I would like to take up a comment by Michael Berkeley (A Life in Architecture, AJ 13.9.01).
I do understand the reasons for the return of the 'shoebox' in concert halls but have doubts about their validity at the beginning of the 21st century.
We go to concerts to hear the music, experience the social occasion and, even more importantly, to see the performers.
The fact that we can hear the music very nearly as well - and without all those coughs and rattling of sweet papers - at home differentiates us from 19th century audiences. When many of the currently admired concert halls - the Leipzig Altes Gewandhaus and the Grosser Musikvereinsaal in Vienna for example - were built, hearing the music and taking part in the social occasion were reasons in themselves for going to a concert. This was clearly demonstrated to me when I obtained a ticket for the Musikverein, on the evening of a concert. I found myself sitting at the back of the gallery, which runs around three sides of the hall. From my seat I could only see the top of the conductor's head and about one third of the orchestra.
I am certain that now, for many non-musician listeners, seeing what instruments are playing at a given time in the orchestra or seeing the interaction between the members of a string quartet is an important aid to their musical appreciation. We therefore want to be as close as possible to the platform.
For me, I am afraid, the new Birmingham Concert Hall demonstrates the problem, as does any large shoebox design. Sit at the back and you are just too far from the action. I felt much more part of things at the Barbican. It is also a more egalitarian arrangement - the shoebox differentiates socially the 'nobs' at the front and the 'plebs' at the back.
At the last Bath Festival, the festival director, Tim Joss, had the performers in the Assembly Rooms placed in the centre of one of the long sides, as opposed to being at one end as was normal in the past.Michael Berkeley will be able to visualise this very clearly, as I am sure he has introduced concerts for BBC Radio 3 from the balcony directly opposite the new platform position.
The audience seemed to enjoy the arrangement. The only downside appeared to be the trek for the performers through the audience.
I would like to think it was possible to have near perfect acoustics and good visibility but Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonie seems to be one of the few large halls to have achieved this. The interior is stunning but I am not sure that the acoustic success was achieved as much by luck as judgement.
Could I therefore suggest that we turn concert-hall design on its head? Design for maximum sense of occasion and audience involvement and let electronics do the rest. This may be sacrilege.
But if we cannot see the musicians we may as well recreate the whole thing electronically!
I consider what Michael Berkeley and others are doing to be rather one-dimensional, for two reasons: first, assessing the best possible acoustic is, to a degree, subjective; and second, musicians are in the communications business. A lot of us are hungry for information and knowledge about the music we are hearing. Too many performers think they are only there to play, rather than to perform.
There are noticeable exceptions, of course. Peter Cropper of the Lindsay Quartet can bring a concert alive by conveying his own knowledge and enthusiasm. If anyone doubts me, look at the popularity of masterclasses. Doing that sort of thing is much easier in the sort of concert hall that I have in mind than in a shoebox!
Peter Phippen, Thames Ditton, Surrey