent downtown locations by using air rights for income-generating uses.


The first generation of prominent postwar concert halls, such as Robert Matthew’s Royal Festival Hall, in London (1951), Max Abramovitz’s Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center (1962), and Hans Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie (1963), set the pattern for future halls: freestanding object buildings surrounded by open space. The reason had less to do with the size of the hall – Chicago’s 4,300-seat Auditorium is larger than all but a handful of modern halls – than with the desire to have form follow function. Because the most important functional component of a concert hall is the auditorium, that needed to be expressed on the exterior. Most modern concert halls were windowless, so this formal strategy produced boxy or fan-shaped buildings with lots of blank walls. Later architects attempted to mitigate the deadening effect by adding colonnades (Lincoln Center), wrapping the hall in swoopy shapes (Disney Hall), or treating the surfaces (the Philharmonie is decorated with an Escher-like bird pattern). But a mammoth freestanding concert hall remains overwhelming at best, “menacing” at worst.

Royal Festival Hall in London.
Royal Festival Hall in London.
Royal Festival Hall section.
Royal Festival Hall section.

Recent examples of urban concert halls that are integrated into the urban fabric are few and far between. Benaroya Hall (1998), designed by LMN Architects, occupies a city block and is a low-key presence in downtown Seattle. Perhaps too low-key. After praising the acoustics and ambiance of the hall itself, New York Times music critic Bernard Holland characterized the exterior of the building as “functional to a fault,” as if the architecture “didn’t want to be noticed at all.” The building has a lot of glass, but there is nothing here that communicates, or celebrates, making and listening to music.

Benaroya Hall. Image credit: Andrew A. Smith.
Benaroya Hall. Image credit: Andrew A. Smith.

No one could miss the musical reference in the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, in Fort Worth, Texas: Two 48-foot-high heralding angels sculpted out of limestone adorn the façade. Because the building is shoehorned into one of the city’s tiny (200-foot-square) blocks, the angels’ gold-leafed trumpets extend over the sidewalk. The 2,500-seat hall fits snugly into the fine-grained grid of downtown Fort Worth; like an old-time downtown department store, it has its entrances at the corners. The highly modeled architectural style, unexpectedly influenced by the Viennese Secession, allows architect David M. Schwarz, AIA, to break down the scale of what might otherwise appear a lumpish building. The auditorium is shrouded on three sides by lobbies and dressing rooms, and it is only in the rear that the blank wall of the stage tower is apparent.

One of the angels that adorn Bass Hall. Image credit: Brenda Lovelace.
One of the angels that adorn Bass Hall. Image credit: Brenda Lovelace.

Making a concert hall effectively invisible has several advantages. Not only does hiding the hall solve the problem of how to fit a massive building into a dense urban fabric, a hidden auditorium can be designed with full consideration for acoustics and sight lines, knowing that the form will not have an impact on exterior appearance. Perhaps the chief plus is that the concert hall can become a part of everyday city life, rather than existing in splendid isolation on the architectural equivalent of a cultural pedestal. At a time when symphony orchestras seek to find a new and younger audience, that might be the biggest benefit of all.


Just because the Powell & Moya site is available doesn’t mean it’s the right place for a concert hall

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is reprinted here with the generous permission of Building Design, where it first appeared.

The idea of a new concert hall for the London Symphony Orchestra and other classical music producers has gained currency in the last six months, after its new conductor Simon Rattle raised it as part of his discussions about moving back to London. The imperfections of Barbican Hall as an acoustic venue seem to be widely agreed and, after some time, Boris Johnson has become a supporter of the idea. The government has agreed to fund a business case for the new venue and there is to be a favourite site.

Official opinion has coalesced around placing the concert hall into the site vacated by the Museum of London’s planned move to Smithfield’s General Market. In an urban cavity hard by the Barbican, the site is both a traffic roundabout and something of a pedestrian island, accessed by the fragmentary high-level walkaway that was to have replaced street pedestrian activity in the City in the Sixties. Location of the new hall would have to await the move of the Museum of London. With all this in mind, others have suggested an alternative venue on the north bank of the Thames at Blackfriars, opposite Tate Modern.

Now comes provocateur Léon Krier with his own proposal. Krier, a former associate of James Stirling, is perhaps best known as the designer of Poundbury for the Prince of Wales, along with a new town in Guatemala. What’s perhaps less known is that his love for classical music may exceed his love for architecture and urbanism.

Krier proposes a site redolent with both meaning and urban importance along what Terry Farrell has called the Nash Ramblas. The proposed Nash Ramblas stretches from the London Zoo through Regent’s Park down Portland Place past All Souls Church and down Regent Street to Piccadilly and thence to Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace.

Krier proposes to site the new complex, which he calls the London Music Forum, on Park Crescent at the terminus of Portland Place and the entrance to Regent’s Park. His elegant and typically lyrical site plan references both Nash and his own predilection for a playful classicism.

According to Krier, “a new concert hall, a chamber music hall, a state-of-the-art educational facility, practice rooms, restaurants and exhibition galleries can form a new urban ensemble that includes the complementary amenities required for successfully supporting the London Symphony Orchestra’s mission.” He also proposes a new Waterloo monument and a monumental portico to terminate the major vistas on the site.

With this proposal, Leon Krier reminds us that the siting of major cultural monuments is a decisive act in city making, and in the making of what Camillo Sitte called our collective memory. In linking the new music venue to Nash’s master stroke to create urban coherence out of a succession of individual London estates, Krier joins contemporary London to its ongoing narrative.

Nash’s plan for the Park Square and Crescent site, including a circle with a church at the centre
Nash’s plan for the Park Square and Crescent site, including a circle with a church at the centre.

This proposal stands in sharp contrast to the commercial opportunism that characterises most urban regeneration, which seems to deny London’s essential character in favour of a kind of internationalism driven by the needs of investment portfolios. Cultural venues are seen merely as attractions or enhancements to commercial schemes and often seem dominated by retail and speciality food.

Whatever one thinks of the architecture, and I like the way it continues a conversation with Nash and neoclassicism, Léon Krier’s urban proposal has challenged us to see the new home for the London Symphony Orchestra not just as a complex which can fill a conveniently vacant site, but as an opportunity to add a significant monument in a way that enhances London as a great city. This is what Nash did with Regent’s Park, his grand boulevard and the planning of Trafalgar Square and is what post-war planners did with the Royal Festival Hall and the South Bank. Hopefully his counterproposal will be considered as the uplifting proposition that it surely is.


An Alternate Site for London Symphony’s New Hall,
and A Long Due Act of Redemption

As an erstwhile resident of London and attendant of innumerable classical concerts, it is not the ravishing beauty of the music but the ghastliness of the Southbank and Barbican concert halls and surroundings which leaves the most enduring, albeit painful, imprint on my mind. What the urbane theater and opera life so successfully achieves in Covent Garden is hopelessly lacking in these desolate music venues. Along with countless music-lovers and performers I have wished that those buildings would disappear forever from the face of London and the music world. The tabula rasa mentality that bestowed on us those loathsome aliens should at long last be turned against its coarse products in an overdue act of redemption.

And yet, judging from the glitzy brochure “Towards a World-Class Center for Music” – with foreword by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London – an aesthetically dumb kultural nomenklatura have not finished tormenting the good citizenry with conceptual incubi. How else could the Museum of London site and the Barbican environs be considered, even for an instant, as possible locations to re-found London’s classical music life? For all its political correctness and digital newspeak, the recent initiative proposes but a repetition of the errors that landed London with the unfortunate Southbank and Barbican complexes.

If it wasn’t for the gruesome architecture, the Waterloo bridgehead and Southbank site would be superb urban locations, rivalling the Piazza San Marco in Venice and Charles Bridge in Prague. However, while the redevelopment of the sinister music and theater buildings is a liberating prospect, it is yet unthinkable for political and cultural leaders. The partisan project of listing as historical the widely un-loved buildings has instead degraded the very notion of historic and cultural heritage. Why preserve what is not worth preserving?

London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright <small srcset=
2016.” width=”700″ height=”496″> London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright 2016.
Aerial view of Regent’s Park and Park Crescent
Aerial view of Regent’s Park and Park Crescent

Meanwhile there is a choice location for London’s unrivalled musical offerings that, as far as I know, is yet unconsidered – namely, Park Square and Crescent. The fenced private reserve between Great Portland Place and Regent’s Park is served by two Underground stations and traversed by the major Marylebone/Euston Road axis. John Nash’s laconic and elegant crescent buildings make a quiet urban backdrop for a grand architectural “cymbal stroke” to resonate around London and the musical world: The London Music Forum, an inviting campus for everyone. Here, in the green “vestibule” of Regents Park, in proximity to the Royal Academy of Music, a new concert hall, a chamber music hall, a state of the art educational facility, practice rooms, restaurants and exhibition galleries can form a new urban ensemble that includes the complementary amenities required for successfully supporting the London Symphony Orchestra’s mission.

London Music Forum, by Léon Krier, copyright 2016
London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright 2016.

The main entrance and foyer, completely surrounding as a glazed-in arcade the concert hall itself, sit on a piano nobile dominating the new urban square to the south and Regents Park to the north and accessed by wide ramps and stairways through a monumental freestanding portico.

London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright 2016
London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright 2016.
John Nash's Park Crescent
John Nash’s Park Crescent

The concert hall replicates the Vienna Musikverein and Amsterdam Concertgebouw halls in size and proportions, while properly befitting the storied London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The architecture of the new forum’s buildings and paving should speak the elemental classical language with which John Nash so brilliantly set the stage in character and color. Any required 21st century technology can be elegantly embedded in the design.

London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright 2016
London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright 2016.

The new Waterloo monument and fountain, the monumental portico and the campanile are placed in the foci of the major vistas, Portland Place, Marylebone and Euston Roads, and Regent’s Park York Terrace, Broadwalk and Chester Terrace, all converging in this landmarked location. The entire space between the Nash Terraces and the music buildings is uniformly paved across Marylebone/Euston Road and shaded by the preserved venerable “Waterloo trees”.

London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright <small><figcaption id=2016.” width=”307″ height=”400″> London Music Forum, conceived and drawn by Léon Krier, copyright 2016.

The colonnades along Park Crescent will soon animate with elegant cafés and restaurants an extraordinary new civic space, that anchors at long last, London’s musical life in a sophisticated urban setting.

Astute observers will notice that this very specific vision represents a departure from the orthodoxies that have lately governed civic and urban development – and that left their indelible scars upon the face of London in both the Barbican and Southbank. While the machinery of mega-project planning is already underway to impose on Londoners yet another soul-crushing, inhumane super-structure, it would be prudent to take a step back and consider just what were the mistakes of the halls we now need to replace, what should be done differently this time, and what are the priorities that follow from a broader, long-range goal of making a truly accessible and enduring home for the London Symphony.


A New Concert Hall for London?

Sir Simon Rattle recently visited London with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is resident conductor. The orchestra’s ‘London residency’, during which it gave sold-out performances of all the Sibelius symphonies, was hosted by the City’s symphony hall at the Barbican Centre. During the course of his visit Sir Simon also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, to which he has recently been appointed as music director, and indicated that he might even return to his native country as that orchestra’s resident conductor, if a suitable venue were provided. The implication is that the Barbican Centre, currently home to the London Symphony Orchestra, is not suitable, a judgment with which almost all music lovers agree.

Barbican Centre, Image credit: Chris McKenna.
Barbican Centre, Image credit: Chris McKenna.

Built in the 1970s in the brutalist style by the firm of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, and attached to a housing complex of jagged concrete towers, the Centre is surely one of the ugliest buildings in the City of London, and one that lies athwart a once beautiful pattern of mediaeval streets as though dropped there by the Luftwaffe. It is approached from the Barbican Underground Station via a long tunnel with bare concrete walls, in which the roar of traffic makes all conversation impossible. At the far end of this tunnel a concrete platform rises from the street with the promise of an entrance – but leads only to a blank concrete wall. After a search around destroyed street corners the entrance is eventually revealed, and takes the form of a fissure in the cliff of concrete, leading downwards into Nibelheim. Glass doors and blank walls open at last onto a vast cave without orientation, in which visitors are entirely dependent on signs to direct them. You can wander in this shapeless space for many minutes before discovering the concert hall, which you enter through obscure doors in occluded corners. In its narrow concrete amphitheatre you can then listen to music whose beauty is such a reproach to the surroundings that you are not surprised that the acoustics seem designed expressly to muffle the sound.

Wigmore Hall, London.
Wigmore Hall, London. The frontage on Wigmore Street is very narrow, just the width of the pediment over the canopy. It was built in 1901 by the German piano company Bechstein as a showcase, and has excellent acoustics. It became the Wigmore Hall in 1917 and is a leading hall for recitals and chamber musicl. Image credit: David Hawgood.

The Barbican Centre is not the only offensive concert hall in London. The pattern began with the Royal Festival Hall, designed by the modernist Sir Leslie Martin for the South Bank of the Thames as part of the Festival of Britain ‘renewal’ in the 1950s. Like the Barbican the Royal Festival Hall is a concrete shell, disconnected from its surroundings, and dependent on a work of clearance that has left nothing standing of the pre-existing urban fabric. Because it can be reached by a footbridge from the comparatively unspoiled North Bank of the river the Hall remains connected to the life of the city, and has given rise to its own community of washed up Bohemians, who congregate in the untidy downstairs bar. For all that, its obtrusive form and dead acoustic have for half a century prompted Londoners to ask themselves whether concert halls have to be visitors from alien planets, and whether there might not be a way of continuing what was once the accepted custom, of building them as part of the city. The Royal Albert Hall is in no way out of place on the edge of Kensington Park, and the beautiful Wigmore Hall is just another terraced house in Wigmore Street. Could we not build like that today, so that the concert-hall is restored to its rightful place – the place that it should share with the theatre and the restaurant – at the centre of urban life?

Royal Albert Hall, London.
Royal Albert Hall, London. Image credit:

Two obstacles lie before that commendable goal: modernist architecture, and the architects who design it. From the outset of the Modern Movement it has been dogmatically assumed that the form and situation of a building is determined by its function, and that the interior of the building is therefore what matters. Maybe the exterior should express the function, or maybe it should in some way stand out from its surroundings, so as to announce that function or (preferably) to declare the genius and originality of the architect. But it is the thing that goes on inside the building that matters, whether or not it is integrated into the surrounding life. Hence, when the building performs its original function badly – with a dead acoustic, as at the Barbican and the Festival Hall –people become painfully conscious of its alien character. The acoustics of the Albert Hall are by no means perfect. But who objects to it? With its Pantheon dome, its classical orders and its terra cotta frieze it is a smiling presence in the life of the street and the park. For that reason it is also adaptable. You can use the Albert Hall for reunions, dances, lectures, stage performances as well as for concerts, and if ever people ceased to need a concert hall on the edge of Kensington Park it would surely serve almost as well as a University auditorium, a mosque or a temple to some future deity.

Boston Symphony Hall, Boston.
Boston Symphony Hall, Boston.

But here is where we have to reckon with the other great obstacle to building an acceptable symphony hall in a real city, which is the modernist architect. When Adolf van Gendt began work on Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in 1883, he was working on open pasture outside the city. But he built in the accepted classical style of the day, as though designing a city hall, with walls that could line a street without oppressing it. In due course the city grew to meet his building, which now stands proud amid classical and baroque facades, a citizen among citizens. Around the hall has grown a lively quarter of the city, and the cafés and restaurants in the neighbouring streets are popular not least because they give a view of this serene and dignified building. It is perhaps worth remarking that the Concertgebouw is one of three symphony halls – the others being the Vienna Musikverein and the Boston Symphony – which are noted for their superlative acoustics, and all three are built in the classical style, the last by McKim Meade and White, who took the trouble to consult the physicist Wallace Clement Sabine as their acoustical engineer.

Philharmonie de Paris.
Philharmonie de Paris, Image credit: Copyleft.

Unlike Stanford White modernist architects are singularly reluctant to adopt a style that fits in to the urban fabric. Typically they wish their building to stand out, to attract attention to itself as a visitor from the future, whether by negating the lines and details of the surrounding streets, as in Baltimore, or by standing stark and isolated in a park, like the new symphony hall designed by Jean Nouvel in Paris’s Parc de la Villette. Nouvel’s building, now the subject of dispute on account of its cost overrun (and what modernist project has ever stayed within budget?), has the appearance of a flying saucer, though with too many knobs and struts to navigate the dense atmosphere of our planet, with the result that it has crash-landed in a Park in Paris. Whether it will work acoustically has yet to be definitively proven. But that it does not work as architecture, still less as part of the world’s greatest city, is immediately apparent. Only because it is in a park does it wreak no havoc on its surroundings, and it is inconceivable that the neighbouring streets, were they too to invade the greenery, should incorporate it as one of their neighbours.

St. Luke's Church, London.
St. Luke’s Church, London. This church was closed by the Diocese of London in 1964, and it lay empty and unwanted for almost 40 years. The roof was removed and the shell become a ruin. It was finally converted for the London Symphony Orchestra and now serves as a concert hall, rehearsal and recording space, and an educational resource. Image credit: Chris Talbot.

This point is, it seems to me, absolutely vital if the symphony hall is to have a real future. The modern concert venue is designed with only two things in view: to create a space uniquely designed for a kind of laboratory listening, and to announce to the world the arrival of yet another architect of genius. The combination of inner sterility and outer megalomania essentially cuts the venue off from the life around it. The resulting hall is not part of the city but stands in opposition to it, defiant testimonial to a dying culture. In this it also contributes, as does the Barbican Centre, to urban decay. Who wants to linger in those destroyed streets, to take time out beneath an aggressive concrete overhang, to look in vain for a coffee shop or a bookstore in the shadow of a building that looks as dead on the outside as it sounds to the ear within? Only if we wake up to the fact that this kind of modernist architecture is the enemy of the city will we begin to build the concert venues that we need – the venues, namely, which attract people to their neighbourhood, and provide a hub around which an artistic culture can again begin to grow.

Of course, architects will object to the suggestion. Modernist buildings are expensive and produce monstrous fees for their designers. They are also unadaptable, and therefore constantly in need of expensive adjustments, on which their architects usually have a lien. For this reason a struggling arts organization cannot normally afford a modernist concert hall, and would do far better to take over some existing building, such as a disused church or meeting hall, so as to adapt it for the purpose. Such, indeed, has been the normal practice in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra using the beautiful 18th century church of St Lukes in Old Street for its chamber concerts and its educational programs.

Moreover, large modernist buildings are almost invariably exercises in branding: They declare that their architects belong among the stars. Hence everybody has heard of Jean Nouvel, whose Wikipedia article is spread over two pages of uncritical hype, while nobody has heard of Adolf van Ghent, who has no Wikipedia article at all.

Cooper Union New Academic Building
Cooper Union New Academic Building at 41 Cooper Square near Astor Place in the East Village of Manhattan, New York City. Image credit: Beyond My Ken.

The problem of adaptability is not confined to the design of concert halls. From its inception, modernism has been a style against the city, and not a style that seeks to be a part of it. This is apparent in Le Corbusier’s original plan for Paris, which involved demolishing the city North of the Seine, and replacing it with glass towers amid sterile squares of trampled grass. It is apparent in the Centre Pompidou, built by Presidential decree, and which involved demolishing street upon street of classical houses in the Marais and replacing them with a collection of steel pipes and girders in infantile colours. It is apparent in the huge kitchen appliance dumped by the architectural firm Morphosis in New York’s Cooper Square.

All such projects show the extent to which our delicate urban fabric, built over many years in styles that exist because they are publicly accepted and adaptable to our changing uses, is under threat from the new architectural forms. These are usually designed for the specific use of a single client, and designed at a computer. Their shapes are dictated purely from within – they have no facades and no real attempt is made to fit them to their surroundings or to make them adaptable to any other use than the one that first required them. Eventually, when our city streets are lined with magnified hair-dryers, iPads, refrigerators, computer gadgets and food processors, all surviving awkwardly from a use that has vanished, people will wake up to the fact that the city has disappeared. A few lonely souls will drive in of an evening to take their seat inside a streamlined kettle, there to hear the strains of a Mahler symphony bouncing along the concrete walls. But most people will stay at home in the suburbs, preferring phones in their ears to live music, when live music must be reached by travelling across a desert of decaying gadgets to a comfortless kettle in a moonscape.

Civic Hall, Cayala.
Civic Hall in Cayala, designed by Richard Economakis of the University of Notre Dame. Image credit: Driehaus Museum.

All is not lost, however. The New Urbanist movement, and the emergence of schools devoted to real architecture such as that at the University of Notre Dame, are sources of hope. And there are growing numbers of architects willing to take on big projects in a style that can be integrated into the fabric of a liveable city. I think of Leon Krier, principal architect of the Prince of Wales’s development at Poundbury, of Quinlan Terry, whose work on the restoration of Williamsburg provides a model for American urbanism, of John Simpson, architect of a new concert hall at Eton College, of Pedro Godoy and Maria Sanchez, graduates of the Notre Dame architecture school and architects of the impressive New Town Cayala in Guatemala. There is no longer an excuse to think that modernism is the only style available, or that the aesthetic of a symphony hall should require it to stand out from its surroundings, and not to belong to them. The time has therefore come for a real concert venue, one built into the city, and not against it like that at London’s Barbican. Such a symphony hall, built in the classical style, need not involve the acres of demolition and clearance required by the modernist gadgets. It can be built behind a façade that respects the fabric of the city, as the old theatres were built, and if, against our hopes, it fails to revive the concert-going habit, it will change its use quietly and inoffensively, remaining as a restaurant venue, a university or – best of all – a school of architecture, devoted to the ideals that caused it to be built.


London Hall-ing: A New Home for the London Symphony Orchestra

Hot on the heels of what was surely disappointing news for Maris Jansons and Munich’s musical community – that, despite their protracted efforts, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra will not be getting a much needed new hall – came the triumphant announcement that Sir Simon Rattle, appointed as London Symphony Orchestra’s new chief, has secured a commitment from the city’s mayor to seriously investigate the possibility of a new concert hall for London’s top ensemble. Rattle has brought his political capital to bear right out of the gates – for good reason and while all eyes are on him. Despite the loud assertions of pundits who prefer to question his motives, this isn’t just a case of the new music director throwing his weight around. Sir Simon Rattle is instead pointing out the elephant in the music room: London, a concert capital with an embarrassment of riches measured in great orchestras and visiting performers, has somehow managed in all its centuries of legendary activity not to erect a single great concert venue the likes of Carnegie Hall, The Royal Concertgebouw, Musikverein, or even anything approaching the grandeur of St George’s Hall in Liverpool or Usher Hall in Edinburgh.

the Barbican Center
The Barbican Center was voted London’s “ugliest tall building” again in 2014. Is this a fitting home for the London Symphony Orchestra? Image credit: damo1977.

Each of the city’s major orchestras, besides being important and accomplished in its own right, supports and nourishes the rich ecosystem that is London’s classical music community. We can draw an analogy to the many museums in London – and we’ll do so despite the increasingly popular, pejorative reading of the word museum. Here we are using it as a wondrous term, connoting a sanctuary for our vast and beloved tradition. The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) is like the British Museum. It is the repository of the best knowledge collected within the lifetimes and experience of its musicians, arguably standing a head above others in stature for its longevity of scope, its relationships with the world’s greatest conductors, and the breadth of its output. For the LSO not to have a proper and fitting home is akin to the British Museum existing only as a traveling collection.

London's Royal Albert Hall
London’s Royal Albert Hall.

So what, then, of the concert halls that London does have? The Barbican Center is a colossal, concrete bunker and the Royal Albert Hall, though storied and beautiful, has no acoustics to speak of. The Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Center, meanwhile, combines the most lamentable attributes of both. Certainly, musical life in London could and would go on without a new hall. But so will many of the institutions and traditions we treasure continue to sputter along despite our neglect until tarnish and inertia overtake them and we become accustomed to decayed and hollow versions of the vibrant and living things we once loved. Why should London’s most prized assets, including both the LSO and the city’s musical life itself, be left just to “go on” this way? A proper concert hall represents an important piece of the city’s cultural puzzle, still waiting to be solved, and, equally meaningful both to London and its famed orchestra, an opportunity for renewal.


So, if we were to agree about the necessity of such a grand project, what would we build and where would we build it? Is it too early to even open such a discussion? Certainly not – for, as we have often seen, the political jockeying to win such a project begins immediately and dominates everything that happens behind the scenes. Too often the end result of these Machiavellian maneuverings leaves many disappointed observers wondering, “All that money…how in the world did they come up with that?”

At the Future Symphony Institute, we have come to understand that the most important consideration for a concert hall, beyond its acoustics, is the relationship it establishes between the orchestra, its patrons, and their community. The concert hall is the orchestra’s home – the space into which it invites the public as its guests, the setting in which it extends its hospitality and friendship. But it is also the face with which the orchestra looks out upon its neighbors and through which it participates in the conversation of settlement that invests a place with the meaning of home. Its physical presence creates an immediate and lasting impression that communicates directly to the community just what the orchestra believes about what it has to offer and what it perceives to be its role in the life and conversation of the community. For this reason a concert hall, in our estimation, can be either a major driver of or a serious impediment to demand for classical * concerts.


Wiener Musikverein, Image credit: Wolf-Dieter Grabner
Wiener Musikverein, Image credit: Wolf-Dieter Grabner.

Home is an expression of both who we are and where we belong. We mark the places where we belong – the spaces we call home – with those things that reflect how we understand ourselves, who we aspire to be, and how we want others to know us. And we gather these clues, consciously or not, whenever we enter someone’s home – gather the myriad, little, aesthetic decisions and with them assemble a portrait, however astute or incomplete, of the person who made them. The privilege of being invited into a person’s home is the privilege of glimpsing their soul. In a very real way, the hall is the orchestra’s home; everything about it and within it should attest to the orchestra’s deepest convictions about itself and about classical music.

For instance, while it’s something of a fad to build halls that resemble spaceships, there is nevertheless a general lie and an injustice in doing so. And that’s because classical music does not come to us from outer space, or even from the future. It is not created by robots or by alien beings we cannot approach or begin to understand. It comes to us instead from a very long and very human tradition – from people we would recognize, people we can approach and come to know intimately through their music. It’s not slick, plastic, or high-tech. On the contrary, it still relies on a legacy of meticulous, human craftsmanship and unplugged, acoustic instruments. The hall should be the embodiment of classical music’s character: it should above all feel human, feel familiar, feel knowable, and feel intimate as often as it feels exalted.

St. George's Hall in Liverpool
St. George’s Hall in Liverpool

Likewise, to reduce classical music simply to pretty sounds accumulated accidentally over the centuries is to ignore the fact that it revolves around ideals of beauty drawn from the innate order of the universe, and that we recreate that order through music painted on a canvas of time. It’s as great a contradiction to bury classical music in a disorienting and convoluted labyrinth – however shiny or pretty – as it is to stage it in a spaceship. By building such a home for itself, whether it realizes it or not, the orchestra risks suggesting to its patrons that its music is more complicated than it needs to be and – even worse – that they might not “get it.” Every little aesthetic clue in and about the hall inevitably tells its guests not only what the orchestra thinks about itself, or what it wants them to think about classical music, but also – and perhaps most importantly – what the orchestra thinks of them.

Dining inside Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw
Dining inside Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw.

A hall is more than a holding pen and an acoustic space. It is a place in which its guests, too, must come to feel that they belong. Though they will likely never come to know each member of the orchestra, they will nonetheless feel like they know the orchestra as a whole – as if it is a friend to whom they relate, and with whom they while away their evening hours in a sort of intimate communion. In the symphony hall, guests sense the orchestra as a neighbor into whose home they have been invited. The hospitality they experience there can inspire a friendship and gratitude that connects directly to a sense of belonging. And an orchestra can only be successful to the extent that those friendships and that gratitude manifest themselves in the charitable donations of patrons and in the pride and enthusiasm with which they, in turn, offer the orchestra’s hospitality to their own friends and neighbors – especially to those who have not yet come to know this sense of belonging in the symphony hall. The most important contribution a proper hall might make to an orchestra’s success is its propensity to cultivate deep and lasting friendships.


The face of the Royal Concertgebouw.
The dignified and approachable face of Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw.

Every act of architecture is an enduring act of imposition wherever it’s committed. Whether a monument, a hall, a home, or an office, every building becomes part of the community upon which it’s imposed. While not everyone will find reason to engage directly with it, they will nevertheless live in its shadow. They must inevitably despair or delight in its company forever after – or at least as long as it remains standing among them. It’s the realization born of this fact, the realization that we’re all “in it together”, that tempers our adolescent urges toward defiant self-expression.

Just as the youth, who thinks little of imposing his window-rattling, musical misadventures upon his neighbors, eventually in adulthood comes to appreciate the reciprocal consideration that obliges him not to offend his neighbors with his noise, so we become sensitive to the plight of our neighbors the more completely we understand our situation to be bound up with theirs in the identity of community. This is the foundation for the manners that make good neighbors. And this is what makes the homeowners’ associations of America’s transient suburbs as perennial as they are reviled: they are an attempt to enforce good manners in the absence of genuine neighborliness from which the sentiment naturally springs.

Old Quebec City
The neighborliness of settlement is visible in this square in Old Quebec City.

Our home is for us a private sanctuary, but it is also part of a larger, collective sanctuary. And we feel this larger place as home too, inhabited as it is by our many neighbors, probably none of whom we chose. In this larger place called home – in our community – we are only one voice of many. And each building, like each neighbor, looks out upon the community with its own face and participates in the ongoing conversation of settlement with its own voice. Like neighbors themselves, these buildings do not always echo each other or even agree, but because they are architectural reflections of their very human subjects, their differences too are tempered by membership in the community. They attune to each other and relate to each other in the community’s natural and never-ending process of becoming home. The result is an organic harmony of individual voices, and this is what we sense in the world’s oldest and most beautiful cities and neighborhoods.

This should be especially interesting to us when considering the case of concert halls. The blending of a chorus of individual voices into harmonious polyphony is precisely the hallmark and heritage of our musical tradition. It would be the most natural thing imaginable for an orchestra to build for itself a hall that sits comfortably in its community, shoulder-to-shoulder with its neighbors, that participates in the act of settlement by accepting its role in the compromise and conversation that makes a place home and strangers neighbors. But how often do we see halls built like this today?

LA's Disney Concert Hall
LA’s Disney Concert Hall may just perfectly reflect its city’s character.

It seems as though the adolescent obsession with individualism now nearly always trumps neighborliness. Too often the modern hall is designed as a solipsistic monolith that rises faceless from a shallow sea of concrete somewhere off the shore of its community. It shuns its neighbors – it does not participate and does not relate. It does not invite the passerby inside with welcoming familiarity that reads as approachability. In fact, should the passerby wander into its remote realm, it’s far too likely that it won’t even be clear to him where the entrance might be. The modernist hall stands defiantly as a foreboding monument to its architect’s ego, and perhaps to the colossal blundering of the planning committees who mistook this emphatic statement of irrelevance for its literal opposite.

But a concert hall is not built for planning committees or for architects. It is built for the ordinary people who will become its neighbors, the music patrons who will become its friends, and the orchestra for whom it will become a face. It must communicate the inspiration and the achievement of the composers and musicians that live within it, but it must speak of those things in the local language and in tones of civility. It must enfold not only concert spaces of varying size, but also spaces for communion, where people can come together and discover neighbors, and spaces for education, where they can come together and discover music. This last point deserves to be stressed: given the incredible responsibility orchestras have to impart their legacy to future generations, it’s imperative that their halls should enfold facilities that reflect both the central and permanent nature of their educational role in the community.

Philharmonie Berlin
Philharmonie Berlin.

One more word on the idea of the concert hall as the orchestra’s face: It is important for the LSO to remember that a concert hall really does become an orchestra’s identity – what we might otherwise called “brand” in the commercial world. In the case of orchestras, branding is often a bit of an abstraction since visually one orchestra isn’t very distinct from the next in the way that a Lamborghini is distinct from a BMW. They have logos, to be sure, but since concerts aren’t purchased in stores off a shelf, the logo doesn’t become invested with the weight and power associated with physical goods. In some cases, the music director becomes the “face” or identity of a group. But that becomes a problem when the conductor moves on or even passes on. For instance, Herbert von Karajan was synonymous with the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) for decades, and despite the equally important leadership of his successor Claudio Abaddo, the orchestra was challenged to assert its autonomy and identity through another focal point following its contentious breakup withKarajan. In recent decades, the BPO has adopted its own iconic 1962 Cold War era hall by Hans Sharoun as its face. And now that is precisely how it is known. We can cite other examples where mentioning the orchestra calls to mind immediately its hall and creates for us a vivid association with the character that we recognize in it: Boston Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, LA Philharmonic.


Philadelphia's Kimmel Center
Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.

What we will also point out, probably to the consternation of dear Sir Simon’s modernist, downright futuristic leanings, is that LSO’s identity is wrapped up in its connection to a rich and storied past – a great tradition stretching back to the British Empire. There are many great orchestras in London. What sets LSO apart is its pedigree, its traditions embodying the collective experience of having played with so many of the world’s greatest conductors. It is, as I said, the British museum of London orchestras, not the Tate Modern. Therefore, it would do well to position itself among its true peers – Vienna, Amsterdam, and Boston, with their profound connections to the history of classical music. (Philadelphia could have been included here, except that it abandoned its connection to its illustrious past when it moved into the Kimmel Center – what a passerby might for all the world suppose is just another corporate office building on Market street. Philadelphia is a cautionary tale.) To this end, it is most regrettable that Edwin Lutyens never designed for LSO a concert hall that would have rightfully stood among the other great halls of the world.


London is a city beloved by residents and cultural tourists for both what it has retained and what it has become over the centuries. But sadly, what the air raids of WWII didn’t manage, the modernists are now pulling off with the banishment of traditional architecture. Yet one would be severely challenged to find a tourist who came to London to see the Gherkin, the Barbican, or Southbank. Nor is it at all surprising or unusual that we see in the choices people make about where to live in London that traditional areas are much more desirable and therefore much more valuable than the cold, faceless clumps of glass and steel that one always comes across with disappointment when walking through town. Even the modernist architects, as architect Léon Krier memorably points out, usually live in gorgeous, traditional homes, leaving their glass and steel monstrosities for everyone else. Public vice, private virtue, as he says.

Inside the Royal Concertgebouw.
Inside the Royal Concertgebouw.

We can imagine at this point that LSO will have a choice between two halls: let’s say either a Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam or a Walt Disney Hall of Los Angeles. That may seem like an absurd scenario – a false choice, really – but as long as traditional architecture remains a clear and viable option and modernist “starchitects” continue to be driven by an adolescent urge to challenge and shock everyone, then that might be the very scenario we are looking at. That brings us to another important consideration. It may be crushing to many in the modernist Kulturekampf, but the ideal source for funding for London’s new hall will likely be private. And for that to happen, there will have to be a careful alignment of branding.

For example, should a bank like Barclays or UBS, who each have a long track record of sponsorship of classical music ventures, be interested in the project, they would undoubtedly require a building that came with a great deal of prestige attached to it, and one that was meant to be permanent. George Szell used to disparage “contemporary” music by dismissing it with a laugh, calling it “temporary” music. There is always truth in a joke, however, and so it is in the case of contemporary architecture, too. Feats of modernist architecture are usually built with the idea of standing for fifty years – an act of mercy on the one hand, and an act kicking the can down the road for the next generation on the other. But traditionally designed and constructed halls, built as they are with the architectural language and techniques that have endured throughout the ages, last for a very long time. They are meant as permanent places for a permanent music.


We are greatly encouraged by the recent decision made by the Royal College of Music to engage John Simpson for its expansion and renovation. Simpson’s plans are beautifully designed to enhance the original and historic Victorian building rather than repudiate it with a glass dagger as is so popular with today’s raging, international, design fashionistas (see Dresden’s Museum of Military History or the Louvre’s Pyramid if somehow nothing comes to mind). There are also wonderfully thoughtful and successful halls being designed today by David Schwarz’s award-winning firm in Washington DC. We hope to see more of them.

In subsequent writings here, we will look at the practical implications that arise from these issues and we’ll examine others, including the question of a building site, as they unfold. More importantly, we’ll look for the insight of those who know these challenges better than we. We are here to argue not only that both the LSO and London itself need and deserve a new concert hall that is fitting for the future of the city’s prestigious musical life, but that they need to imagine it as a place that makes sense for the sake of its own success – that it should be a beautiful and harmonious part of the face and community of London, not a thumb in its eye and a middle finger to everyone else.


* Here, as always, we use the term “classical” with a small c to denote the long tradition of Western art music. When we refer specifically to the music composed during the European age of “Enlightenment”, we will use the term “Classical” with a capital C.


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