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Casa De Musica by Jason Miles Fowler

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Appearing as a foreign object in the typical Portuguese landscape of tanned terracotta roofs and white cubic boxes, even the external concrete mass of Casa De Musica has the appearance of a valuable find that once as a small child you clambered in your hands, chiselling and forming into something beautiful. Slap bang in the centre of the urban grain, what’s so special about this building is how visitors, students and tourists alike can follow the same flow of traffic through the building, yet each embarking on an independent journey through this expedition of a space.

The creased angles of metal mesh backlit illuminating the extruding angles from inside. Artificial lighting dramatizes every crease of the typically forgotten spaces, whilst the circulation space carves through the form with distant muffled sound and vibrations usually felt in theatrical spaces such as this missing, allowing users to focus upon the space.

Alike the music that’s created here, the name Casa De Musica is exact; the house of music, which delivers such endeavour in its juxtaposition of contrasting spaces along a string of equally interesting spaces. Much of what is so obvious on first visit is not appreciated. Over exaggeration of perhaps more typical construction elements like windows overlooking the concourse. Here, windows ripple as elegant curves in the otherwise sharp edges of concrete causing the external façade interest. The simple delicacy of design choices cause such brightness and transparency to the inner auditorium; such an inverted composition of a theatrical space, causing such discussion of beauty and elegance from the heart of the theatre, yet architecturally causing such consideration of spatial overlay and connection. The craftsmanship of acoustic glazing which prevents the performance over spilling into these grand external spaces is just a simple triumph of this space.

The dual layers of glass façade, the foyer sandwiched between, whilst further in the auditorium: an explosion of light from double glass walls carries through, illuminating the golden glimpses from the woodwork lining the walls. Materiality dominates and characterises the space as such a modernistic auditorium, yet a deep down connection with the historic baroque approach, with warmth of surface materiality felt here the most, but unlike baroque utilising simply the glass and woodwork effortlessly to depicting the form: the stepped space with its sharp edged voids of glass, the palatial height looking down upon a lone piano, a bold statement to focus on.

For most theatres, this internal space would be the culmination, or perhaps in music terminology the crescendo; once built up to such a bold statement, it ends. The auditorium instead merely continues upon the bold foyer as another of the many recurring key spaces in the arrangement. The creation of several internal build ups of miniature excitement and anticipation as each user follows an individual journey through the building, a ‘leitmotif’; a recurrence of these independent spaces of pleasure which alone are bold statements, combined however creating the real craft of Casa De Musica’s floorplan.

At a personal level, it’s the simple decisions in the building and the freedom it empowers users which define it as great architecture, because most importantly users can go beyond primary function to enjoy and take very personal journeys from this building based on their own adventure through it.

Simple design decisions fall outside the playful material experiments in the main spaces where aesthetic gestures encourage users to partake in the building expression. Instead these connecting spaces have independent character and boldness in a distinct contrast of shape and form, gestures like sharp triangular steps Koolhaas brings connection of external and internal with effortless use of materials on the wall and stair circulation creating intrigue in the passage through the building. Such freedom seems to come across, like a scribbled doodle on a page, the sharp edges of sheet steelwork sums up Koolhaas’ style of a different way to form a building, particularly over that of other architects who, perhaps in contrast to this doodle would pursue a mediocre strict line cad drawing with no letting up of expression and wonder. This is not even the climax of the whole ordeal. These very words need boldness in the expression when said that each user journey through this space is just that, it is an expedition of enquiry and interest. From the typical urban setting on the outside space, that of bmx joyriders taking pleasure from the formed concourse, to that of the waiting audience entering the auditorium in the framed glass square of the façade spectating, or even to that of the childlike exuberance that propels so many of the users to squeeze the wall of green foam pyramids in another of these recurring key spaces.

Whilst Koolhas to some may appear to have gone off-grid with style here, it seems this inquiry of how the building was designed should pay attention to the careful considerations of use, particularly to the embracement of enlarged circulation spaces.  User journeys play upon the build up to the brighter and bolder uses of materiality with an exploration of the building context through typical Portuguese style. Key spaces such as the angular form of the checkerboard roof terrace cuts through the concrete roofscape, or the tilework in traditional Azulejo style depicting something every user can connect with and interpret in the individual own way. There’s something about this space which seems so dramatic, a feeling that you’ve fallen into one of those porcelain willow bowls your grandmother once had.

Casa De Musica is a piece of craftsmanship, not only in terms of materiality, boldness and exuberance, but like any great piece of music or artwork, it matters how and when these bold moments are portrayed and how the user is made to feel and wonder, and in this Casa De Musica should be considered a unique example of architecture which can be enjoyed by all and in so many different ways. The composition is ‘a piacere’, the user need not follow the rhythm strictly, instead to their own pleasure. 

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