The lady of the lake: Architecture meets music in Lucerne

Lucerne's Concert Hall, with its lakeside setting, is being hailed as the best in the world. Now British business leaders want a piece of the action
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The Independent Culture

Jean Nouvel's concert hall in Lucerne is the only venue in the world that has a room set aside for clothes - not for the performers, but for the audience, in every size, male and female. This is because Nouvel's building has water flowing from the lake right into the foyer. And, after an enjoyable sponsors' party, guests tipsy on fine wines and classical music have been known to fall in.

The water in the foyer is a lavish enough gesture; but Nouvel initially wanted an even more extravagant one. He wanted his hall to be floating in Lake Lucerne itself - casually altering an age-old landscape for ever. Ah, the humility of architects. But the 60,000 citizens of the actively democratic city of Lucerne voted on this project and vetoed the idea.

"If I can't build on the water, I'll bring the water into the building," said Nouvel. So the French architect had two canals flow from the lake into the foyer, filled the building with the imagery of a ship, worked with one of the best acousticians in the world and made a concert hall, which is now being described by conductors and singers as the best in the world.

The esteem in which it is now held is partly due to the Lucerne Festival, whose autumn season has just started. It attracts the top conductors and soloists in the world - Claudio Abbado conducted and Cecilia Bartoli sang there last week - and rivals far older events, and partly because it is marketing itself in Britain and America for the first time - A Friends of the Lucerne Festival in Britain, comprised of business leaders, is being set up. It will offer trips and exclusive booking facilities to both music-lovers and corporate clients to put the festival on a par with Salzburg.

The biggest names in classical music are falling over themselves to pay tribute to Nouvel's dream hall. "It is the best concert hall in the world," says the conductor Riccardo Muti. Mariss Jansons adds: "Both onstage and out in the hall, you experience wonderful reverberation."

Certainly, part of its appeal for musicians is in the reverberation that Jansons highlights. Together with Nouvel, the New York acoustics guru Russell Johnson came up with the idea of having 52 doors encircling the auditorium on the upper levels, which can be automatically opened by a conductor. Behind each door is a reverberation chamber, and opening them can prolong reverberation in the hall by two to three seconds.

For the technically minded, the volume of the hall is 18,000 cubic metres. Open all the doors and it increases by a third - also increasing the length of time the sound will carry. The thought of a conductor in rehearsal having the time or inclination to try loads of different permutations of 52 to see which gives a symphony the best sound are, frankly, unlikely.

But certainly, each visiting maestro comes up with different configurations of doors to create a personal sound. As Johnson rightly suggests, a concert hall should not have just a single acoustic if it is to cope with works by composers as different as Bach and Bruckner.

The sound quality in the 1,840-seat hall delights musicians and music lovers alike - air supplied under the seats rather than air conditioning helps what the architect called "a 100 per cent silence principle". But it is the look of the place that entrances the first-time visitor. Picture windows overlook the lake and mountains, with porthole-shaped windows adding to the ship metaphor. Each window, said Nouvel, must be a postcard.

A roof terrace allows the concert-goer to wander with a drink and enjoy the view. Outside the auditorium, the ceilings are kept deliberately low so that on entering the auditorium one is overwhelmed by the 23m-high room with its ceiling a starry sky.

But it is the lake and Nouvel's act of drawing it into the very fabric of the building, both materially and aesthetically, that takes the experience a step further. The atmosphere of the building changes according to the light and weather conditions.

Concert-going, in other words, becomes an experience for all the senses. The Royal Festival Hall's much-hyped rebuild opens next year. It, too, is on the water. Can it use its setting to provide a similar experience?