Reaching new heights
Andermatt is a tiny mountain village with a population of 1300 – and a new, superlative concert hall. Opened this June, it was converted from a conference hall annexed to a hotel in the village. The project involved raising the recessed shell construction to allow views into and out of the hall. The acoustic concept works mainly with natural sound but also has a reverb system for extended use.
The opening of the Gotthard tunnel plunged the Alpine village of Andermatt in the Swiss canton of Uri, some hundred kilometres south of Zurich, into decline. But now it is probably the only place in the world to have a world-class concert hall with enough seats to accommodate almost half its residents. This asymmetrical situation was made possible by huge investments by the property company Orascom, which is building several large hotels, holiday residences and chalets in the village. The new concert hall in Andermatt is part of this ambitious development project, funded by Egyptian property developer Samih Sawiris and his group.
Taking high culture to the slopes
Sawiris commissioned the firm Studio Seilern Architects to convert the existing underground conference hall next to one of his hotels into a prestigious concert hall with impeccable acoustics. The architects successfully pulled off the difficult task of turning an existing space into a concert hall.
Seilern had the top removed from the existing structure – a banal, underground concrete box – like peeling back the roof of a convertible car, and a large overhanging steel roof built over it – to get more room, air, volume and acoustic space. By raising the roof, the acoustic volume was doubled to 5340 cubic metres. It also increased the room capacity (with a floor surface of 2072 m²) to allow up to 663 seats.
An elegantly bowed glass façade under the new roof allows natural light to fall into the concert hall and provides interesting views: Passers-by can look down into the concert hall – even during performances – and listeners can look up and out. Some seats look on to the façade of the neighbouring hotel while others offer panoramic views of the Alps. Both views – in and out – are impressive, as the architect had the walls of the concrete box clad in light, wooden acoustic panels to create a warm, pleasant atmosphere as well as ensure good acoustics.
Wooden origami for the acoustics
The panels are triangular-shaped and perforated. Together with the sloping parapets of the balcony and the sculptural wooden ceiling, they generate a surprisingly good sound. To improve the acoustics within the otherwise geometric space, dominated by parallel lines, Seilern had an elaborate origami-like concertina structure made of oak-wood panels installed on the walls, ceilings and balcony parapets. Up on the pavement, the new, convertible-style roof creates a landmark in the street scene and draws attention to the concert hall’s entrance. While the hall is connected to the adjacent hotel by a separate stairwell, visitors do not have to use this approach but can alternatively enter via the street.
Three hanging acoustic reflectors, designed by Seilern, additionally influence the sound in the space. Looking like white clouds or amoeba, these amorphic acoustic reflectors normally hang over the stage at about the same height as the newly installed mezzanine for the balcony but can be adjusted by means of discreet steel ropes. Despite being now twelve metres high, the space seems relatively intimate and places audiences unusually close to the musicians. To describe it as “cosy” might seem improbable for a concert hall, but it in this case it fits.
Flexibility is ensured by several features. For smaller events, several of the seating rows under the main balcony can be lowered. And there is no permanently installed stage. After all, the hall is intended to be used for congresses and rock concerts as well as orchestral performances. The full ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic played the hall’s inaugural concert, but such large-scale orchestral events will probably be the exception. The Andermatt concert hall is best suited to chamber music and solo performances. The lower part of the space can also be used as standing room, for banquets or exhibitions.
Natural acoustics as a base
At one end of the hall, the ceiling could not be raised due to a fire rescue path. This is where the manually configurable stage is set up. The musicians with the loudest musicians (brass and percussion) will take places in this lower-ceilinged part, where the surfaces are acoustically transparent (expanded metal), backed with reflectors in some parts and absorbent material in others. All the reflectors are rounded to reduce the force of the reflections and to transmit them back to the musicians as well as the audience.
For symphony orchestra concerts, the strings will be located at the apron, where the ceiling is higher. The white, amorphic acoustic reflectors function as equalizers. Seen from outside, through the window, they look like architectural sculptures. In terms of acoustics, they ensure that the transition is fluid, with no abrupt changes. Their setting was simulated in the planning phase and fine adjustments made during a test with the orchestra on site.
Surprisingly, the hall in Andermatt diverges from the classic “shoebox” concert hall by having a crosswise stage arrangement. But it makes sense regarding the acoustics. At some 22 metres, the width of the hall is about the same as a classic concert hall; having such a wide stage allows it to accommodate orchestras with up to 75 musicians. But at around 20 metres long, the hall is distinctly shorter (and more intimate) than, for example, the KKL in Lucerne, which is nearly 50 metres long.
Crucially, the balcony facades are angled, rather than vertical, to transmit reflections from the side back to the musicians, and resonance to all parts of the auditorium. This is to avoid only direct sound being heard in the first rows and not much else, as is the case in some other halls, or acoustic imbalance if seated at the side rather than in the middle. With strong side reflections from the balcony facades, even in the first rows, there is good all-round sound in Andermatt. That is especially important in this hall, which has only 13 rows in total: 7 in the stalls and 6 in the balcony.
Instant reverberation is ensured by reflections from the hall’s wooden surfaces, which the planners of this project are convinced sound better than artificial reflections generated by loudspeakers. Only the subsequent reverberations from the auditorium are supported and extended by means pf the “Amadeus Active Acoustics” reverb system by the Austrian firm Rohde Acoustics.
With any luck, this architecturally and conceptually ambitious concert hall will usher in a new era for Andermatt. Built with the intention of attracting summer guests as well as winter holidaymakers, it could help turn this sleepy mountain village into a centre of the arts. With his audacious idea, the entrepreneur who commissioned the building may have laid the foundations for a new “city of music”.