Long before listening to your music was as easy as putting in earbuds, concert halls provided one of the most accessible ways to consume music. Concert halls still provide the best non-amplified live listening experiences, but today they function as so much more.
Witold Rybcznski explains in his article "The Concert Hall, Reimagined" that the halls of the 18th century were integrated into the urban framework of a city rather than designed as stand-alone buildings in an open space. Postwar concert halls, such as the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center (1962) and London's Royal Festival Hall (1951), helped to set the trend for freestanding halls in modern times.
Today, halls are so architecturally innovative that the buildings themselves draw visitors. They are designed to tell stories of the people who animate these spaces and serve as important symbols of civic pride. The nine venues below are so spectacular, they’ll be sure to have you checking to see just how many more vacation days you have left.
Location: Hamburg, Germany
Opening: January 11, 2017
Architect: Herzog & de Meuron
The Elbphilharmonie is the newest attraction in Hamburg, one of Europe’s richest cities and Germany’s second largest. Elphi, as locals call it, is the central attraction of the newly revitalized port district on the Elbe River, called HafenCity. The seaside concert hall looms 354 feet over the busy wharf. Now the tallest building in town, it is meant to evoke a large reflective ship in full sail, with a roof covered in giant sequins and an outer body covered in 1,000 plate-glass panels. The building includes three music spaces: the 2,100 seat Grand Hall, a 500 seat recital hall and a studio for 170 guests, and also includes a 4.5 star Westin Hotel and residential apartments. Visitors can also ride the massive curved escalator, stretching 200 feet from the waterfront to the top of the public plaza.
The Grand Hall is a marvel of sound and design. The main performance hall is structurally separate from the rest of the building, and is surrounded in an enclosure of feather pillows to isolate the auditorium from external noise. Famed acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics designed it to be like a giant cocoon that hangs from the roof of the building. The interior of the Grand Hall is a product of parametric design; a computer algorithm individually designed each of the 10,000 gypsum panels lining the walls to properly diffuse and shape the sound in the auditorium. The remarkable suspended reflector hangs like a chandelier, ensuring equal distribution of sound and adding to Elphi’s beauty. Take a virtual drone tour of the Elbphilharmonie here.
Pierre Boulez Saal
Location: Berlin, Germany
Opening: March 4, 2017
Architect: Frank Gehry
Soon after the inauguration of the Elbphilharmonie, another concert hall opened in Berlin, Germany’s capital and largest city. The Pierre Boulez Saal, “saal” meaning both “hall” and “room” in German, is the brainchild of pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who previously served as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1999 Barenboim and scholar Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to bring together musicians from various cultures, and in 2016 the Barenboim-Said Akademie opened with the same goal. The conservatory of young Arab and Israeli musicians is now based in the newly opened Boulez Saal.
Boulez Saal is named after French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who passed away in 2016 amidst the hall’s construction. Boulez was a dear friend of both Barenboim and Frank Gehry, the famed architect who conceived the plans for the new hall.
The 1955 four-story building housing the Boulez Saal previously housed sets for the Berlin State Opera, of which Daniel Barenboim is music director. In 2012 Frank Gehry made a sketch of an oval and construction began not too long after, in 2014. To perfect the sound in the Saal, Yasuhisa Toyota, who worked on the Elbphilharmonie and has a long history of working with Gehry as well, planned the acoustics. Watch the video below to learn a little bit more about the concert experience in the Pierre Boulez Saal.
Philharmonie de Paris
Location: Paris, France
Opening: January 14, 2015
Architect: Jean Nouvel
The inauguration of the Philharmonie de Paris was one week after the 2015 Paris bombings. The Orchestre de Paris, along with soloists baritone Matthias Goerne and soprano Sabine Devieilhe, presented the inaugural performance with Fauré's Requiem in an emotional tribute to the victims. Located in Pantin, a town just beyond the city limits of Paris that has historically been home to immigrant communities, the Philharmonie replaced the Salle Pleyel as the home of the Orchestre de Paris.
Many have had choice words in describing the design of Nouvel's Philharmonie de Paris. Oliver Wainwright of The Guardian described it as looming above the Parc de la Villette "like one of George Lucas's menacing starships" and refers to it as "a tyrannical hulk of a thing." The New Yorker's Alex Ross calls it "a strange and not exactly beautiful beast"; but Ross concludes that despite the "fortress like façade", "crowds have hardly been deterred: Nouvel's monster fascinates." The exterior of the massive Philharmonie is covered in 340,000 aluminum birds; if not intriguing for its size, the shiny exterior is surely an exciting site. Inside, the Grande Salle has been applauded for its sound, with acoustics by Marshall Day Acoustics.
La Seine Musicale
Location: Paris, France
Opening: April 21, 2017
Architect: Shigeru Ban & Jean de Gastines
Another hall opened more recently in Paris on the Seguin Island in the middle of the Seine River. The renewal of the Seguin Island was overseen by architect Jean Nouvel, who wanted to preserve its industrial history. La Seine Musicale now takes up a third of the island.
The building is most striking for its solar-powered egg-shaped auditorium, which features a 147 foot sail covered in 470 photovoltaic panels to block the core from direct sunlight. The sail is mounted on rails that allow it to move along the path of the sun at 15-minute intervals to maximize sun exposure and supply the auditorium with energy. La Seine houses two concert halls, with the Grand Seine seating 6,000, and also includes a rooftop garden.
Location: Torún, Poland
Opening: December 12, 2015
Architect: Fernando Menis
In Poland, Spanish architect Fernando Menis created the cavernous, rock-like Centrum Kulturalno-Kongresowe Jordanki. It has a concrete exterior and the interior is made of "picado", meaning "chopped" in Spanish, a material Menis created by mixing cement and crushed red brick. The ragged irregular surface that results is key to the hall's great acoustic diffusion, along with its dynamic ceiling, which allows the building to be tuned to properly meet the acoustic requirements for virtually any kind of performance.
In 1998 Menis first used the "picado" technique by mixing concrete with local volcanic stones for the MAGMA Art & Congress in Tenerife, the largest of Spain's Canary Islands and also where Menis' studio is based. In the CKK Jordanki, Menis used bricks instead as a reflection of Torún's heritage; "Torún is a medieval city and 99 percent of its buildings are made of bricks, we had to use them," Menis said in an interview with Wired magazine. This fairly new technique has been certified by The Building Research Institute in both Spain and Poland.
The shape-shifting CKK Jordanki has removable seats and two concert halls (one with 1,000 seats and another with 300 seats) separated by partition walls that allow both halls to be combined. The stage in the main hall can also be opened onto the park for outdoor performances and events.
Shanghai Symphony Hall
Location: Shanghai, China
Opening: September 6, 2014
Architect: Arata Isozaki
In 2014, the oldest orchestra in Asia got a new home. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was founded in 1879 and celebrated its 135th anniversary season with the opening of Shanghai Symphony Hall (SSH). (Previously the SSO performed regularly at various venues in Shanghai.)
The location was once an indoor swimming pool that closed in 2008. Now there stands the SSH: a saddle-shaped building with an exterior composed of terra-cotta bricks. In the heart of Shanghai's French Concession, SSH is also home to the Shanghai Orchestra Academy, a postgraduate conservatory program in partnership with the New York Philharmonic.
The most spectacular aspect of the long-awaited collaboration between Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota is the 1,200 seat main concert hall. The SSO put music first, becoming China's first organization to hire acoustician before architect. Isozaki and Toyota combined both shoebox and vineyard structures for the shape of the hall.
The six large parabolic reflector boards in the hall are covered by weaved bamboo and the stage floor is made of Hokkaido cypress from Japan. The colors of the materials used give the hall a gold tint, bringing warmth to the interior. The main and chamber halls sit on giant springs to protect against the vibrations from the subway lines that run underground. You can stream the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra here, and imagine that you are in SSO's new home.
Harbin Opera House
Location: Harbin, China
Opening: December 1, 2015
Architect: MAD Architects
The northern Chinese city of Harbin is known for its natural landscapes and frigid climate, with an annual low temperature of -35°C (-31°F). In fact, the city is home to the world's largest ice-sculpture festival, the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. While Harbin is a wintertime attraction for the massive stunning snow sculptures of the Ice and Snow Festival, it isn't regarded as a cultural hub. The Harbin Grand Theater fuses local identity, nature and culture in the hopes of changing that.
The theater is located within Harbin's wetlands near the Shonghua River and is the centerpiece of Harbin Cultural Island, which also includes the Harbin Labor Recreation Center, Harbin Great Square and Wetland Park. Spanning 850,000 square feet, the building is meant to blend into the horizon and inspire a more natural approach to architecture and design.
Along the exterior is a staircase that leads to an outdoor viewing platform at the top, allowing visitors to explore as if climbing a mountain. On the inside, the 1,600 seat grand theater is partly illuminated by a subtle skylight. The more intimate 400 seat theater features a wall of sound proof glass windows, allowing the stage to act as an extension of the natural landscape. The natural light in both halls becomes part of the performances and allows for a more nuanced listening experiencing by keeping audiences connected to the surrounding environment.
Dubai Opera House
Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Opening: August 31, 2016
Architect: Janus Rostock
Dubbed "the world's Vegas" by The New Yorker, Dubai has become a tourist hotspot in recent years. To add to the city's extravagant entertainment options, the Dubai Opera House is the first stand-alone Opera House and purpose-built performing arts center in the United Arab Emirates.
Inspired by the dhow, a traditional sailing vessel used in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean area, the building is a nod to the UAE's maritime history. Janus Rostock of Atkins Architects also created the distinctive Burj Al Arab luxury hotel, popular for having the world's highest tennis court. In similar fashion, the Dubai Opera House has a rooftop lounge with a restaurant, a conservatory, a small stage for performances, and not to mention, views of the iconic Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest artificial structure, and the dazzling Dubai Fountain. Cold air is pumped to the roof courtyard so that visitors can enjoy the outdoor experience year-round.
The exterior is covered in anti-reflective glass giving visitors crystal clear views into and out of the opera house. Inside, the building houses a 1,901 seat concert hall with moving floors and walls, a 1,875 seat theater, and several other features. In the opera house, a 11,023 pound Lasvit central chandelier made of 2,900 LED lights designed with 30,000 individually crafted glass pearls.
Cidade das Artes
Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Opening: January 3, 2013
Architect: Christian de Portzamparc
The largest modern concert hall in South America is located In Rio de Janeiro's youngest neighborhood, Barra da Tijuca. Cidade das Artes, Portuguese for "City of Arts," is a concrete building resembling a large house with veranda, an archetype of the Brazilian "casa bandeirista" style. The arts center floats above a public terrace that includes a tropical garden designed by Fernando Chacel, giving visitors a view of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as nearby lakes and mountains.
Cidade das Artes includes an 1800-seat concert hall, a chamber music auditorium, 3 movie theaters, a media library, exhibition galleries, and several other facilities as well as being the new headquarters of the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira (Brazilian Symphony Orchestra). French architect Christian de Portzamparc explains on his website that "the building is a little city contained in one big structure, raised and established on a vast terrace" and that "the architecture frames and echoes the beautiful curves of the Sierra Atlántica Mountains and the line of the sea." The building is situated at the central interchange between two highways, which is also reflected in the exterior design. Learn a little more about Rio's "City of Arts" from the architect himself below.