Acoustic Interference

PROJECT La Maison Symphonique de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec
ARCHITECTS Diamond Schmitt + Ædifica, Architects in Joint Venture
TEXT Lev Bratishenko
PHOTOS Tom Arban unless otherwise noted 

Montreal has a new room. The latest home of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO), La Maison Symphonique is a 1,900-seat addition to the grey, four-chambered stomach of the city’s institutional performing arts, Place des Arts. The new building occupies a narrow site on the northeast corner of the complex where Boulevard de Maisonneuve and rue Saint-Urbain meet, adjacent to the orchestra’s old home, the 49-year-old concrete beast known as the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. It has been open since September 2011 while still under construction, and it is finally complete.

La Maison is the first Public-Private Partnership (P3) cultural project in North America, and perhaps the world. A new hall for the MSO has been in the air for decades and the previous iteration was more ambitious; a multi-stage $280-million building won in a competition by de architekten, Ædifica, and Tétreault Parent Languedoc. It died with the election of the Charest government in 2003, which immediately pushed for pilot projects to be structured in accordance with the P3 process. These–in this case a design-build-finance-manage–reduce the government’s upfront costs dramatically. They select and pay the builder-owner a lease after which ownership reverts back to the government, but it is up to the bidder to find the capital to finance construction, operate, and design the hall.

Jean Roy, Project Director of La Maison for the Ministère de la Culture, des Communications et de la Condition féminine, when asked if he was happy with the outcome, admitted that “[In 2006] the first thing we wanted to do is a concert hall for music, not a building. And [the concert hall] is a very big success.” 

The Ministry worked with MSO conductor Kent Nagano to shortlist acousticians, selecting New York-based Artec, at the time represented by its founder Russell Johnson, who had been involved in the previous iteration of the project. He died in 2007 and Tateo Nakajima, a musician and conductor, took over the project. 

Acoustics were the priority from the beginning. Explaining the P3 process, Nakajima told me that “this whole structure that we’ve put in place was, to a large extent, our proposal.” He was the only one who did not complain to me about it. The Ministry modified the P3 to retain responsibility for acoustics and theatre design. With this responsibility came risks, since they would have nobody else to blame if the hall sounded subpar. The model, again according to Nakajima, was Tanglewood in Massachusetts, where “they designed the shell and then Eero Saarinen was brought in to work with them and make it look like something.”1

Artec developed design requirements in conversation with the MSO, producing a book with detailed drawings that Nakajima called “a basic design” at “construction document level.” This document was sent to the three consortia that had passed the P3 agency’s vetting process in 2007. These included Saucier + Perrotte and Provencher Roy, two of Montreal’s blue chip firms, as well as Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt, who even retained their own acoustician, London’s Bob Essert, for additional clout in the acoustical debates.

Four workshops were then held in 2008 for the bidders to develop their proposals. Questions were translated between two languages and filtered through Artec to the Ministry and the MSO, or to some intermediate as needed, and back. The bidders could submit written questions between workshops, but these had to be shared with the other competitors. No direct communication with the MSO was permitted. In a province as traumatized by construction corruption as Quebec, this almost makes sense. The intention was, Nakajima said, “that at the end of the P3 selection process you actually had three separate rooms, three separate contracts that were deemed to be equal in cost and complexity and performance, but integrated in an architectural vision that was different.” 

When the bids were made in 2009, they were ostensibly equal in performance but obviously different in cost. Groupe Immobilier Ovation (GIO), with Diamond Schmitt and Ædifica, underbid and won. GIO is owned by SNC-Lavalin, a hefty corporate entity that helped them arrange favourable financing in 2008, according to Roy. The architects also managed to cleverly eliminate a three-metre acoustically insulating gap between the underground garage and the new hall. Replacing this with, among other things, a system of rubber pads, reduced construction costs and put the loading dock level with the stage, in turn significantly reducing operating costs.

The P3 agency was compelled to select the lowest bid, though as project architect Matthew Lella put it, “quality got you a rebate” since jury comments became a dollar value representing architecture. “That was the best price, and we didn’t have a choice,” said Roy, explaining how decision-making power transferred to the private partner; after that it was “Groupe Immobilier Ovation who called the shots.” 

The interests of the private partner are to maximize profit with an eye towards maintenance costs. “They want to have the most cost-effective Rolls Royce. So they don’t want any trouble,” according to Jack Diamond, Principal of Diamond Schmitt. Naturally, GIO were insensitive to concerns without financial rationale unless required by the contract, and with Diamond Schmitt working as subcontractors to GIO it was “probably much more constrictive for the architects than usual,” Nakajima admitted.

Everybody–with the exception of Ædifica’s tremendously affable Michel Languedoc–mentioned the architects’ “frustration,” and nobody took responsibility for it or imagined it would manifest in the design. It may be only one symptom of the weaknesses inherent in the P3 process, which we have to thank for La Maison’s lurches from constipation to carelessness. From the “playful” pattern of narrow windows ineptly disguising the loss of glass curtain wall to grey limestone cladding, to the distracting organ pipe bling (the only place where nobody said no, because the money came from a private donor)–the building bears the marks of a bad childhood. Because La Maison is best understood as a parenting disaster. A misconception that led to the division of the room from the building and the creation of two projects–twins. From the street, we see the starved carcass of one of them while inside, a fat happy baby gurgles away. 

The west façade forms a desolate grey alley alongside the equally frigid east façade of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. The north and east elevations are even worse. This is Kondo Kladding Korner, a heartbreakingly cheap-looking triangle with the stage entrance at its apex. The stone veneer is punctuated by mean windows of pointless sadness, and it sheathes a tower of dressing and warmup rooms that leaves you wanting. 

It was not, admittedly, an easy corner to work with. Across the considerable expanse of bicycle-lane-widened Boulevard de Maisonneuve (and the closely adjacent and parallel Avenue du Président-Kennedy) is the 19th-century Church of Saint John the Baptist, an awkward lump of grey stone capped with a red sheet-metal roof. A weak urban corner is established with the site’s bermed edge condition in addition to the church’s considerable setback. And to the east across rue Saint-Urbain is a new plaza, part of a dull rebranding of the area. Between the two, La Mais
on seems as exposed on the northeast as it is confined on the southwest. Formally, it is not coherent enough to take the strain.

You can enter from rue Saint-Urbain, a Pyrrhic victory for the architects against the centralized entrance to the arts complex on rue Sainte-Catherine, but this doorway just leads to a hallway inflamed by LED branding. On your left is the gaudiest bar in a city known for its strip clubs, and on the right, a glass wall: La Maison at last. Passing through a vestibule, you finally enter the building after a limp handshake with another generic glass door. 

But most concertgoers will come from the complex’s underground parking and the metro. They may miss the sadness of the façades, but not the dinginess of the first lobby; hospital white, low-ceilinged, its most prominent feature is a bank advertisement. The contrast with the heavy-handed marble lobby and stodgy staircase of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier suggests that either the MSO or La Maison is not here to stay.

Perhaps you can shake these worrying thoughts as you walk up the staircase with glass balustrades, a grey steel handrail, and surprisingly worn treads2 until you meet a beechwood wall on your left. This is the first encounter with warmth, the lovely blonde wood skin of the interior hall. It is visible on every lobby floor except the first, where it is most needed, and you enter through its corners to the hall proper, next to the corridors leading to the wings that curve invitingly away.

The performance hall itself is a revelation after the starkness of the overlit lobbies and the brittle exterior, a blinding eruption of wood in horizontals below a canopy of adjustable matte white sound reflectors. High above this Lee Bontecou layer is a black metal ceiling, the underside of the top of this box that protrudes above the building’s façade.3 All around the hall, the balconies curve and overlap like planks, and on the topmost level, strips of white undulating plaster break out amongst the wood.

At first, the orchestra seems unnervingly close–black-suited musicians against the white seat cushions and the gleaming organ pipes behind, but this jarring intimacy becomes pleasant as they play, for the warmth of sound and the level of detail are remarkable. Along with other music critics, I have come to appreciate its astonishing clarity. But it is not an easy room; it is so sensitive that any looseness is impossible to miss and mistakes do not gently wash away. It has a naughty preference for bass sounds that can make large orchestras seem suddenly bottom-heavy. It has character. Furthermore, the room is highly adjustable–at fabulous expense, from the height of individual ceiling panels to hidden curtains in the walls. It can be played like an instrument, and is a tremendous acoustic accomplishment that would be difficult to criticize were it buried underground. 

Diamond Schmitt’s original concept was very simple: the curved wooden walls of the interior hall continue through the roof, a pierced-envelope effect enhanced by a glass wrapper. Unfortunately, the effect is compromised because the treated composite wood-covered fins that appear to extrude through the roof do not match the colour of the interior beech, while inside, the scalloping shifts horizontally with each lobby level and confuses the verticality of the walls.

Unlike the traditional palace of culture, this building was intended to be transparent and draw pedestrians from the Place des Arts esplanade and rue Saint-Urbain into its wooden interior with views of peopled balconies. A nice idea, this “democratic” gesture stumbles on the reality of a VIP room poking out of the curtain wall, with privacy glass on the inside lest ordinary concertgoers get any ideas. Visually, it succeeds on the south side, but the esplanade it faces is an unpopular mess of skylights, entrances and confusing ramps.

But why wrap an acoustically hypersensitive space in glass to begin with? To make it work, even the curtain wall that Diamond Schmitt were allowed to build had to be thickened with huge interior cavities. The result is a thick and gluey envelope at odds with the concept. The firm’s earlier Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto is more reasonable, comprised of mostly brick with a glazed façade of structural glass–a more expensive and more effective implementation that had “an extremely involved client,” according to acoustician Bob Essert.

So what about “I got it built?”

After all, we do have something and for only $259 million over 30 years. This is cheap when acoustically inferior halls go up for three times that in construction costs alone. True, but we essentially only got a room for the price. The additional money in other cities is rarely added value, but for some of them, like the renovated Alice Tully Hall in New York (whose designers returned to the original travertine quarry for the sublime stone), rare materials and an investment in design were public statements about the importance and durability of the arts in that city. La Maison calls these values into question. This is a serious failure.4 

In the political climate of today, let alone 2006 to 2008 when the project was developed, an obsession with risk is understandable. But Montreal went too far. The P3 that got it built was impossible for younger, more innovative firms to navigate; it was rigged in favour of a safe bet. A conceptual competition could have avoided this; something Roy told me he would like to do if he were to repeat the project. The process was also insensitive to the integrated nature of a concert hall, where even small decisions have acoustical implications, and it reduced the possibility of compromise to accountancy. 

The Ministry should have accepted the risk of being a real client. Its P3 was a cowardly way of creating a building in the gut of the city, in the centre of a huge arts-focused master plan–the Quartier des Spectacles–that involves hundreds of venues. La Maison is a building that millions will encounter. Knowing that its urban abdication is merely a symptom and that the architects did as well as they could does not mitigate the disappointment over what has been built. But it does raise the question of what architects, who do not currently shape the processes, can do about them. The story of La Maison should be a call for the profession to engage with these greater forces–to design the systems of procurement as well as the buildings they produce. CA 

Lev Bratishenko is the Montreal Gazette’s classical music critic. He also writes on architecture and technology, and was the curator of 404 ERROR: The object is not online at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. 

1An acoustic canopy over the orchestra was added to Tanglewood in 1959 to improve the sound.
2A painful detail since the wear is a sign of success (MSO receipts are up) but it does not look like the staircase or the floors were designed for it.
3A coupled volume is like a battery of sound that can be used to prolong the response of a room.
4The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships announced on November 22, 2011 that the project had won their Gold Award, citing “$46.8 million in cost savings.”

Client Ministry of Culture, Communications and the Status of Women in Quebec
Architect Team Florin Baldea, Hrant Boghossian, Julie Boissonneault, Steve Bondar, Earl Briggs, Cynthia Carbonneau, Claudiu Casapu, Norman Chan, Queenie Chau, Jack Diamond, Michel Dubuc, Jamie Duncan, Matthew Fellows, Paul French, Karyne Gagnon, Sylvain Gauthier, Kayathri Kamalanathan, Olivia Keung, Michael Lam, Michel Languedoc, Matthew C. Lella, Lingfei Liu, Eric Lucassen, Jean-L
ouis Léger, Eugénie March, François Massicotte, Gary McCluskie, Breck McFarlane, Trong Tuan Nguyen, Anne-Marie Petter, Veronique Roy, Chafik Salhi, Don Schmitt, Thomas Schweitzer, Andreas Sokolowski, Marcin Sztaba, Magda Telenga, Michael J. Treacy, Marie-Claude Turcotte, Jean-Luc Vadeboncoeur, Gary Watson, Jessica Wease, June Hong Yuan
Structural/Mechanical/Electrical SNC-Lavalin
Interiors Diamond Schmitt + Ædifica, Architects in Joint Venture
Contractor SNC-Lavalin Construction
Acoustical Artec (for the Ministry), Sound Space Design Ltd. (for the architect)
Theatrical Artec (for the Ministry), Fisher Dachs Associates (for the architect)
Lighting Eclairage Public
Area 100,000 ft2
Budget $260 M total design-build-finance-manage PPP contract sum; construction budget undisclosed
Completion December 2011