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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Monday January 18 2016

An informative piece by Rowan Moore in the Guardian, about the hoped-for replacement for the dismal failure that is the Royal Festival Hall:

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

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

Which means that if this project is to go ahead, it definitely, absolutely, without a shadow of doubt, must get its acoustics right. ...

Indeed.

Moore also writes about the surroundings.  These must be nice, but not attention seeking.  Satisfying for concert-goers, but not “ikonic” if that in any way jeopardises the accoustics, or the satisfaction of concert-goers.  Play your shots and don’t get out, as the cricketers say.

The logic of what Moore says tells me that they should first build the concert hall with absolutely no “surroundings”, and keep on building it until the acoustics are world class.

The basic fact here is, as Moore explains, that you only know for sure if you have a great concert hall after you have built it.  And a bad concert hall, well architected, will be a total failure.  London already has at least one of those (or two, depending on what you think of the Barbican’s architecture), and the last thing it needs is another.

So: build the new hall, as a separate process from all the subsequent architectural tarting up.  If the acoustics are unfixably bad, smash it down and do it again, until the acoustics are satisfactorily superb.  When the acoustics are superb, then get to work on the surroundings, and if that is fucked up first time around, well, do that again too.  And then, if anyone feels inclined, why not then slap some ikonic stuff on the top?  But: one thing at a time.

This is not the usual way that big architecture is done.  The usual way is to do everything at once, and make damn sure you get everything as right as you can.  But then, concert halls are not your usual architecture.

Musicians take this sort of thing very seriously. I recall my brother being a state of fear a few years back about whether some work that was being done on the Wigmore Hall was going to bugger up its acoustics.

Posted by Alan Little on 22 January 2016
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