Project Feature20 April 2017
Commissioned by ABB - The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice.
At first glance, the simple and compact exterior of the red-brick building does not prepare you for the magnificent interior within. The building is surrounded by two large squares with fountains and a park with more than 450 newly planted trees, an amphitheater, a labyrinth and garden of musical toys. This is the new seat of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSRP) in Katowice, one of the best symphony orchestras in the country, with an established global reputation.
“The orchestra is already 80 years old and, apart from a break during WWII, it has been performing in the best concert halls across the world since 1935,” says Sebastian Gronet, NOSPR promotion specialist. “It was established in Warsaw and had worked there for the first four years. In 1945 it transferred ‘lock, stock and barrel’ to the city of Katowice in Silesia.”
The move was inevitable since the city of Warsaw had been largely destroyed and Katowice suffered far less damage. It also featured one of Europe’s top recording studios. It is worth mentioning here that the Warsaw Philharmonic was not fully restored until 1955.
“Initially, the NOSPR’s new home was adequate, but as it grew, the first new concert hall soon proved too small,” explains Sebastian Gronet. “In the 1980s, the musicians had to move to a second home, this time in the Katowice Cultural Center, known by the locals as ‘Dezember Palast’ having been built by order of Zdzislaw Grudzien, the secretary of the Provincial Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party [PZPR] with party congresses in mind. This hall was not suited for a radio band either.”
Luckily there was a political will to rehouse the NOSPR
The most distinguished musicians in the region had lobbied for a long time for a new seat for the Orchestra. Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, a notable author of many works for the orchestra, reportedly dreamed before his death of sitting in a real concert hall and listening to the orchestra. Unfortunately, he did not live to see his dream come true, but he was at least able to see construction work begin. Wojciech Kilar, a classical and film music composer, also campaigned for investment, but although he saw the building completed, he died before its first concert. A huge advocate, Krystian Zimerman, one of the greatest pianists in the world, was instrumental as a consultant on acoustics, engaging with the architect Tomasz Konior to explain the relative strengths and shortcomings of other concert halls he had played in around the world. It was Krystian Zimerman who played the opening concert and while the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra participated in the Opening Festival of NOSPR.
Unique acoustics and technology
Now, several months after the official inauguration, the building has collected a number of prestigious awards and is applauded as one of the world’s finest concert halls designed for classical music. The Japanese company Nagata Acoustics, famous for the acoustic design of ‘The Suntory Hall’ and the ‘New National Theatre’ in Tokyo, the ‘Sapporo Concert Hall’, the ‘Walt Disney Concert Hall’ in Los Angeles, the ‘National Taichung Theater’ in Taiwan and ‘Philharmonie de Paris’ perfected the acoustic in the NOSPR.
“The acoustics is, without a doubt, the greatest asset of this concert hall. The effort made to achieve it is remarkable,” says Arkadiusz Neugebauer of the NOSPR technical department. “For example, for the wood to ‘sound’ its best, it must be maintained at a strictly defined temperature and humidity, which requires absolute control of all parameters even as the concert hall fills with people. At the same time, no device can interfere with the acoustics or produce any sound at all. The ventilation is gently blown under every chair and discharged into the ceiling using gravity. The whole infrastructure comprising power generators, transformers, chillers and air handling units is located outside the building, so that no sound or vibration enters inside. In addition, the concert hall located inside the main building is acoustically isolated with special rubber expansion joints. This also stops all vibrations. There are also special ice containers, which freeze water at night, so that the chillers do not need to run during the concert.”
Arkadiusz Neugebauer adds that the main feature of all equipment, components or materials used in the building is their durability, as the concert hall ‘lives’ and ‘works’ around the clock.
“After each concert, a team immediately sets to work to prepare it (overnight) for morning rehearsals, and subsequently for evening concerts. Everything must be checked for reliability,” says Arkadiusz Neugebauer. “This is why so much care was taken to choose the finishing materials. The floors are made of granite, polished terrazzo and oak parquet. The concert hall has been lined with a specially formed, digitally machined birch plywood. Additionally, the auditorium seats have been designed so that even the empty ones muffle sound in exactly the same way as those that are occupied. 11 kinds of chairs were designed and tested, before the best were identified.
This original design of Tomasz Konior has been patented and is now offered by the manufacturer under the name of ‘polyphony’.
ABB contributed to the building by providing, more than one thousand elements of wiring accessories of the product line called 'future'. Although this was a very small contribution compared to the whole investment, it still had to meet rather strict investor requirements, not only in terms of technical reliability, but also concerning shape and colour.
Architecture is supposed to serve people
Interview with Tomasz Konior, architect and urban planner, founder and owner of Konior Studio, main designer of the seat of NOSPR in Katowice.
What does it take to win an award for a design?
You don’t think about awards during the design process. Awards are not the goal of an architect’s work. Beginning with the first line and ending with the last one – we focus on spatial changes as a consequence of our design, and on the way the new place will affect users. We care about the future user.
What does it mean?
That buildings are not just impressive spatial objects. And cities are not just displays. Together, they constitute a living environment for humans, including their needs, an environment that changes over time. You have to respect that. The city and the people, the buildings and the spaces between them – we try to notice these relationships and understand them. With each design, we try to establish a dialog with the place and the local tradition. We are more interested in a well-designed and functional city than in architectural islands or artistic manifestos. This was the case with NOSPR. Our design is a story set in time, associated with the changing city and subsequent layers overlapping...
However, despite the changes you’re mentioning, Katowice is and will probably still be associated with glassworks and mines for a long time...
It’s no surprise. Heavy industries like mining and metallurgy have been present here since the very beginning. Besides, the city began to grow due to the built railway. Despite Katowice being a very young city, its 150-year-long history is interesting and diverse. Beside the economy, a very important thing for the entire region is music. The first university in Silesia was the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music. We also have many secondary music schools here. We’re talking about the academic context; however, the social context is equally important, because Silesia has a long history in the tradition of family singing, brass bands and bands performing other kinds of music. This local tradition most probably influenced many musical celebrities originating in this region: Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Wojciech Kilar, Eugeniusz Knapik, Aleksander Lason, Krystian Zimerman, Marek Mos but also Józef Skrzek and Artur Rojek. The number of local concerts, festivals and music events is very impressive. In addition, for some time already, we’ve prided ourselves with places where one can successfully play any kind of music. It all led to the moment in 2015, when Katowice gained the title of UNESCO Creative City in the field of music.
But let’s get back to the design. It is believed to be unusual in many ways.
So far, no one in Poland has built a concert hall with natural acoustics for 1,800 listeners. Regardless of the place, it is an extremely difficult task to build a construction of such a large interior without using power supply, speakers and microphones, where each sound can be well-heard separately and together with other sounds. Krystian Zimerman became a good spirit of the design. Playing virtually everywhere in the world, he understands the rarity of a concert hall providing beautiful sound. Thanks to him, we were able to search for the best acoustics for our design. He invited me to visit concert halls with him, so that I could get familiar with their greatest strengths and with their shortcomings. The result of this journey was the cooperation with Nagata Acoustics and its most prominent acoustician – Yasuhisa Toyota. We quickly started our cooperation. I will never forget my first conversation with him. Asked how to design a hall with good acoustics, he replied: “You are the architect, make your interior magic and I will fill it with sound.” He is an amazing human being, who has showed us completely new, previously unknown possibilities.
But this building is not only about excellent acoustics. During a visit to Katowice the Minister of Culture and National Heritage Malgorzata Omilanowska said that it is a “polished block of anthracite hidden in a casket.”
One more issue was of great importance for us during the design process. It was both the starting point and a consistent way of thinking about the future building. In short – we wanted NOPR to be local. Some call it the spirit of the place, others the identity. In any case, we were looking for such a form of expression associated with function, place, material and atmosphere which could provide the feel of music and Silesia, both outside and inside. The result is a building constructed of brick, concrete and wood. Brick – because it is associated with the tradition of building in Silesia. The first think which comes to mind concerning Silesia is a brick familok. Mine buildings were also built of brick.
The huge shell of the concert hall inside the main building is a concrete cast, dyed with anthracite in order to resemble carbon. And finally, the wood. 20 years ago, the seat of NOSPR was the location of the Katowice mine, namely a wood yard, a place for storing mine timber for supporting mine drifts. There are almost 4 hectares of parks and gardens with more than 450 planted trees of different species. And finally, similarly to constructing string instruments, we used wood inside the concert hall. It creates a unique atmosphere of the space, resembling the interior of a giant instrument which literally harmonizes with the orchestra.
You have, however, skipped the answer to the first question. The building has been awarded many times...
I am, of course, delighted by each award. However, the biggest one is to see so many people hanging around this place and that every concert since its inauguration on October 1st, 2014 was sold out. The hall has gained unbelievable publicity all over the world. Musicians and music lovers compete in their opinions about the unique sound of NOSPR. The orchestra claims to finally have a home. A dream of many people came true. Can an architect imagine a greater reward?
Interviewed by Slawomir Dolecki
In collaboration with the ABB LEAF Awards.