Casa da Musica by OMA - Rem Koolhaas

The past thirty years have seen frantic attempts by architects to escape the domination of the "shoe-box" concert hall. Rather than struggle with the inescapable acoustic superiority of this traditional shape, the Casa da Musica attempts to reinvigorate the traditional concert hall in another way: by redefining the relationship between the hallowed interior and the general public outside. The Casa da Musica, the new home of the National Orchestra of Porto, stands on a new public square in the historic Rotunda da Boavista. It has a distinctive faceted form, made of white concrete, which remains solid and believable in an age of too many icons. Inside, the elevated 1,300-seat (shoe box-shaped) Grand Auditorium has corrugated glass facades at either end that open the hall to the city and offer Porto itself as a dramatic backdrop for performances. Casa da Musica reveals its contents without being didactic; at the same time, it casts the city in a new light.


Locating the Casa da Musica was key in the development of OMA's thinking; we chose not to build the new concert hall in the ring of old buildings defining the Rotunda but to create a solitary building standing on a travertine-paved plateau in front of the Rotunda's park, neighbouring a working class area. With this concept, issues of symbolism, visibility, and access were resolved in one gesture.

As well as the Grand Auditorium, conceived as a simple mass hollowed out end-to-end from the solid form of the building, the Casa da Musica also contains a smaller, more flexible performance space with no fixed seating, ten rehearsal rooms, recording studios, an educational area, a restaurant, terrace, bars, a VIP room, administration areas, and an underground car park for 600 vehicles.

Innovative use of materials and colour throughout was another imperative: as well as the unique curtain-like glass walls at either end of the Grand Auditorium, the walls are clad in plywood with enlarged wood patterns embossed in gold, giving a dramatic jolt in perspective; the VIP area has hand-painted tiles picturing a traditional pastoral scene, while the roof terrace is patterned with geometric black and white tiles; floors in public areas are sometimes paved in aluminium.

There is deliberately no large central foyer; instead, a continuous public route connects the spaces around the Grand Auditorium by means of stairs, platforms and escalators. The building becomes an architectural adventure.

Rem Koolhaas Learns Not to Overthink It
Published: April 10, 2005
FEW people would question the quality of Rem Koolhaas's mind: he has long been celebrated as one of architecture's most audacious thinkers. But his recently completed Casa da Musica here is something new for him - a building whose intellectual ardor is matched by its sensual beauty.
Set at the dividing line between the city's historic quarter and a working-class neighborhood, the building houses a 1,300-seat performance hall, rehearsal space and recording studios for the Oporto National Orchestra. Its smoothly chiseled concrete form, pierced by the rigid rectangular box of the main hall, is the most overtly seductive form Mr. Koolhaas has created yet.
The project's sculptural qualities will inevitably draw comparisons to Frank Gehry's exuberant design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Both were commissioned as part of a broader effort to revive industrial port cities that have long been in decline; both are dazzling displays of virtuosity.
But if Mr. Gehry's masterwork evokes the eruption of an unbridled id, Mr. Koolhaas's creation is a more self-contained experience - one that vibrates with emotional and psychological tensions. Its surprises reveal themselves slowly, as if to draw you into a deeper unconscious experience. In originality alone, it ranks with Mr. Gehry's 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Hans Scharoun's 1960's-era Berlin Philharmonic as one of the most important concert halls built in the last 100 years.
Strangely, the project started with a search for that most prosaic of human needs: closet space. Mr. Koolhaas says the design originated in a commission for a house he was designing in suburban Rotterdam several years ago. The client, whom he describes as "a typical Dutch Calvinist," was obsessed with order and demanded a pure uncluttered living area. The architect responded by creating a faceted concrete block with a void drilled out of its core. The void was intended as the family area, with the surrounding spaces absorbing the messiness of everyday life.
But the client dropped the project just as Mr. Koolhaas was entering a design competition for the concert hall. Rather than abandon his design, he blew it up in scale and adapted it: the core became the main performance hall, with the foyers, rehearsal halls and offices packed into the leftover space around it. The extreme shift in scale transformed an expression of a single client's obsessions into a more dynamic communal experience. Even so, the central themes remain the same: a rationally ordered environment animated by the chaotic social and psychic forces whirling around it.
Mr. Koolhaas begins by emphasizing the building's isolation. The structure is set atop a carpet of soft pink travertine, like a cut jewel displayed on a luxurious piece of fabric. At various points, the travertine curves up to cover the structures scattered around the plaza - a bus stop, a cafe, the entrances to an underground garage - as if these practical elements were literally being swept under a rug.
Seen from a late-19th-century park across the street, the building has an almost formal elegance. Yet as you circle around it, its canted walls distort your sense of perspective, making it hard to get a sense of its dimensions. From other angles, its faceted form juts out unevenly, so that the entire structure seems oddly off balance.
As always, Mr. Koolhaas is inspired by a range of influences here, from Oporto's rich Modernist tradition to the generic shopping malls that have taken over the globe since the 1970's. The exterior's restrained elegance nods to local architects like Álvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose abstract compositions also tend to reveal themselves gradually as you move through them. But the concrete shell is also a mask - a near-blank container that conceals a richer imaginative experience inside.
As soon as you slip through the entrance, a narrower staircase leads to the lobby, which is punctuated by a window overlooking a row of town houses. A videotaped panorama of the city flickers across a wall behind the coat-check area. A second stairway sweeps up several stories before disappearing behind the form of the main hall, hinting at unexpected pleasures. Heavy concrete beams crisscross the space above, heightening the sense of compression.
The layering of images, coupled with the sense that you are constantly slipping around the building's edges, imbues the space with a subtle erotic charge, as if the purity of the architectural spaces were being infected by unconscious images, a swirl of fragmented memories and repressed desires.
The main hall seems hyperrational by comparison. Since conventional wisdom holds that acoustically, the world's best concert halls - Symphony Hall in Boston, say - are built in the shape of a shoebox, Mr. Koolhaas gives us a shoebox. Similarly, the seats are arranged with the precision of an assembly line, in simple repetitive rows.
The relentless sense of order snaps us to attention, until we slowly begin to notice the outside world gently seeping in once again. The walls are clad in raw plywood decorated with a pattern of gold wood grain enlarged to several times its natural size, once again distorting the sense of scale. Oddly shaped windows cut into the walls afford glimpses of silhouetted figures flickering by in various bars and V.I.P. rooms. A replica of a Baroque organ decorated in ornate gold-and-blue swirls is mounted on a wall near the stage, like something that was picked up on a whim at a luxurious flea market.
Most breathtakingly, the walls at either end of the hall are made of enormous sheets of corrugated glass suggesting the folds of a curtain. The curved glass gives a distorted view of the city outside, so that the entire room feels as if it is floating dreamily in the middle of the city.
But they also hint at Mr. Koolhaas's love of the forbidden corners and social frictions that animate all cities. As you ascend the various foyer levels, you pass through a series of rooms that could well have been culled from the surrounding cityscape. A V.I.P. room, for example, is clad in the elaborate blue-and-white tiles characteristic of the bourgeoisie's traditional courtyards. Higher up, a more informal gathering area is topped by a canted glass roof that slides back to reveal a spectacular view of the city and the distant Atlantic Ocean. A trapezoidal terrace is carved into a corner of the structure's roof.
Set in the odd leftover spaces between the form of the main hall and the exterior shell, these rooms evoke pieces of the city that have broken off and embedded themselves in the building's skin. Like the characters and objects swept up by the tornado in "The Wizard of Oz," they bring to mind the psychological and emotional residue spinning around in your head, the scattered fragments of memory that shade experience.
Such fragments reflect Mr. Koolhaas's rebellion against the aesthetic purity that was once a central part of the Modernist agenda, and the perfectly engineered life it implied. Like many architects of his generation, he views such purity as a form of repression. For decades, he has sought to explore what the Modernists sought to ignore - the messy social, psychological and economic realities outside the walls of the rationalist modern boxes.
In the Oporto concert hall, the architect has found a perfect expression for his vision. And the result suggests he has reached the full height of his powers.
It could not come at a better time. Like many great talents, Mr. Koolhaas has had mixed luck transforming his ideas into reality. Over the years, his most beautiful work has often been for small private commissions. And although he now seems to be breaking out of this trap, most noticeably with the recent completion of the dazzling Seattle Public Library, even his recent career is strewn with evocative designs that are likely to end up only on museum walls.
His only significant project in Manhattan, for example, remains the $40 million shop he designed for Prada in SoHo, an overwrought space that had the misfortune of opening a few months after the attack on the World Trade Center. By comparison, a stunning design for a major addition that would have given the Whitney Museum of American Art - and the city - a much-needed creative jolt was rejected two years ago on the ground that it would have been too expensive to build.
To get a grasp on what they are missing, New Yorkers will now have to board a plane to Oporto.

Royal Institute of British Architects European Award, 2007

Competition: 1999
Completed: 2005

Porto 2001 / Casa da Música

Rotunda da Boavista

22,000 m2 including grand auditorium with 1,200 seats, small auditorium with space for 350 seats, rehearsal rooms with recording facilities, music shop, computer and educational facilities, VIP room, restaurant, roof terrace and parking (600 cars)

Local Architect:
ANC Architects, Jorge Carvalho

Structure: Arup / AFA Lda
Cecil Balmond, Rory McGowan, Asim Gaba, Toby Maclean, Andrew Minson, Rui Furtado, Rui Oliveira, Pedro Moas

Services: Arup / AFA Lda/RGA
Tim Thornton, Stefan Waldhauser, Dane Green, Rodrigues Gomes, Joaquim Viseu, Luís Graça, Paulo Silva, Marco Carvalho, Pedro Albuqüerque

Fire engineering: Arup Fire
George Faller

Code Consultancy:
OHM /Gerisco

Acoustics: TNO Eindhoven / DHV
Renz van Luxembourg, Theo Raijmakers

Interiors, Curtains: Inside Outside
Petra Blaisse, Peter Niessen, Marieke van den Heuvel, Mathias Lehner

Scenography: dUCKS scéno
Michel Cova, Stephan Abromeit, Aldo de Sousa

Robert Jan van Santen, Rob Nijsse (ABT), Arup Facades

Auditorium chairs:
Maarten van Severen, Loose Furniture Foyers: Daciano da Costa, António Sena da Silva, Leonor Álveres de Oliveira


Partners in charge:
Rem Koolhaas, Ellen van Loon

Adrianne Fisher, Michelle Howard, Isabel Silva, Nuno Rosado, Robert Choeff, Barbara Wolff, Stephan Griek, Govert Gerritsen, Saskia Simon, Thomas Duda, Christian von der Muelde, Rita Amado, Philip Koenen, Peter Müller, Krystian Keck, Eduarda Lima, Christoff Scholl, Alex de Jong, Catarina Canas, Shadi Rahbaran, Chris van Duijn, Anna Little, Alois Baptista, André Cardoso, Paulo Costa, Ana Jacinto, Fabienne Louyot, Christina Beaumont, João Prates Ruivo

Competition Team:
Rem Koolhaas, Fernando Romero Havaux, Isabel Silva, Barbara Wolff, Uwe Herlijn