The Acoustic Feats of the World’s Costliest Concert Hall

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Thursday, January 22nd, 2015
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Architect Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie de Paris is set to become the world’s most expensive concert hall. The project survived the French government’s cull of major cultural projects in 2013, and when it opens this month it will be both an architectural and an acoustic marvel.

Construction costs of the 2400-seat venue, located in the Parc de la Villette on the north-east edge of France’s capital, are now expected to come in at €387 million, nearly double the original estimate of €200 million.

Central to the development is the symphonic hall, known as the Grande Salle. Though a high-capacity hall, the Philharmonie auditorium’s design creates a uniquely intimate listening experience.

The collaborative partnership of two leading acoustic consultants has been integral to this immersive space. Yasuhisa Toyota of Japan, who collaborated with Frank Gehry on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Sir Harold Marshall of New Zealand, who worked with Zaha Hadid on the Guangzhou Opera House.

MDA provided the acoustic design of the winning competition entry and its subsequent development during the past 8 years. Following the competition, Yasuhisa Toyota has acted as a peer-reviewer for Jean Nouvel and conducted the model study to validate MDA’s design and acoustic simulations.”

By combining vineyard style – a term used for the design of a concert hall where the seating surrounds the stage, rising up in serried rows in the manner of the sloping terraces of a vineyard – with lateral reflections and a system of floating balconies, they have invented the ‘enveloping’ auditorium.

The way the audience is arranged around the stage favours direct sound, while the cloud-shaped reflectors on the ceiling, the balcony walls and the canopy over the stage promote reflective sound.

The intimacy is then heightened due to the fact that the distance between the conductor and the farthest spectator is only 32 metres. At the Salle Playel, another famous concert hall in Paris, the distance is 50 per cent greater (48 metres.)

The active acoustic volume of 30,500 cubic metres (over a million cubic feet) means the auditorium literally immerses both the audience and musicians in sound, providing every seat with optimal sound restitution and allowing the orchestra to hear itself perfectly. The effect is further intensified by the late reflections from the space between the back of the balconies and the outer wall, which essentially serves as a second acoustic volume.

Another acoustical feat comes with the successful soundproofing of the hall against outside noise, despite the venue’s location next to a major ring road. This was achieved using the ‘box within a box’ concept, in which space is created between the walls.

Another feature that makes the Philharmonie unique among European concert halls is its versatility. The auditorium can be reconfigured to suit different genres of music without compromising viewing or listening conditions. This too required close collaboration between architect and acoustic consultant, as well as specialist concert hall stage designers.

In the symphonic configuration, the audience surrounds the orchestra. The tiers behind the stage can accommodate a choir if required but are more often filled by spectators, who appreciate the proximity to the musicians and being in front of the conductor.

If the seats are not required, for example during an opera concert, the modular concept allows these back tiers to be eliminated and the stage to be moved back, increasing the parterre. The seats in the parterre are also removable thus creating a standing area for when staging contemporary music concerts and increasing capacity from 2400 to 3650 people.

To ensure versatility, mobile canopies can also be repositioned as required; for example, the fewer the musicians the lower it is placed so that sound is better directed towards the audience.

All of this technical excellence sits within a room of great architectural beauty conducive to taking in music.

Nouvel views the concert as an experience in its own right.

“Evocative of immaterial, draped sheets of music and light, the hall suspends the listeners-spectators in space, on long balconies… This suspension creates the impression of being immersed in music and light,” he said.

He believes that one listens better in a state of well-being. Material choice was more about aesthetics than their contribution to the quality of sound. The ‘enveloping’ layout of the auditorium also inspired an encircling series of foyers, which the venue’s marketing team describes as serving “as the passageway from everyday life to the time of the concert.” Large windows ensure the foyers are still connected to city life; yet their atmosphere calls one to be immersed in another world.

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