What do Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, Manchester’s Lowry and Oslo’s Opera House all have in common? That’s right: all three are deemed fit to adorn postcards of their respective towns.
What a triumph for the performing arts in those cities that auditoria – alongside bridges and piazzas – have come to represent them visually.
None of those buildings became so emblematic by accident. Nor did the opera houses of Sydney and Copenhagen, or the concert halls of Lucerne and Liepāja. All were positioned to make a statement about the importance of the arts in their respective metropolis.
London has been rightfully positioning itself as the worldwide capital of art music, mainstream and fringe, for the last decade or more. A concert hall in a central location with the presence of a Tate Modern, a Royal Festival Hall or even a Palace Theatre would amplify and justify that position. Short of a miracle, a concert hall around the corner from Moorgate Station won’t.
The chosen location for London’s new music centre is environmentally cluttered, surrounded by soulless monoliths, way too congested with traffic on weekdays (pedestrian and vehicular) and totally dead at weekends. If good contemporary architecture is about complementing the immediate urban environment and elegantly channelling natural light, the shortlisted firms have their work cut out.
Don’t take my word for it. The Architect’s Journal recently warned firms off the project, claiming that the Corporation of London was ‘focused on getting a bargain’ under restrictive circumstances and had cobbled together a limited brief riddled with ambiguities.
Even with the likes of Renzo Piano and Snøhetta on board – the latter responsible for Oslo’s Opera House – it seems highly unlikely that the building will achieve iconic status given the environmental and procedural circumstances.
I sincerely hope I am proved wrong, but the chances of London getting a building that shouts adequately loudly about the city’s extraordinary musical life are slim indeed.
But let’s suppose, for a moment, that it does. An architecturally progressive new concert hall or opera house is the best possible tool for attracting new audiences to non-commercial music, as witness those projects in Hamburg and Oslo.
But will audiences be attracted to this corner of the City – particularly weekend visitors? When I walked from Finsbury Circus to the site of the new concert hall one Sunday in June, I encountered the sum total of three other pedestrians. Even McDonalds was closed.
That, ironically, is why the site has become available to the Corporation of London in the first place: its erstwhile occupants – another organisation dependent on getting creatively hungry punters through the door, the Museum of London – quit because the place was too inaccessible.
Perhaps the biggest failure of imagination when it comes to the new hall (and there have been a few, not least from the current government) has been the decision to position it on a site vacated by another arts organisation that couldn’t stand the non-creative vibe of the place.
Either way, in the time London has been discussing the new hall, Latvia has opened two impressive orchestra-sized concert halls and Paris has opened three.
One of the latter, the Philharmonie de Paris, is a striking-enough piece of architecture to overcome its out-of-town status and, in fact, incubate its own mini cultural quarter. Another, the concert hall of Radio France, is slap-bang in the middle of the city, part of the broadcasting complex that pings out of the city’s landscape almost as much as Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.
The third, La Seine Musicale, sits gregariously and splendidly on the river. Much like, in fact, the proposed riverside concept for the London concert hall that was blown out of the water.
Why? It looked an awful lot like the Corporation of London wanted to keep the structure on its own turf.
Fair enough: the project is only alive because of the Corporation’s willingness to stump up the cash. But for an organisation that has shown so much commitment to the arts over the last three-quarters of a century – vision, you might even say – it seems lamentable that the corporation has chosen not to look beyond its own nose.
For the sake of all it has done for music and continues to do, it should be praying for that architectural miracle too.