Building the Future of Classical Music—A Report from Seaside, Florida

Recently I attended the Future Symphony Institute’s Building Communities With Music Conference in Seaside, Florida where the theme was what orchestras and communities should consider when taking on the project of building a new concert hall.

Andrew Balio, Principal Trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony and Founder of the Future Symphony Institute, opened the conference by posing the question, “what is the end of a concert hall,” something I had never actually considered before. His answer, and now mine too, is that the concert hall should serve as a home for classical music. When one begins to see the concert hall in this light he sees the need for both communities and orchestras to properly build beautiful and lasting concert halls for the future of classical music.

If we are to build concert halls that are homes of classical music, we must ask the question, what makes a good home? Everyone has an idea of home even if they either have a bad one or none at all. Along with this, it is interesting that everyone only uses positive attributes to describe this idea of home. No one wants their home to be described as dark, uncomfortable, unwelcoming, isolated, and sterile, so why should we accept and promote these attributes when building concert halls?

The world is not want for examples of good concert halls, but sadly there has been a rise of ugly ones built in the last 50 years. One need not look further than Hamburg, Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris, and London to see what I mean. With the danger of sounding curmudgeonly in critiquing these structures, the reader should know that a building’s architectural style is not the only arbiter of beauty (though it does go a long way to determining that). Modern concert halls should also (and possibly more importantly) be judged on the basis of how well they create a sense of place within a community. This is achieved through buildings fitting in, drawing from the local vernacular, and building organically.

Fitting In:

We all know what this means instinctively because we have all done things like set a table or design a room. No one when setting a table full of blue plates would place a red plate randomly amongst them with the cutlery turned toward the guest. Similarly, when designing a room, we want each piece—the paintings, furniture, knick-knacks—all to work in harmony with one another, each complimenting the others.

Gewandhaus (Above) and Dresden's Concert Hall (Below)

Gewandhaus (Above) and Dresden's Concert Hall (Below)

When it comes to concert halls, orchestras, and the public which supports them, should seek to build ones which fit into the already existing urban landscape. Dresden, a city which was destroyed by allied firebombs in the Second World War, had to rebuild most of its city, including the concert hall. Rather than letting the reconstruction go haywire and a glass block go up, the city and the builders decided to rebuild the concert hall to its original form, allowing the harmony between the Baroque buildings around it to continue undisturbed and to give the people a sense of “this is Dresden’s concert hall.” Sadly, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig (J.S. Bach’s hometown), suffered a similar fate, but was replaced by the glass and concrete block I spoke of above. The new structure disturbs rather than compliments. It’s as if a group of people were having a congenial conversation and an obtuse gentleman came in screaming an expletive.

Local Vernacular:

While I have already alluded to this in statements like “this is Dresden’s concert hall,” the idea of incorporating a local vernacular into buildings is crucial to creating a sense of place. The steel frames with glass windows (normally called skyscrapers) that adorn most cities are almost indistinguishable from one another and give people to a sense of disenchantment and alienation when in a city. It is not uncommon to look at skyscrapers and think “this could be anywhere”—and the only memories we have from cities come from seeing the distinct places that make up that particular city—a market, a public building, a museum, a concert hall.

Smith Center for the Performing Arts (Above) and the Nancy Lee & Perry R. Bass Performance Hall (Below)

Smith Center for the Performing Arts (Above) and the Nancy Lee & Perry R. Bass Performance Hall (Below)

A perfect example of the incorporation of a local vernacular comes from the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, designed by David M. Schwarz Architects; who described that during the project a conscious effort was made to search “ for a style indigenous to Las Vegas that was representative of the city and its history,” and that “in that search, it was obvious the greatest achievement in the area was the Hoover Dam. Massing, iconography, and the exquisite detailing throughout the Symphony Park campus take cues from the Dam.” Along with this the ornate and flashy Art Deco style of the Center represents the character of Las Vegas perfectly.

Another example from David M. Schwarz Architects comes from the Nancy Lee & Perry R. Bass Performance Hall they designed Fort Worth, Texas in 1998. In this example, the distinct features of the concert hall’s exterior are the two angels that adorn it. These were not drawn from any local custom or tradition, but rather used to cover the housing of the HVAC units, thereby creating a place where locals and tourists alike want to go and be in the presence of.

Building Organically:

For years, urban planners have  hoodwinked society into believing that cities only progress by building vertically downtown and horizontally outside the city. Because of this, we have seen the rise of giant skyscrapers surrounded by sprawling subdivisions. This initial division between “downtown” and “suburb” propagated further splicing of our cities in the form of zoning laws. The effect was that our work, shopping, culture, finance, and lives have all been relegated to individual corners of the city that can only be accessed by cars. Instead of letting cities develop organically through the replication of smaller units, we have imposed an unnecessary “order” to the point where we have countless business parks, shopping centers, malls, and arts districts, that only see human activity “when needed.”

A drawing from Léon Krier’s book "Drawing for Architecture," describing the authentic development of humane cities with the bottom drawing being the ideal   .

A drawing from Léon Krier’s book "Drawing for Architecture," describing the authentic development of humane cities with the bottom drawing being the ideal .

With classical music’s relevance constantly in question, why segregate it to the fringes of the city (accessible only to the dedicated few), instead of building halls where people actually live? Having a concert hall, opera hall, theater, all spread out within a city allows these buildings to become focal points where others want to build around. By building in this way (around focal points), people are able to live-work-and play all within a central area.

 A prime example of this is Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. Originally constructed before urban sprawl, Severance is surrounded by Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. Instead of driving through congested highways, entering an underground garage, seeing the concert, leaving the garage, heading back to your individualized plot of land—Severance Hall inclines you to be in a place and experience all it has to offer. The area surrounding it has been revitalized in the last 10 years, with apartments, restaurants, and other museums all going up around it.


So why should you care about concert halls and how they are built, or just architecture and urbanism in general? Having been asked this question multiple times over, I always go back to the same answer—you should care because, for better or for worse, they are yours! These public buildings are what make communities homes. If built and designed well, they become places you want to be with yourself and with others. These buildings are yours because you live in the city, you have an ownership and a stake in its future, and either through private or public donation, you end up funding these structures. At the end of the day, there is ultimately a choice between beauty and ugliness, home and alienation, and the choice begins with you.

*Cover photo is part of an exhibit put on at the Conference by the students of the University of Notre Dame's School of Architecture. Prof. Duncan Stroik, who was a speaker at the Conference, provided the prints of example concert halls and opera houses done by the students.