Concert Hall Bruges, Belgium, 2002
't Zand, Brugge
1999 - 2002
Robbrecht en Daem architecten
Ove Arup UK
GCA Ingenieure AG
Coördinatiebureau De Brock
Van Assche & Van Langenhove
A monumental intimacy
by Marc Dubois
The choice of location for major public buildings is of crucial importance. As in many towns and cities, the construction of the railway infrastructure in the 19th century left serious scars. After the demolition of the station building on Het Zand in Bruges, the site became an urban open space, but not a square. On the east side, the direct transition to the park area has always been experienced as a great problem. The immediate proximity of the center, the presence of an underground car park, the direct link to the city’s ring-road and ease of access from the whole region were the arguments for the correct choice of Het Zand. One very determinant element in the project was the decision that the large concert hall must also be suitable for music theatre, an option with far-reaching consequences in terms of the height of the building, the acoustics and thus also for the budget. The programme also provided for a small chamber music hall that also had to serve as additional foyer space.
This project had to be completed at lightning speed. In January 1999, from the seven entries, the jury chose the project by Paul Robbrecht & Hilde Daem in association with the firm of Van Assche & Van Langenhove, Wirtz the landscape architect, the German theatre engineers CGA and Ove Arup Acoustics. Building started in late 1999 and the complex was first used in February 2002 for the opening of Brugge 2002. This speed of building has its negative sides, but on the other hand because of the pressure of time the project was built much as it was designed.
An important aspect in the choice of this design was the highly personal interpretation of the site. By bringing the small music hall forwards towards Het Zand and by means of a balanced composition of facade and roof surfaces, the solution made it quite self-evident that this was the way to deal with this site. It is not an integrational architecture with a preoccupation with form, but a quest for anchoring in the site offered. The design is intended to clarify the existing parameters and make the hidden urban design potential visible. Or as Rafael Moneo put it, ‘the location is the first stone we have to use when constructing our outside world’.
A designer has to take account of the immutable preconditions of the site. The presence of the tunnel meant the opening between the new building and the buildings on its south side remained very large. On this basis, Robbrecht & Daem designed an 86-metre long canopy for the bus station. The form of the steel columns gives the construction both an elegant and a robust character. No fashionable high-tech canopy full of glass, but a green roof planted firmly on sturdy columns.
The introduction of the tower redefines Het Zand and it assumes the character of a square. This volume contains not only the small concert hall, but also an info desk, a meeting room and a restaurant with a roof terrace above it. From the beginning this volume was described as the ‘lantern tower’, a ‘friendly tower’ for Bruges, with stacked functions. It evokes the image of an Italian campanile, a volume that is both independent and yet linked to the rest of the building. The spatial concept of the chamber music hall is surprising: it is a cortile or courtyard, a type that makes reference to the Italian palazzo. It is an inner court round which one can walk, with open boxes rising in a spiral. The dimensions of this hall for 350 people come close to the proportions of a musical space. It is a bold choice that will undoubtedly be a new challenge to musicians, an original space that connects the past with the future.
The position of the main entrance was chosen carefully. A forecourt has been created just where the new building comes closest to the adjacent buildings. This ‘Putje’ is a sheltered vestibule for the building. The entrance space is placed in the internal angle of the building. The route from the reception hall with its cloakrooms to the foyer and the auditoria is very lively, a promenade architecturale with an unexpected scenic force. A succession of surprising spatial sequences leads the visitor upstairs. The foyer consists of a multitude of spaces held together by a forceful vertical void. As in Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic, one senses the great control needed to arrive at a sensual arrangement of space and to make it possible to enjoy walking through the space.
The shape of the foyer at the top is exactly like a pair of opening arms with at each end large windows that capture and, more especially, frame the urban landscape. From the inside, these windows are immense ‘living paintings’, a strong visual link with the city. The large, funnel-shaped window on the side facing Het Zand is particularly useful as a huge screen for projection. The large windows in the building are strategically placed to intensify the relationship between the inside and outside. The coloured areas of glass in the south facade give the foyer a very special atmosphere.
The basic form of the large auditorium also has a bodily connotation. The space is analogous to that formed when someone cups their hands round their mouth to make their voice carry further. An exhaustive study by Ove Arup Acoustics proved that the unusual and dynamic form of this slatted wall is a good acoustic solution. The first concerts confirmed the exceptional acoustic qualities of both auditoria. The option was for an auditorium with an emphatically concentrated direction and for acoustics that produce more of a symbiosis of sounds than an analytical feel. To create the greatest intimacy, the maximum distance from stage to listener has been kept to 30 meters. The angled side walls, in serrated plaster panels, enhances the intended modesty and involvement with the stage. An acoustic solution is combined with a clear vision of how the auditorium space should be. There are 1300 seats, 700 of them in the stalls. This means the auditorium can be used for concerts for up to 700 people without using the balconies. On the back of the seats is a continuous text by Peter Verhelst on the subject of city and culture.
The interior of the Pantheon in Rome has fascinated architects for centuries. It is the power and the magic of the penetrating daylight, the feeling that light can be mass. For the architects in Bruges, the Concert Hall was a unique opportunity to realize this cherished dream. Daylight is able to enter through two differently oriented openings at the top of the auditorium. This enhances the sculptural dimension of the large auditorium and creates a unique experience. Architecture is here used to make light visible. In achieving this the option was for restrained detailing, with a care for detail in which tactility plays an important part. The renewed introduction of colors into the interior and the glazing of the south-west facade is a great surprise. Next to the grey of the concrete construction, the colors act as an architectonic gesture. The vertical colored areas in the balustrades and the side walls of the large auditorium have a refreshing feel. In his choice of a range of colors, Robbrecht uses such words as farbenklavier and colorpiano, the range of colors with which it is possible to give pattern and dimension to the interior.
In the explanatory notes for the competition, the whole construction was described as a ‘pastoral building’. This ‘pastoral’ refers to the contemporary rural and suburban landscapes where building volumes appear in a rather neutral arrangement. Visually, the Concert Hall comes across as a building that is simultaneously large and small. The mass of the building was modeled with great tactile sensitivity into a captivating composition of planes. It is an imposing building without being a showy eye-catcher, a mass with a monolithic and controlled sculptural appearance. The exterior was deliberately made to look robust and distances itself from any attempt at transparency or lightness. The cladding of the facades and roofs with red terracotta sheets emphasises its monolithic character. Vertical ribs in the same material have also been applied in front of the large windows. A contemporary building is not the same as the construction of curving computer images intended to visualize the dynamics of the spirit of a particular age. A building should not defy gravity and is not virtual.
Robbrecht & Daem describe the volume of the building as a ‘recumbent body’. It is no coincidence that the basic arrangement of the foyer and the large auditorium have connotations related to the human body. The building is a body that has to anchor itself to a particular place, and which has to take up a permanent place in the complex body of the city. Even at a time of great mutations and computer networks, to them the building remains a substantial immobile construction that transforms the location for a long time to come. In this project the designers have been able to combine their long-time fascination for architecture and music. It is also a fascinating quest for a way to combine monumentality with an intimate urban spirit as was required by the site. It did not turn out to be some sort of international ‘one size fits all’ architecture as some people had feared. By choosing the age-old traditional material of terracotta the mass of the building was fitted into the fabric of the city in a way that is almost self-evident. When one looks back at the other entries for the competition, one can only conclude that Robbrecht & Daem understood the capacities of the place and of Bruges as a city. They did not start with an aggressive attitude, confronting the old with the new. What they have achieved is evidence of great respect and intense love for this magnificent city.
The Concert Hall will give Bruges a prominent place on the map of contemporary European architecture. It is an idiosyncratic Bruges building with strong inner qualities. What no one had thought possible five years ago has become reality.