Rhapsody in blue: Is Jean Nouvel's new concert hall the best in the world?

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The Independent Culture

You couldn't hear a pin drop. In the world's newest concert hall, the faintest whir of air-conditioning intrudes. Here, where the quality of silence is as crucial as the reverberation times of sound waves, measured in critical fractions of a second, some would say this was a fatal crime against purity. But in this strange building, this vaporous blue cube set on a blasted heath in one of Copenhagen's rare urban dead-spots, it turns out that purity itself would have been the real crime.

The 1,800-seat Concert Hall, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel and experienced by Queen Margrethe II on Saturday, is surely the most lusciously atmospheric auditorium in the world. It is a cave composed of sedimentary blocks and layers of wood, whose striations and outcrops look like rust in one place, and deep-pile carpet in others. Metaphors come and go – even the loquacious Nouvel struggles to describe the space – as the febrile, film-noirish "Nocturne" from Henri Tomasi's Trumpet Concerto washes over the audience. Here, the architecture of form, space and materiality has itself becomes a kind of abstracted music, a series of tectonic block chords, wavering staves and textures that might suggest the influence of, say, Pierre Boulez rather than the techniques of Nouvel's brilliant acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota.

Three years ago, in Basle, I was shown a model and visualisation of Herzog & de Meuron's forthcoming concert hall in Hamburg. It will be very similar to the Copenhagen auditorium – not just because Toyota's involved, but because of the fearless precedent set in 1963 by Hans Scharoun's pentagon-shaped auditorium for the Berlin Philharmonie, a concrete nomad's tent over vineyard terraces of seating (see panel). Scharoun's masterpiece in the Tiergarten was ostensibly based on the idea of creating the first truly democratic auditorium; others suggest that the Philharmonie's dictatorial maestro, Herbert von Karajan, favoured any architecture that would make his hawk-like profile and lavishly trembling coiffure the focal point of every otherwise democratic performance.

The Copenhagen Concert Hall, created as part of a €600m concert centre by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), is genetically linked to Scharoun's sonic architecture, but everything about the Copenhagen auditorium is asymmetrical – surfaces, façades, depths, overhangs. This is not so much music in the round but on the slant. And the sound quality? Excellent, and slightly warmer than the aural precision generated by Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall (top-gun Toyota, yet again). In fact, the Copenhagen experience is warmer in every way: to sit in this auditorium is to feel utterly ensconced – no, make that embedded.

That richness of physical experience also has a precedent. In searching for inspiration, Nouvel visited the Radiohus – now a conservatoire, and home of the Copenhagen Philharmonic – designed in the 1930s by Vilhelm Lauritzen. Nouvel relished the rich patina of its blushing wood tones, and the atmosphere of its fan-shaped auditorium. He thought the high-backed seating particularly engrossing and, in homage, had them copied for the new concert hall, this time covered in moquette rather than sound-unfriendly leather.

Lauritzen's Radiohus is a classic example of cool, beautifully detailed Scandinavian modernism. Seventy years on, Vilhelm Lauritzen Architects were appointed by the DBC to design the masterplan for its DR Byen multimedia complex, of which Nouvel's four-auditorium concert centre is a part. Alas, Lauritzen's descendants have triggered an ensemble of three other big buildings here that are not so much a 21st-century demonstration of Scandinavian cool, but rather glacial blocks relieved only by Nouvel's decision to create an element of diaphanous surreality on what is otherwise an urban tundra.

Nouvel has created a building that is a world in itself, a metaphorical chunk of city whose internal physique and brusque articulations are seen through the dark-blue mesh of the façades. His description of it, during a personal tour given to The Independent, was characteristically charming and meandering. He believes that to build in emerging neighbourhoods is risky, and often fatal, because it's hard to judge Big Bang outcomes in an urban void. And so he reacts with this question: "What qualities can we bring to this future place? We can respond positively to an uncertainty by using its most positive attribute – that is, mystery. Mystery is never far from seduction." In neutral surroundings, Nouvel believes architecture must be an act of transition, to establish conditions "that allow a particular territory to blossom".

A strong flavour of La Méthode Nouvel can be found in what he has written about the Copenhagen project. He has established "a presence, an identity. I materialised the context by creating an exceptional urban building, a volume, a mystery that changes under the light of day and night, whose interior can only be guessed at." The centre is just that – a labyrinth, an interior urban landscape. "On one side," says Nouvel, "the world of musicians, with courtyards and terraces, and vegetation. On the other, Piranesian public spaces link together the performance halls, the restaurant, the street. The abstract is invaded by the figurative; the permanent is complemented by the ephemeral. The façades are diaphanous filters permitting views of the city, the canal, and neighbouring architecture. At night these façades become screens for projecting images. Each room becomes a discovery, each detail an invention."

Et voilà! A Nouvelian critical response to the challenge of building on less than ideal urban sites. Standing with him outside the concert centre at 1am on Friday, the images on the blue façades rippled like woodsmoke; and behind them, the ghosts of the internal structure glimmered. Ephemera on ephemera, in an architectural tableau that has brought something strange and special to a delightful, design-rich city in which, since the 18th century, only two foreign architects, Norman Foster and now Nouvel, have been allowed to add any significant buildings.

Pitch perfect: Greatest concert halls

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

Designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 2003, the building was on the drawing board well before his Bilbao Guggenheim, and was the template for it. Its convoluted form conceals complex interior spaces, and the auditorium delivers orchestral sound in a particularly dry, crisp way; it is, in one sense, a marvellous orchestral recording studio.

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

In terms of fully enveloping sound quality, there's no doubt that Birmingham's 2,200-seat auditorium is a world leader. Its design is in the classic shoe-box manner, and the acoustic detailing by Artec Consultants has, since the building's completion in 1991, produced brilliantly articulated "surround sound" results that beguile 400,000 concert-goers a year.

Casa da Musica, Porto

This, too, contains a shoe-box auditorium, in a building designed by Rem Koolhaas. Every detail, every jagged processional space, every baroquely over-elaborated feature, makes this the most surreal concert hall in the world. Ultimately, it's the architectural scenography that matters. The opening concert was, suitably bizarrely, given by Lou Reed.

Cultural and Congress Centre, Lucerne

Designed by Jean Nouvel in the late 1990s, the centre's auditorium is quite different to Copenhagen's. But aspects of the centre's form prefigure Nouvel's building-as-city approach in Denmark. The Lucerne ensemble shows how architecture can activate a big site, in a way that hasn't been achieved by the other buildings in the Copenhagen scheme.

Berlin Philharmonie

Hans Scharoun's 1960s masterpiece contained an auditorium that smashed all precedents in form and ambience, in a design inspired by the then radical acoustic theories of Lothar Cremer and Thomas Futterer. But they weren't quite radical enough: sound and architectural symmetry don't get along, and the concert hall fell short of acoustic perfection.

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