Music from a vibrant centre
The innovative Pierre Boulez hall in the historic centre of Berlin was inaugurated on 4 March. It is the showcase of the 2012-founded Barenboim-Said Academy, housed in a converted part of the Berlin State Opera’s former scenery storeroom. The Frank Gehry designed hall, whose layout can be changed according to requirements, was inaugurated with a season of musical encounters in various formats.
The Barenboim-Said Academy is the brainchild of Daniel Barenboim, lifetime chief conductor of the Berlin State Opera, and Edward Said, a Palestinian literature and arts expert.
They had founded the East-Western Divan Orchestra in 1999, to bring together young musicians from Israel, Palestine and Arab countries for concerts each summer. Following Edward Said’s death in 2003, Barenboim founded the Academy, with the help of public and private funding, to extend the orchestra’s function to a permanent base for joint learning. The construction of the premises, costing 34 million euro, was two-thirds funded by the German government, which will also finance the running costs – currently amounting to 7 million euro.
The building bears the hallmark of three friends and grandees of the arts world: Barenboim had the idea, while internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry of Los Angeles created the design pro bono together with acoustics expert Yasuhisa Toyota. The hall is named after the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-2016), a close, lifelong friend of both Barenboim and Gehry. Gehry’s bold elliptical design was received with enthusiasm, though he himself doubted initially whether it was feasible. But the unusual design had so many supporters that it gradually took shape and evolved until the space that now brings the public so close to the musicians was completed.
Frank Gehry recalled: “The one day after we gave [the architectural model] to [Pierre Boulez], he sat in front of the model and just stared into it for hours”. Perhaps Boulez was revelling in the potential of this uniquely flexible hall, transfixed by its countless possibilities. It is a modular construction which, by reconfiguring its tiers, can create a variety of spatial correlations. The defining concept of the “Salle Modulable” (modular hall) distinguishes it from other venues and makes it a special place in Berlin’s music landscape.
An expressive sketch of ovals was the inspiration for this spherical space, which encompasses a full sweep of 360 degrees. The proximity of audience and musicians is an essential ingredient, as they will never be separated by more than a few metres. Its design enables the audience to more directly experience the special energy that is released when music is made. The two artfully interlocking ellipses of the tiers create an impression of awe-inspiring weightlessness.
The hall seats up to 682, and each guest is seamlessly integrated into the space. The setting can adapt to the number of musicians and, above all, to the repertoire being performed. Each vantage point offers a different take on the concert, and even the performing artists will constantly discover new perspectives within the space. The intimacy of the hall allows solo musicians to appear on stage with the same integrity as chamber music formations, while comfortably fitting a medium-sized orchestra. It is the expression of an ideal that highlights unity and inspires creativity in all those who cross the threshold of the Pierre Boulez hall.
Acoustics and Architecture
To create the necessary acoustic volume, the hall was built according to a “house within a house” principle. Three windows each on the south- and east-facing facades forge a visual link with the outside world. In this way, the visitor has a sense of being in a room right in the middle of the city. Three openings along the west side link up the atrium and the music academy. On the ground and first floors, these are light- and soundproof, and on the second floor they form a visual connection between the hall and the atrium.
The upper circle is arranged like a bridge, set into the new concrete walls that are hidden behind the north and south-facing facades. The balcony consists of a steel support with a trapezoid cross-section. The opening proportion for the acoustics is 35 percent. The open side of the construction is lined with acoustically transparent materials, like a loudspeaker, which lets sound through and reflects it from the main walls into the hall.
Audiences are flocking to hear the outcomes of the Academy musicians’ rehearsals as well as the many performances by international guest ensembles and soloists; all the concerts so far have rapidly sold out. Central Berlin has gained a new venue for innovative music and artists from all over the world that will resonate beyond the historic surroundings.
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