Author Q&A with Victoria Newhouse: Site and Sound

By Steve Kroeter July 5, 2012

Victoria Newhouse 


Architectural historian Victoria Newhouse (New York)


Architectural historian Victoria Newhouse talks about some of the remarkable music performance spaces that appear in the pages of her newest book, Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls (The Monacelli Press, April 2012).

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Designers & Books: What made you write this book?

Victoria Newhouse: I became aware of a worldwide boom in the construction of opera houses and concert halls that are more intimate, more visually seductive both inside and out, and better attuned acoustically to a variety of performance types, many of which are more adaptable and more cost-efficient than previously in changing stage and seating arrangements.

Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls, 2012 (The Monacelli Press)

D&B: The research that went into writing the book must have been extraordinary. How long did it take to write the book, and where did your research take you?

VN: I worked on the book for over four years, and traveled extensively in the U. S., Europe, and in China. Of the 67 venues mentioned in the book, I visited many historical buildings and all of the completed new buildings.

D&B: In the book’s introduction you make the point that “while the exteriors of buildings for music became increasingly spectacular, the interiors remained, until the 1960s and even to the present, largely unchanged.” What accounts for the lack of change to the interiors during that approximately 300-year period? And why do these building types demonstrate, as you put it, “so great a disjunction between outside and inside”?

VN: The design of interiors remained frozen for centuries by the fear that change from the tried-and-true horseshoe configuration for opera and shoebox for concerts might compromise acoustical quality. This is only beginning to change. Until recently, architects felt free to experiment with exteriors, but not with interiors. This can be seen in Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, whose exterior is an early example of destination architecture, but whose interior is traditional.

Sydney Opera House, Australia, designed by Jørn Utzon, 1973

D&B: You note that the design of public buildings for opera and concerts dates from the 17th century. What are some of your favorite venues from those very early days?

VN: The earliest I know is the 18th-century La Fenice in Venice, which I didn’t discuss in the book. My favorite older hall that is discussed is the 19th-century Musikverein in Vienna.

Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, 1870, exterior
Musikverein, Golden Hall

D&B: Opera houses and concert houses share with art museums a certain esteemed position in the social and cultural hierarchy and as “symbols of wealth and power.” Do you feel that the social and cultural prospects in the future for performance spaces is similar to, or different from, that of art museums?

VN: This is a provocative question, which is difficult to answer with any certainty. The new generation of art museums has been fantastically successful in boosting attendance and in achieving a major social and cultural position in their communities. Whether this will prove to be true of the new theaters for classical music remains to be seen.

D&B: You have had the opportunity to visit a wide range of these buildings in a wide range of cultural and geographic settings. Do you find them generally to be meaningfully related to their specific cultural and geographic contexts—or is it difficult to distinguish between what’s built in Dublin, Dallas, or Dubai?

VN: I would say that opera houses and concert halls are among the most closely related of any building type to their cultural and geographic contexts. Examples of this include Jean Nouvel’s Danish Radio Concert Hall, which posits a strong urban presence in a bleak new neighborhood; and many of the new cultural centers in China include indigenous symbolic references.

Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark, designed by Jean Nouvel, 2009
Guangzhou Opera House, Guangzhou, China, designed by Zaha Hadid, 2010, Grand Theater exterior
Guangzhou Opera House, interior

D&B: What’s your sense of the success of the idea, and also the execution of the idea, for the current renovation of Lincoln Center in New York?

VN: Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s renovation of Lincoln Center is spectacularly successful and provides a model for other similar venues elsewhere. The opening up of major buildings there—as in the case of Alice Tully Hall, whose stone facades were replaced with glass—embodies the current search for transparency in buildings for the performing arts.

D&B: You devote a chapter (subtitled “Building Big”) to China and “the Chinese government’s massive construction program.” You characterize that program as one where “the usual rules and criteria do not apply.” What do you mean by that exactly? And what are the implications of a massive construction program that’s operating outside the usual rules?

V&N: In China everything is controlled by the government. There is little precedent for classical Western music since the Cultural Revolution suppressed its history there. Competitions are not run in the same way as in the West; the architects and methods of construction are also treated differently (lower fees, different contractors used for the exterior and interior of buildings). Priorities are different (aesthetics rather than acoustics). There is little financial support for maintenance and programming.

D&B: Is there anything about designing opera houses and concert halls that requires a talent and understanding above and beyond what’s needed for other large civic buildings—art museums for example?

VN: Just as it is important for an art museum to be designed and built by an architect who is sensitive to the kind of art that will be shown in it, the architect of a music venue should be sensitive to what will be performed in it.

D&B: You’ve had the chance to visit and assess the most impressive buildings in the world of this type that have been completed in the 21st century. Which firms are doing the most interesting work—and what sets their work apart?

VN: Gehry Partners’ Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A, Richard B. Fisher Center in upstate New York, and the New World Center in Miami Beach stand out for me.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry, 2003
Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, designed by Frank Gehry, 2003, exterior
Fisher Center, interior

D&B: In your book you include the cost of the building when it’s available. The range is from $2.5 million to $750 million. The total cost of the 26 buildings for which budget information is given is over $6 billion. What are your thoughts about the scope of the sums spent on these buildings?

VN: There are some good reasons why some of these buildings were so costly—for example, the need to sink pylons into the fjord next to which the Oslo Opera House is constructed. For others, like the Danish Radio Concert Hall, it is more difficult to explain cost overruns. It is reassuring to see some of these buildings—the New World Center, the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam—being built relatively economically.

Oslo Opera House, Norway, designed by Snøhetta, 2008
Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ/Bimhuis, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, designed by 3XN, 2004

D&B: Of all the buildings you visited while researching the book, which is your favorite? Which was the most surprising or inspiring? Which do you think will have or has had the biggest impact on the city in which it resides?

VN: The Oslo Opera House is certainly the most unusual and has already had the strongest impact on the city, where its remarkable sloped roof has become the community’s favorite promenade. As surprising as its exterior is, however, its interior is quite conventional. The hall of the New World Center is extremely innovative as are the Wallcasts of concerts projected on the building’s facade accompanied by sound from inside relayed via cutting-edge technology so that performances can be enjoyed in the park facing the Center for free by over a thousand people.

New World Center, Miami Beach, Florida, designed by Frank Gehry, 2011, exterior with Simulcast projected on the facade

D&B: Who is your book for?

VN: Architects, acousticians, board members of institutions dealing with performance, and opera and concert goers.

D&B: Are you working on a new book?

VN: I learned so much from my work on Site and Sound that it will certainly influence any future project of mine. For the moment I haven’t decided what this will be.

All images taken from Site and Sound, courtesy of The Monacelli Press

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