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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE HALL AS A HOME
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.
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.
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 HALL AS A FACE
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.