Gehry at Boulez Hall
Thomas Rosenthal Gehry at Boulez Hall

Frank Gehry, FAIA, has outlasted many architectural labels over the decades, but none has endured and captured him more completely than a simple, old-fashioned term: “humanist.” The architect who upended architecture by channeling art into architecture, designing fractured and then flowing forms with an able assist from the computer, aims at creating buildings that embrace their occupants—buildings with friendly body language that are, he says, “warm to the touch.” He calibrates materials, proportions, and forms to be welcoming and comforting. It’s really very basic.

His complex formal means to simple ends have, perhaps, thrown off the scent for innumerable writers trying to explain him, but the aims are more straightforward and humble than what many theorists suppose.

No Gehry project makes his underlying humanism more explicit than the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, Germany, which opened in early March—a 683-seat concert hall dedicated to the architect’s longtime friend, the French avant-garde composer, who died in 2016. The building’s wraparound embrace adds to the intimate dimensions of the chamber and the feel-good, honey-colored warmth of the hardwood floor and the Douglas fir that panels every inch of the walls and ceiling. The chamber looks and resonates like the inside of an instrument: It's a big cello.

Volker Kreidler

Even more fundamental to its Renaissance humanism is the placement of the human body in the room. The design is a version of da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” transposed into a plan. Gehry effectively unpins the artist’s outstretched human figure from the circle and square, casts him as a conductor, and places him at the center of a floor plan of spinning ellipses shifted off axis within the existing, four-story masonry shell of a 1950s building.

Da Vinci’s ideal man, exemplifying the proportional basis for buildings and embodying the harmonious mathematical proportions of the universe, was the measure of all things—a humanistic expression that in its radiant idealism represents the creative potential of the human mind. Gehry’s configuration posits a related humanistic ideal: man centered in a sphere of musical intelligence activated and motivated by the architect’s moving, provocative space. If the conductor or musician is no longer pinned like a butterfly to the square and circle, the square and circle are no longer fixed either. Gehry’s ideal figure moves in a space that itself moves, the ellipses turning, rotating in lyrical, languorous, rhythmic curves. He has updated fixed Renaissance space with Einsteinian space, suited like Boulez's music for Einstein’s century.

Volker Kreidler

Pierre Boulez Saal is the auditorium and stage for the new Barenboim-Said Music Academy, created by the Argentine-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said. The academy is a cultural object lesson that brings together Israeli and Arab students (as well as students from other backgrounds) to make music in collaborations intended to dissolve divisions between cultures. Ninety students are selected each year for the four-year undergraduate program and the one- to two-year graduate program, which include the study of all orchestral instruments, piano, conducting, and composition. The programs are designed to bridge intensive music performance studies with a strong curriculum in the humanities. The academy occupies most of the former warehouse, and students share the Boulez Saal with other groups, including the Seville-based West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Founded in 1999 by Barenboim and Said, the orchestra brings Israeli Jews and Middle Eastern Arabs together for concerts under the same baton, and it inspired the creation of the academy.

Berlin’s imposing planning rules, with their emphasis on traditional, street-wall, stone-clad urbanism, have relegated Gehry’s most interesting efforts here to the interior of the project. In 2000, the architect built a free-form conference center, its organic curves recalling a horsehead, in the courtyard of his relatively staid DZ Bank on Pariser Platz, next to the Brandenburg Gate. Similarly, Boulez Hall was created inside a historically designated classicized structure, formerly a depot for stage sets for the Berlin State Opera nearby. Though only a warehouse, Gehry couldn’t alter the exterior, a crisp masonry building symmetrically massed around a dominant center.

The exterior of the building, which previously served as a warehouse for the nearby Berlin State Opera
Volker Kreidler The exterior of the building, which previously served as a warehouse for the nearby Berlin State Opera

The auditorium occupies one entire wing of the larger academy, which was designed by Berlin architect Hans Merz, who initially invited Gehry into the project. Confined to a large, open space bounded by four walls, Gehry and project designer Craig Webb confronted perhaps the purest, most basic of all architectural problems: the single room, architecture’s ground zero. Unlike so many other projects, where Gehry scribbles façades that define the building, the architect worked first on the plan, scribbling a vortex of circling ellipses turning within the confines of the hall. Afterwards, he presented Barenboim a more conventional proscenium scheme as a point of design departure for other studies, but Barenboim wanted to work with the stormy ellipses as the starting point.

Gehry distilled his vortex into two ellipses circling the central “stage.” The axis of each ellipse differs from the other and from the larger shell, setting the whole space into a turning movement dynamized by the streamlined contours of the elliptical shapes. The upper ellipse, a balcony with two rows of seats, rises and descends as it turns.

Courtesy Pierre Boulez Saal

The centripetal configuration complicated the task for the acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, of Nagata Acoustics, forcing him to move sound omni-directionally. Most acousticians prefer a box, but this box wasn’t organized with the stage at one end. Toyota designed the acoustics so that sound mixes as it envelops the room and the audience, requiring Gehry to detach the balcony from the perimeter walls so that sound passes behind the balcony from the floor to the ceiling. Gehry warms the room visually through his use of wood, which in turn warms the sound psychologically, a lesson the architect learned from Disney Hall in the 1990s.

Putting the musicians in the pit of a bowl inside a box raised the issue of directionality. With the orchestra at the head of a hall, the orchestra plays straight toward the audience, where sounds blend. The oval that Barenboim preferred in Gehry’s centripetal configuration forces the conductor to position the musicians opportunistically, calculating how any given piece with a designated number of musicians playing different instruments will play in the hall to the audience.

Barenboim, who has said that "great music is the result of concentrated listening," wants to encourage the ear to think by linking sensations, thoughts, and emotions to hearing. The new hall allows him to re-invent the relationship between musician, music, and audience, to engage the whole listener (and even the musicians) via sight, sound, position, and attitude: the elliptical geometry creates an inclusionary community of listeners and players in a heightened state of attention.

Barenboim conducting
Monika Rittershaus Barenboim conducting

In the inaugural concert, for example, the soprano, clarinetist, and pianist performing Schubert faced in each of three different directions. The sounds of one performer dominated the trio for a third of the audience, while the acoustics of the hall compensated, blending sounds around the dominant voice. In larger ensembles, Barenboim conducted from one side of the ellipse and then moved to the other side for another piece, so that the audience could experience the conductor as the orchestra does: face on. In other pieces, a soloist or small ensemble stood at either end of the ellipse on the balcony, playing to the whole room.

Barenboim put the hall through its paces, changing configurations, testing a catalog of sounds, from Shubert and Mozart to Boulez and Berg. A coiled, intense, ferocious conductor and pianist, Barenboim brought some of the pieces to sustained climaxes that were delivered to the audience raw, nothing separating it from the sound, certainly not distance or formality.

Volker Kreidler

The magic of Gehry’s room is an intimacy couched in the glowing warmth of wood. The existing shell limited the size of the hall, and to deepen the dimensional intimacy, Gehry compressed the space with the ellipses, creating a centripetal space that seeks the center rather than the edges or either of its two long ends. No one on the ground floor is farther than five rows, or 50 feet, from the pitch. The audience can see the notes on the page, even the white of the conductor’s eyes.

The physical proximity yields a transparency of sound that intensifies the musical experience. In its closeness to the musicians and even the conductor, the audience feels a part of the orchestra and experiences the sound and the musicians as though from the inside. With the spatial intimacy, the immediacy of the musical immersion opens up a mental space in the listener that encourages engagement. More than just a beautiful space, the architecture is pro-active, delivering the audience to the music and the conductor through an armature that both intensifies musical experience and sets up conditions conducive for what Barenboim calls the “thinking ear.”

Volker Kreidler

Boulez had always advocated “salles modulables,” changeable spaces open to adaptation, to encourage the freest interpretation of the music and to provoke the strongest engagement with the audience. Pursuing that idea, Gehry designed the hall so that it could be reconfigured into a conventional hall with the stage at one end. The bleacher seating on the lower level can collapse into the wall, to liberate virtually the whole ground floor for seating.

Volker Kreidler

Surprising for a Gehry building is the visual tranquility, an equanimity that might be attributed to the understated work of a master confident of what he’s doing, knowing just how much to say before stopping. Gehry tamed what is really a devilishly difficult, doubly curved geometry into apparent simplicity. With the wood, he dials up the emotional temperature of what is, fundamentally, a mathematical topological abstraction.

But the design also reflects an equanimity beyond the confidence of the architect. This well-tempered environment has been group orchestrated by a conductor, composer, architect, and theorist—Barenboim, Boulez, Gehry, and Said—in a collaboration of friendship whose deep agreement across disciplines resonates through the entire project. The whole endeavor—program, school, architecture, mission—is both humanitarian and humanist, from concept to execution, a multi-disciplined gesamtkunstwerk orchestrated by four towering individuals with a common cause.

The collaboration is not just artistic but cultural in its goal of encouraging cooperation and fostering mutual understanding among musicians of different, sometimes conflicting, cultures. The unconventional elliptical solution positions the sentient human being at the radiant core of an enlightened, inspirational, and necessary enterprise.

The initial concert in early March rang with the purity and purpose of a humanitarian goal in a humanist space. Edward Said once observed, “Humanism is the only, and I would go as far as to say, the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” This is a message that Gehry delivered with consummate architectural skill, acoustic respect, and wise visual humility.