From the outside, Helsinki’s new concert hall, Musiikkitalo, seems unpretentious. Inside, it houses six concert halls to suit different requirements, a school of music and a library.
The discussions about the new concert hall started in the early 1990s when the Sibelius Academy signalled the need for new premises in the centre of Helsinki, closer to the other Sibelius Academy buildings. It was not until resources were pooled that the plans could be realized. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy formed an operator consortium, meeting the construction costs of €188 million.
The idea of a new concert hall for Helsinki was pressing since Finlandia Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1971, although impressive, is quite an inappropriate structure for symphonic music concerts in terms of acoustics. The new concert hall had to have outstanding acoustics.
A two-phased international architectural competition was held in 1999–2000 and received 243 entries during the first phase and 68 during the second. The competition was won by Arkkitehtitoimisto LPR-Arkkitehdit with their work “a mezza voce”. Yasuhisa Toyota was chosen to design the acoustics.
From an architectural perspective, “a mezza voce” (with a moderate voice) meant to tread lightly without disturbing the surrounding landscape.
The site for Musiikkitalo is located between three of the city’s architectural monuments – Parliament House, in neoclassical style, across Mannerheinintie, Aalto’s Finlandia Hall to the north, and Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art to the south.
The winners had to comply with building height restrictions and some conformity of the venue’s overall countenance with the Parliament House across the street. Also important was the fact that the building was to be located on the same line of landscape, on the shore of Töölö Bay, as Finlandia Hall and the Opera. And most importantly, the architects had to cooperate with acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the world’s most prominent experts in his field. His collaboration with Frank Gehry to engineer Walt Disney Concert Hall’s famed acoustics brought in commissions from around the world for acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. For acoustics designers like Yasuhisa Toyota, success arrives when an audience is rapt in the music, oblivious to the complicated physics it takes to project a Beethoven symphony with warmth and clarity. Walt Disney Concert Hall was an outstanding success!
Master acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s designs are now found in many classical music concert halls famous throughout the world apart from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St. Petersburg, the Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen, the New World Center in Miami, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, ElbPhilharmonie in Hamburg, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, the Radio France Concert Hall in Paris, Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain) Concert Hall/Auditorium, the Shanghai Symphony Concert Hall and the Helsinki Music Center Concert Hall.
His primary focus can be reduced to just two key elements – space, or the shape of the room, and material – but there is a staggering amount of options to consider and decisions to be made at the detail level of both elements. Overall, Toyota is a consummate collaborator: For Toyota, the success of any one building is ultimately the result of his ears, the architect’s eyes and the collective interpretative force of a conductor and orchestra combining to make something greater than the sum of their parts.
In the world of classical music, acoustics are important and the design might come before even the architectural design. In a hall that doesn’t program classical music, but only pop music and rock & roll, then sound systems, microphones and loudspeakers are more important than room acoustics itself.
Talking about the room shape of a classical music concert hall, details include the seating height and width and shape. When it comes to the material, it’s not just the surface material that is important but the structure behind that. Even with the same acoustic surface material, the thickness is important. The structure behind the panels is not visible, but is important to the sound. The room shape and material are also the issues which the architect is working with. The room shape and material are important visually and acoustically. The architect and the acoustician work in different fields, but designing with the same items, and collaboration is the answer.
Toyota has used wood in some form in all the halls he has designed. In the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles he used Douglas-fir, in Sapporo and Kawasaki he used Japanese wood, in the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg he used Finnish wood components and at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki he used pine and birch.
Wood is a good material in concert halls, acoustically and visually. And Toyota finds that natural materials also offer the audience a comfortable atmosphere. He considers the stage floor part of an instrument, with sound, and he designs is out of soft local wood.
In Helsinki the stage is made of Finnish pine and the boards have no knots. The density of the wood has been precisely calculated, as the stage is the largest and most important instrument resonating in the space. Above the stage, a special concrete object weighing 27 tonnes is hung from 40 steel cables. Four of these cables would have been sufficient to hold the weight, but the builders of the hall wanted to make completely sure, so that the orchestra would not have to steal occasional nervous glances at the threatening object above their heads. The block of concrete is part of the acoustics design for the hall, as is the ceiling of the concert hall. The ceiling of the main hall was named “Sound Canopy” (Finnish: Sointilatvus) following a public competition arranged to come up with a name for it. It goes without saying, sound quality does not depend on the number of people in the hall.
Most of Toyota’s best halls resemble Suntory – Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Philharmonie de Paris, Shanghai Symphony Hall, Bamberg Symphony Hall, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall and Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall.
The vineyard style is Toyota’s favourite audience layout, a visual representation of his philosophy that the enjoyment of music should be shared – the vineyard design allows viewers to feel a spirit of community in the perception of sonic information. Another of Toyota’s enthusiasms is striving for the presence of the national identity of the respective country. Forest and wood have given the Helsinki Music Centre not only its visual aspect, but also character and atmosphere. The pail-like main hall has been dubbed “smoke sauna”, owing to the tone of its warm, dark birch panels, while the seats in the vineyard-like audience have been described as a “logjam” and the wooden stairs are like creeks. Strips of glass allow daylight to stream in and make for visual reference points between the auditorium and the foyer.
In case you are wondering, he doesn’t have a favourite hall. He responds to the question with a story.
A few years ago, on January 1, my phone rang. It was Valery Gergiev, the conductor and artistic director of the Russian Mariinsky Theatre. He was with the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons at the time, and there had probably been some drinking going on. The two had been having a discussion: Gergiev was of the opinion that the acoustics in the Sapporo Concert Hall were the best, while Jansons, on the other hand, preferred the Kawasaki Symphony Hall. I designed the acoustics in both and the gentlemen wanted to know: “Yasuhisa, which is better?” So I simply asked: “Valery, tell me: How many children do you have?” He understood what I was saying straight away.
Suntory, Toyota’s, and Japan’s, first vineyard-style hall, opened in 1987 in Tokyo. Conservative Japanese audiences were quick to complain. A hall layout where neither the listener nor the musician has any place to hide visually or audibly was a bit too in your face. But Suntory had the blessing of the conductor the Japanese most admired. The Berlin Philharmonic’s music director, Herbert von Karajan, had overseen the construction of his own early vineyard-style concert hall, the celebrated 1963 Philharmonie.
Suntory, 30 years later, remains far and away the most prestigious concert address in the East, no matter the architecturally stunning opera houses and concert halls popping up in China, Indonesia, the Emirates and the Southern Caucasus. The Vienna Philharmonic is an annual visitor at Suntory and sounds remarkably comfortable here despite the radical difference between modern Suntory and the orchestra’s heavenly 19th century home, the Musikverein. That comfort hasn’t translated into their acceptance of eastern musicians in their midst however.
The large auditorium at Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo boasts 1,704 seats and is located in the main building, through which the concert house is also accessed. In addition to the Concert Hall, there are five smaller halls for roughly 140-400 people. The acoustics in each hall have been designed to serve the function or purpose of each hall, such as electronically amplified music performances, or chamber music performances or lectures. Owing to height restrictions, the building features a large underground area. Ultimately, an eight-storey building was created, with two-thirds of it located underground. The many underground storeys are also filled with light, thanks to the large glassed atrium, which allows the generous Northern daylight to be manifested to the fullest.
The Main Foyer is located on the third floor, which is the entry floor for visitors arriving from the Kansalaistori Square.
The sculpture by Kirsi Kaulanen was named Gaia after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth. At 14 metres in length, 10 metres in height, and 2,200 kg in weight, the sculpture in polished stainless steel is visible both inside the Helsinki Music Centre and from outside, in the direction of Mannerheimintie.
Constructed from organic forms, Gaia resembles a saxophone, a horn, a landscape, or a winding shape. It is linked to nature by its flowing form and by the fact that it includes 28 of the 150 currently-endangered Finnish plant species.
As the architects report, what they were aiming for is a “quiet kind of architecture”. The concert hall does not attempt to outclass its prominent neighbors with extravagant façade designs. Instead, it looks as if it is trying to crouch down in the depression between the busy Mannerheim Street and Töölö Bay. Verdigris copper façades form the transition to the greenery of the nearby park and to the Parliament Building. Generous, seaweed-colored glass fronts face the Kiasma Museum and the Baltic Sea.
The patinated copper roof is also characteristic of Helsinki’s oldest architecture while the large-scale glass façades fit in well with the more modern buildings of Finland’s capital, including the neighbouring temple of contemporary art, Kiasma.
In music circles the biggest expectations were focused on the acoustics. Users of the Main Hall have responded with both praise and excitement. The acoustics of Helsinki Music Centre yield a clear sound, with a long echo and tone beautifully carried everywhere in the hall, to every single seat. Including the seats we had for the Laulu-Miehet Finland 100 concert of Sibelius music.