London’s new concert hall fails value-for-money test

London’s new concert hall fails value-for-money test


norman lebrecht

October 26, 2015

The first notes of opposition to Simon Rattle’s proposed new hall rallied in The Observer yesterday, following last week’s admonitory post in Slipped Disc. This morning, The Times has picked up the controversy.

Briefly, it’s a question of how much bang you get for a half a billion bucks.

Both Munich and London face the same dilemma. Both have ugly halls with bad acoustics and politicians without the balls to replace them. Now, the UK Government has green-lighted a new hall as part of a deal to bring Simon Rattle to London, but the plan is to build a ‘concrete monster’  in the heart of the City of London on the most expensive slice of real estate on earth. That is not only madness. It’s an insult to the intelligence.

Spend half a billion on a concert hall when hospitals have to shut for lack of nurses, who can’t afford to live in London? And in an area where senior citizens fear to walk after dark. Come on…

Every musician knows that London needs a new hall. But where, and for how much. The solution is to build it outside the Square Mile, in an area where people live, served by good transport links. It needs, moreover, to be designed to look like a great concert hall, not like the Mayor of London’s nuclear bunker. It needs to become an issue in the upcoming mayoral election.

And it must not cost half a billion pounds, or even half as much. I have just been to see a new hall rising in Germany for just 35 million Euros – half of it paid for by citizen donations.

More on that bold experiment in a few days time.



  • Anne63 says:

    No good building the hall in an area where people live if people who live in other areas cannot get there. How many people expect to have a concert hall within walking distance or a short bus ride? I doubt if London is spoilt for choice so far as sites are concerned and even proximity to a main line railway station would not benefit people from the opposite side of London.

    As the sole reason for this building is the poor acoustics elsewhere in London, all that concerns me is that no risks are taken with the design, and to me, that means copying an existing success, brick by brick if necessary. I’m concerned, however, that the project will revolve around the reputation of some architect with a “ground breaking design” or some such, and the needs of the musicians and the public will be overlooked.

    Whatever happens, the whiners will be out in force, cant and negativity being national sports. Probably only a matter of days before words and phrases like “white elephant”, “elitist” etc start to appear. It’s going to be a rough ride.

    • Halldor says:

      And all the while, people who should be on the same side cheerfully handing them ammunition. Norman’s point about the absurd price is valid, but if the people who are prepared to pay for it want to spend that money, it’s their call really, likewise with location and exterior design. The interior acoustic design is all that matters; everything else will fall into place around it. A great-sounding hall will get an audience wherever it’s located.

  • Max Grimm says:

    While I agree that a new hall needn’t cost £500mio, that concert hall in Germany for just €35mio is a 1026 seat hall in Bochum and it isn’t completed yet.
    There are other examples of good larger (1700+ seat) halls for less than £150mio however; the Harpa in Reykjavík, the Helsinki Music Center, even the KKL in Lucerne. There are likewise outstanding examples of egregious cost-overruns (Koncerthuset, Philharmonie de Paris, Elbphilharmonie) for those with financial and constructional responsibilities to take heed of.

  • DM says:

    “but the plan is to build a ‘concrete monster’ in the heart of the City of London”

    I would imagine the last thing they’ll do is build another Barbican Hall… Have you actually seen plans? It wouldn’t go amiss to credit those proposing to build this new hall with a little more nous and discernment than at present.

    “on the most expensive slice of real estate on earth. That is not only madness. It’s an insult to the intelligence”

    Well, it would be if the City of London were planning to purchase the site. But since it owns the land, I fail to see the relevance of that comment… Given the recent trend (King’s Place, Milton Court), perhaps the site will be given over to a concert hall at lower levels, with accompanying support space, with new penthouse apartments for multi-millionaires or exclusive office space above it? Isn’t that how GSMD & City of London financed Milton Court (with The Heron)?

    “The solution is to build it outside the Square Mile”

    If the City of London is involved in the project, I can imagine it might be hard to justify that move…

  • Peter Freeman says:

    I am glad Norman brings in ugliness, and thus respectfully disagree with Halldor that interior acoustic design is all that matters. No matter how fine the performance, who wants to experience it in a cold-looking, bleak and featureless space which resembles a mausoleum (QEH) or warehouse (Sadler’s Wells)? To Norman’s hospitals I would add libraries, and to his intelligence I would add taste. One of the worst aspects of recent auditoria is that they lack identifiable ceilings: just a mass of hideous pipes and gantries, or plain blackness. DM’s points are valid, and to their flats and offices I would add hotels. Concert halls doubling as conference venues which have hotels attached (Birmingham, Rotterdam, Malmo, etc) seem to be a growing trend and one which makes abundant commercial and logistical sense. An orchestra or dance company and its visiting audience can have the convenience of staying next door or up above. Adjoining or underground car parks can augment the venture’s revenue, as can a shopping mall. But the mistakes of Paris and Rome of being remotely located to their cities without adequate connecting public transport need to be avoided. Since the Barbican Centre already has a hard-won audience base, would it not be the simplest solution to gut the existing barn of a hall and rebuild it on the same site? The events could meanwhile be temporarily exiled to the Albert and/or Festival Halls.

    • Will Duffay says:

      I don’t wish to be contrary, but I love the QEH (I hope they don’t change the seats in the refit) and the RFH, and I don’t mind a warehouse. I do utterly loath the Barbican, which has always been a confusing mess, hidden from sight, and has a very poor concert hall.

      I think Norman is right about the location being poor: this building needs to be open and obvious, not tucked away on a roundabout. And the hall must be on a good tube line. But it’s clear that available plots are very few. I suspect the City’s motives, however, but perhaps that’s my left-wing prejudice. The City hasn’t proved itself a socially responsible institution over the past 10 years: it needs to do better.

    • Anne63 says:

      “Since the Barbican Centre already has a hard-won audience base, would it not be the simplest solution to gut the existing barn of a hall and rebuild it on the same site?”

      I seem to recall reading that the shape of the Barbican Hall was dictated by the site, surrounding buildings pre-dating the hall. However, I also believe that the hall was designed quite a long time ago, well before construction commenced. It is possible, of course, that recent design technology would avoid the obvious pitfalls but, as I said above, this is London’s last chance and no risks must be taken with the acoustics. I believe Birmingham played safe and copied a design used in Dallas. London should do something similar and, to me, that means a shoe box.

      Too bad if that deprives an architect with an award or two.

  • Andrew Balio says:

    This is precisely what the LSO and Londoners do NOT need; a new version of the Barbican Centre.
    Authenticity is the principle that drives demand for classical music as well as what renews it for each new generation, not flashy futurism or oppressive modernist grandiosity.
    British philosopher Roger Scruton, who writes often of aesthetics and the ethics of the built environment, wrote this article on what the LSO might want as a new home.
    My own essay that kicked off this discussion of an alternative model for what concert halls might be, imagined as an entirely community oriented design in a human scale:
    Architect Leon Krier, the father of New Urbanism, the humane way of planning towns, wrote this article for us about the fear of not acting according to the latest trends:

  • Peter Freeman says:

    Yes, the QEH seats are in my view its only redeeming feature, WD, but I have always found the entire Southbank (and Barbican) complex unremittingly ugly, as if the south bank insults the north. The interiors are likewise severe.

    There is a perfect site for a new hall staring Boris in the face, which has stood derelict for decades, save for the odd rave or fashion show, and is an appalling eyesore and waste of space. Passed by numerous bus routes on two sides, and five minutes’ straight walk from Holborn tube station, I refer to the hideous former Royal Mail sorting office between High Holborn and New Oxford Street. If razed, there would be ample space for the new hall, underground car park, hotel and shops. It is in a densely residential area of Covent Garden bordering on Bloomsbury, with numerous hotels, restaurants, car parks and shops on its doorstep, and is a ten-minute walk from the funding City.

    • Will Duffay says:

      Yes, I’d wondered about the same site! It has been derelict for a long time, but I wonder if it’s too small. It has been used for occasional installations and theatre experiences, but otherwise seems defunct. Is it really big enough?

      We’ll have to disagree about the South Bank. The outsides of the QEH is certainly ugly, but the inside is – to my eyes – clean and clear. And the RFH inside and out is elegant and beautiful. I love that big curve along the river side, and the fixtures and fittings inside are period pieces (in a good way). The Barbican, however, is ghastly from every direction, and needs pulling down.

  • Jack1000 says:

    The City of London has extremely good transport links, and even has 800 police officers patrolling one square mile in the shape of the City of London Police, so people hardly live in fear.

    The Barbican receives a good crowd for it’s orchestral performances, which is not the case in many venues and the London Symphony Orchestra has one of the best programmes in relation to encouranging youngsters from the surrounding East End Boroughs to take up music.

    A lot of the funds for the new hall will in fact come from the private sector including the City Financial Institutions, whilst as a previous poster already pointed out, the land is already owned by the City Corportation. So is anything this option will have less of a burden in terms of tax payer support.

    As for the new hall, it is unlikely to be concrete, and will be built from scratch from an architectual competition.

    The current Barbican Hall has been okay, but does not have a world class acoustic, partly due to it’s fan shape and the materials used, whilst the other major concert halls in London, the Royal Festival Hall which still has only an adequate acoustic following it’s refurbishment and the giant circus tent that is the Royal Albert Hall have well documented acoustic problems, and are far from world class. Indeed not since Queens Hall, which was destroyed by the Luftwaffe during WW2 has London had a decent major concert hall.

    The London orchestras are always amazed when they go to venues across Europe and can hear their music played in the great halls, where the music sounds very different with notes that don’t even register at the London Halls being clearly audible.

    It has been a disgrace that London, a major centre for music, does not have one decent concert hall, and it continues to be a major embarrasement, when US Orchestras and other overseas orchestras complain of the poor acoustic and cramped stage conditions in London. Whilst the British Orchestras themselves are among the lowest paid in terms of top international orchestras.

    I suggest if we want children to take a musical career seriously, then we start providing adequate facilities with good acoustics and good performance spaces coupled with etter pay and conditions for professional musicians.

    • Peter Freeman says:

      If its plans still exist, maybe an answer might be for Boris to issue the hotel with a CPO and rebuild QH on its original site. It would be interesting to see and hear what our ancestors enjoyed, and the Beeb would not have far to travel for its outside broadcasts, as originally envisioned.

  • Dr. Jazz says:

    To contemplate spending half a billion pounds, at least half of which will come out of general taxation, on a concert hall for a minority art form – classical music – beggars belief. What % of the populace attends classical music concerts? 51%, I think not.
    One further myth needs to be addressed, the one that this project will enhance music participation among the young is a fallacious argument. I recall a similar case being put for the vast sums of money spent (wasted) on the 2012 Olympics. Recent evidence indicates that participation in sport has, in fact, declined. The vast majority of young people prefer pop, rap and hip hop to classical music, which is, and remains an elitist cultural activity. Moreover, the project, if funded by the Arts Council, will divert funds from the regions, where it is much needed. If participation among young people in music is actually to be improved the funds could be better utilised in ensuring that each school across the land is equipped with musical instruments and funds made available for professional tutoring. There is a cultural world, believe it or not, beyond London (sic). Is this merely a vanity project for Sir Simon? I do not have the answer.