Performing Architecture: Opera Houses, Theatres and Concert Halls for the Twenty-First Century

by Michael Hammond

Published by Merrell

239 pages, 2006






Cathedrals for Performance

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


"The opportunity to create a performing-arts venue must rate as a holy grail for architects." And when you travel through Performing Architecture with author Michael Hammond, you see why. Like 21st century cathedrals, they rise up in Torrevieja, Spain; in Troy, New York; in Beijing; Dublin, Oslo and Hong Kong, taking so many different forms that one wonders that they all, essentially, come from the very same place: the desire -- no, need -- to create a structure where people will go for an evening's entertainment. One important building, of course, set the tone for those that would follow. "The Sydney Opera House, completed in 1973 and arguably the most recognizable building in the world, set a global precedent."

Even if Hammond had not mentioned that famous Australian building, some of the structures profiled in Performing Architecture would bring it to mind. Not in form as much as in spirit: grand cathedral-like spaces intended to lift the heart as well as please the senses.

The thing about architecture for performance is that the very best of it is nearly invisible. After all, we don't go to a concert hall to applaud the architect. We go to see Pavarotti or The Who. If the structure works, it works in the background, supporting whatever it is we've paid to see. That's when they get built. According to Hammond the real trouble at the beginning of the 21st century is even more complex:

Audiences across the globe are both aging and being wooed by an increasingly sophisticated range of home entertainment .... In some ways it is incredible, considering all the reasons not to build a performing venue, that any get built at all.

But, despite many challenges, buildings intended for performance do get built, often to great fanfare and sometimes -- as Hammond points out -- to great controversy within their own cities. The scope and nature of Performing Architecture do not allow for in-depth discussion around these issues, issues that Hammond raises but never really deals with. It could be argued that they can't be dealt with, or rather that they're dealt with by the fact that -- yes -- new complexes for the performing arts get built all the time. In fact, many of them are included in the book: probably all of the internationally important ones.

Hammond profiles 51 projects in the pages of Performing Architecture, from the Shanghai Grand Theatre designed by Arte Jean-Marie Charpentier, completed in 1998, to London's Music Box, designed by Foreign Office Architects and whose build date is not included. Several included projects have yet to go beyond the planning stages and some are currently under construction. Interestingly, the profiles of the yet-to-be-built projects are every bit as fascinating as those that have already been completed. More: together, they create the whole. The already completed projects showing where design on this scale and for this type of project has most recently been, the to-be-built ones showing where it's going. | November 2006


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.