Architecture historian Victoria Newhouse begins her new book Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera House and Concert Halls ($50; The Monacelli Press, April 2012) with an insightful and thorough history of performance spaces, starting with the Epidaurus theater. Built in the third-century B.C. in Greece, the building type is ancient and ubiquitous, and she traces the form's descendents through opera houses and concert halls, illuminating 2,000 years of architecture history. The introductory chapter also serves as the diving board into the case studies that follow, beginning with an up-close history of the recent overhaul of New York's Lincoln Center and proceeding to halls throughout the U.S., Europe and China, concluding with projects yet on screen.
The modern opera house, specifically, still harkens back to the horseshoe theaters in 17th-century Venice, whose type persisted through Charles Garnier’s spectacular Paris Opéra of 1875, itself operatic, all the way through to today. (One exception: In 1876, Wagner altered the tradition with the fan-shaped hall of his radically ascetic and democratic Festspielhaus at Bayreuth.)
Concert halls follow a parallel tradition, but in the footsteps of the acoustic shoeboxes of concert halls such as Vienna’s Musikverin of 1870. After World War II, the transformative, so-called “vineyard” hall by Hans Scharoun at the Berlin Philharmonic—related to theaters in the round—added another paradigm to the small acoustic repertoire that includes the box, horsehoe, and fan.
More recently, attitudes are migrating toward a more intense, intimate, and participatory relationship between audience and performer. This has fostered greater informality, especially in smaller venues. Technology has further dimensionalized the persistently conservative form with digitally adaptable acoustics and visualizaions that add image to sound. Throughout her book, Newhouse discusses the reciprocal relationship between “composer and cathedral”—sound and space—and writes that neither should dominate at the expense of the other. Each should serve the other: “The two are inseparable,” she concludes.
After writing the well-received Art and the Power of Placement (2005) and Towards a New Museum (2007), you changed subjects from architecture that houses art to architecture that houses music. Why the switch?
First of all, because of the incredible number worldwide of new concert halls—with 50 new halls in China alone. And when I started to investigate, many were very different from what they had been before. The renovation of Lincoln Center, with its emphasis on glass, transparency, and a new relationship to the street, was a big impetus.
You spent four years on Site and Sound, but it could have been a lifetime given the quantity of halls worldwide. How did you contain and define your subject, and why so much emphasis on China?
I figured Disney Hall, which opened in 2003, was the turning point into the present, and I had followed that project from the ground up. And China is on everybody’s mind. I wasn’t expecting enormous aesthetic qualities there. I was interested in the cultural, political, and professional dimension of how the halls would be used, and how they’re built. Beyond the social dimensions of the Chinese buildings, I was looking primarily for quality—for buildings that had some architectural merit. And I kept to the buildings that I’ve visited: I never write about a building I haven’t seen.
It’s unusual for an architectural historian to factor acoustics into her assessments, yet you do consistently. Why?
I had noticed how acoustics and architecture have been discussed separately, and one of my objectives was to try to integrate both considerations. And the study of acoustics has changed dramatically over the last decade because of new modeling software, which has changed the game and helped acoustics tremendously. Now auralizations are data driven (though the model is never foolproof). I discussed the halls with acousticians, with whom I often attended concerts.
Can you explain the frequent disparity between adventurous exteriors and conservative interiors that you cite in your book?
The Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta is the famous example, with the roof you can walk on. But the inside could have been designed 300 years ago, and the acoustics are not very exciting. Every single architect with a new concert hall commission takes the first plane to the Musikverien, but I heard Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct one of his pieces there, and the sound was soggy; the brass didn’t come across. There’s a new opera house and concert hall in Muscat, Oman, and the symmetries and coffered ceiling are very reminiscent of the Musikverien. The clients wanted it to be traditional aesthetically, to take as little risk as possible.
How have expectations and values recently changed toward houses of music?
Besides the advent of food and electronic visualizations in halls, and the occasional design for spatialized music, the buzzword now is intimacy. Opera houses are smaller, with few exceptions. People want a participatory relationship between players and the audience, which is easier to achieve, for example, with a vineyard layout. In New York, when Die Soldaten played at the Armory, the bleachers moved on rails back and forth as the program progressed. The director Peter Sellars talks about audience engagement, communal participation, and exchange in shared, vibrant spaces. Bob Wilson is doing it. They’re trying to break out of the box. Greater informality is increasing intimacy.