Spe­cial pan­els help pro­vide acous­tic clar­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT philip.kennicott@wash­post.com

When plans were made for a new con­cert hall in Hamburg, lo­cal lead­ers placed acous­ti­cal re­fine­ment high on their list of pri­or­i­ties. But they also wanted an au­di­to­rium that was more “demo­cratic” than tra­di­tional con­cert halls, where “good seats” in the front are more val­ued than “bad seats” at the back. “A hall with­out hi­er­ar­chy” was an ex­plicit goal of the Hamburg authorities.

The ar­chi­tects looked for in­spi­ra­tion not just from clas­sic mod­ernist halls, such as Hans Scharoun’s Ber­lin Phil­har­monic, which uses ter­raced seat­ing around the stage, but from con­tem­po­rary sta­dium de­sign as well. But this raised a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge: How to pre­dict the hall’s re­sponse acous­ti­cally? Ya­suhisa Toy­ota, an acous­ti­cian who has had suc­cess de­sign­ing con­cert halls for Frank Gehry, was hired to deal with this build­ing’s many acous­ti­cal chal­lenges.

Among them: The con­cert hall is set in the mid­dle of a noisy, bustling har­bor, where ships blow horns loud enough to be heard through walls; and the au­di­to­rium isn’t the only in­hab­i­tant of the build­ing, which also in­cludes a ho­tel and res­i­den­tial con­dos. So the hall needed to be in­su­lated not just from noise out­side, but from be­com­ing a noise nui­sance to its neigh­bors in the larger Elbphil­har­monie de­vel­op­ment.

So the mu­sic hall was in­su­lated from the larger struc­ture by “shock ab­sorbers” that help min­i­mize the trans­mis­sion of sound into and out of the space. And in­side, it is cov­ered with what lo­cals call the “white skin,” im­ple­mented by Ben­jamin Koren us­ing spec­i­fi­ca­tions pro­vided by Her­zog and de Meu­ron and Toy­ota. This is a con­tin­u­ous sur­face of gyp­sum-fiber pan­els, each one with its own unique pat­tern of sharp peaks and de­cliv­i­ties. The ir­reg­u­lar­ity of the sur­face helps dif­fuse sound, just as the or­na­mented wood and plas­ter of old 19th-cen­tury con­cert halls did.

The shape of the white skin’s pat­tern is an echo of the roof line of the build­ing — form fol­lows func­tion in this case — though each peak of the skin’s tex­ture is dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers. The acous­tics are also reg­u­lated by a large re­flec­tor, which de­scends into the ver­ti­cal space like a dan­gling mush­room. The re­sults? Some crit­ics find the space cold and clin­i­cal. But it has great clar­ity and pres­ence, and the care­fully cal­i­brated de­cay of sound also cre­ates a sense of warmth. The white skin is also lovely to look at, like some kind of lux­ury fab­ric stretched taut over the space, full of vis­ual in­ter­est, but never dis­tract­ing.

Dur­ing per­for­mances of Beethoven in March, the tini­est sound from the stage was clearly audi­ble as was any sound, in­clud­ing whis­pers and cough­ing from the audience. But the real test came with de­tails of or­ches­tra­tion, which were per­fectly audi­ble. This is the rare hall in which you no­tice which mal­let the tim­pani player is us­ing or when an oboe joins a bas­soon. The strings sec­tions are clearly dis­tin­guished, and when the first and sec­ond vi­o­lins ex­change ideas, you hear the drama spa­tially.

See what per­fect sound looks like Us­ing your phone’s cam­era, you can project the Elbphil­har­monie’s unique pan­els on your own ceil­ing, ex­plain­ing how the acous­tic pan­els cre­ate a sound so clear and pre­cise. To see this aug­mented re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence, down­load the Wash­ing­ton Post Clas­sic iPhone app.


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