The hot news in Lucerne, Switzerland, is a world-class symphony orchestra hall with crisp contemporary architecture by Paris-based French architect Jean Nouvel, who also designed the new opera house in Lyon, France. Russell Johnson of Artec Consultants in New York is responsible for the hall's acoustics, which have received endless accolades. The new home of Lucerne's renowned orchestra festival, the hall opened in August 1998 with a performance by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra.
Sitting along the edge of Lake Lucerne, Nouvel's building looks as if it is floating on water. Its stark straight lines contrast nicely with the curlicue style of Lucerne's traditional architecture, buildings that reportedly inspired the design of Main Street, Disneyland. Built with a budget of over $150 million, the official German name of the project is the Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern, or KKL. In English, this translates to Lucerne Culture and Congress Center, of which the 1,840-seat concert hall is the piece de resistance.
The building, which at one point was designed to actually dive (architecturally speaking) into the lake, is divided by long pools of water. These are covered with six-story glass atria filled with bright natural light. The south and west facades combine flat planes of glass and metallic green mesh. The north and east facades, which face the lake, are comprised of textured building blocks in saturated tones of blue, green, and red. A massive cantilevered roof stretches 115' toward the lake, where reflections of the building dance on the water.
Nouvel is not normally known for using much color, but in this case he opted for a very striking combination of red, white, and blue in addition to warm wood tones in the concert hall. The red begins in the lobby, where surprising red walls give way to the stark white interior of the audience chamber. "The original color scheme was all black and dark blue with tiny touches of red," says Artec's Johnson. "There was no white in the room. When the model was put on public view, the color choice became controversial." After much thought over a period of two years, Nouvel selected a new color scheme: white. "One wall had already been painted dark blue and they had to repaint it to look like the original white plaster," Johnson recalls.
At this point, the architectural lighting in the room also changed to the current configuration of blue gel behind clouded white glass in the cove lighting in the balcony soffits. "They look white when off, but blue when on," says Johnson, "but oddly enough, they don't 'color' the audience." Cold cathode wall washers add a bright white light to the room. "As the concert master comes out, the white light goes off, and when the conductor comes out, the blue light fades, leaving just a warm incandescent glow," Johnson says.
The concert hall itself has a dramatic design--very tall and narrow (based on the classic shoebox shape), with three balconies wrapping around the walls. A few rows of seats behind the stage can be used for a chorus or additional seating. The floors, stage, seat backs, and concert ceiling are made of blond wood, adding warmth to the mostly white interior. The front pipes of an organ yet to be fully completed have also been installed and these too are in warm wood tones. The ceiling is dark blue studded with twinkling lights. Yet, the biggest surprise in the room's design is the bright red of the walls in the reverberation chamber which embraces the entire room.
When the doors to the reverb chamber are open, the red walls can be seen by the audience. Alain Bony, the man responsible for the decorative paint colors, painted red clouds with frames around them on the chamber walls. "Lighting fixtures with red gels shine on the red paint, so that when the doors are open, there is quite a bit of red light shining in the room," explains Johnson. It can be dimmed down to a rosy red glow during a performance.
"This is a pure concert hall, so the acoustics were the most important," says Johnson. "The goal was excellent acoustics for everything from unamplified guitar to early music, a string quartet or an orchestra of 150 with a chorus of 20. Musicians assume that a large concert hall cannot satisfy them as soloists or for a quartet. They can't believe that this room can be so hospitable to so many different kinds of music.
"Each room has a distinct acoustical palette," he continues. "Dozens of factors go into it to create a signature sound. In Lucerne, the most important variable is that it is a very narrow room. Also, the reverb chamber is very deep and comes down into the body of the room more than usual."
Since it is a pure concert hall, not intended for lyric or theatre performances, there is no proscenium arch. "If concert halls have prosceniums at all, they are vestigial, like at Carnegie Hall or in Dallas [at the Meyerson Symphony Center, whose acclaimed acoustics are also by Johnson], where there are large columns to imitate the idea of an arch," says Johnson. In Lucerne, there is none of this imitation, just long unbroken lines sweeping toward the stage.
The acoustic treatment is an important part of the visual design of the room. First, there are 52 curved white reverb doors spread out on three levels around the balconies. Each door measures 8' wide, and varies in height from 10' to 20' tall. The doors operate using special hinges; the motorized movement was engineered by Ernst Schultzheiss of the German company Theatre Planning AB.
The doors and adjoining walls are covered with white plaster sound-diffusing tiles. As required, the doors can open to any angle up to 90 degrees. When the doors are closed, the room's reverb time is 2.2 seconds (perfect for chamber music) and it can be extended to a thundering five or six seconds with the doors open. The side walls can be covered with computer-controlled curtains to deaden the sound of the room for meetings or rehearsals.
"There is a central computer that runs all of the stage machinery," explains Eckhard Kahle, an acoustical consultant for Artec, who served as the firm's onsite project manager. "The stage floor is highly adaptable with motorized gliders and podiums."
Hanging over the stage is a large, two-section cherrywood acoustic canopy that has computerized, motorized control to move it as needed to meet various music requirements. There are actually a series of preset positions for the canopy and the reverb doors for conductors to choose from if they do not request customized settings. A "tonemeister" is on staff to tweak the acoustics.
Musicians and conductors alike have praised the room, calling it everything from a temple of music to having the most truthful sound quality you can get. While there is no simple formula for the success of a concert hall, Lucerne is a winner that combines Swiss precision with Nouvel's French flair and Johnson's all-American acoustic excellence.