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A severely hip concert hall

Rem Koolhaas can be bold and exciting in his disregard for the norm. But in Portugal he may have gotten boxed in.

May 08, 2005|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Porto, Portugal — Deciding what to make of a Rem Koolhaas building is always a little tricky.

The Dutch architect and his Rotterdam-based firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, have long aimed for a balance between the gracefully composed and the provocatively unsettled. While OMA's designs can be beautiful in their own deadpan way, they also tend to be decidedly aloof and use unfinished, unglamorous materials. They dare us to reveal our own philistinism by calling them cold, brutal or garish.

Seen from that point of view, the new Casa da Musica, a $129-million concert hall on the edge of a tree-lined traffic circle in this once proud but now rather gray Portuguese port city, is classic Koolhaas. Where other concert halls use velvet and polished wood, this one goes for plywood panels. In place of chandeliers, it gives us naked fluorescent tubes.

Designed by Koolhaas and one of his partners in OMA, Ellen van Loon, along with the structural engineering firm Arup, the building hovers over a travertine plaza. It looks like a carefully chiseled asteroid, with an exterior of bone-white concrete. The color is an homage to the buildings of the great Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, who still works in Porto.

Despite some moments of intense pattern on the upper floors, the Casa da Musica is marked by an unmistakable severity; it is muscular, cunning and bloodless. The experiments in bold color and playful graphics that marked the interiors of OMA's recent American projects -- a library in Seattle, a student center in Chicago and the Prada store in Beverly Hills -- are held in check here.

If you arrive in Porto from Southern California, of course, it's impossible not to think about how the design stacks up against Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Such a comparison is more than just a provincial exercise in determining whether ours is better than theirs. It also suggests how the approaches of the two most famous architects in the world overlap, and where they sharply diverge.

(Figuring that out will become easier relatively soon; this week, the California Institute of Technology announced that OMA will design a $25-million, 50,000-square-foot academic building for its Pasadena campus. It is scheduled for completion in 2008.)

At first glance, what you notice in Porto is the overlap. Although the Casa da Musica is angular where Disney Hall is billowing and curved, both buildings add aggressively sculptural, nearly windowless forms to the cityscape.

And both surprise you by being more carefully attuned to that cityscape than they initially appear. In Koolhaas' case this is revealed not just by the nod to Siza but more directly by the way the building and its main auditorium are lined up carefully along the same axial line that bisects the traffic circle. At Disney Hall, it's the way Gehry deals with the slope of the site, among other qualities.

Beyond that, though, the idea that Koolhaas and Gehry share anything fundamental in common seems a stretch. For every gesture Disney Hall makes to inclusion, Koolhaas has one ready to suggest a more complex (if not tortured) relationship between the public and the arts.

Disney Hall, so long delayed and so symbolic of the potential and the struggles of Gehry's adopted hometown, overflows with his desire to see it through to completion. To sit inside its auditorium is to feel buoyed by Gehry's own enthusiasm for the project.

Koolhaas, on the other hand, keeps his concert hall at arm's length. Its pleasures -- derived from the architect's wry brand of invention when it comes to form-making, structure and circulation -- are no less impressive for their unmistakable detachment. To sit in its auditorium, a hard-edged, hangar-like space, is to consider the question of whether music can sound lovely or fully resolved in a space that works so hard to avoid appearing that way architecturally.

As usual, Koolhaas, who creates the coolest-looking architecture in the world but would never allow himself to admit he ever does anything with that goal in mind, explains the strikingly unusual form of the building in strictly rational terms.

Because the best acoustical shape for a concert hall is a simple shoebox, begin with a simple (if huge) shoebox. Add a restaurant on top and parking below, creating a simple, stacked tower. Next, take a second, smaller auditorium, also box-shaped, and cantilever it out from the middle of the bigger concert hall. Enclose the two boxes (along with some smaller rooms on the other side of the main hall) with sloping, diagonal concrete walls. Use the leftover space for an atrium, circulation and gathering spaces.

Voila: A concert hall in the shape of a concrete gem.

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