Music Box

Chamber Music Headquarters, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Niall Savage Architecture

To begin, it is all about a room. The original intent of chamber music was that it be played in an intimate, even domestic setting. Present-day concert conventions impose a theatrical distinction between audience and performer that is quite alien to the intended exchange among friends. Through the community-based Scotia Festival of Music, the client for the Music Room project has demonstrated a long-standing commitment to provide a direct experience of making chamber music. In the design of a permanent headquarters for this endeavour, the charge to Niall Savage Architecture was to recapture the intimate spirit of chamber music, and to create a distinct and singular room for the music, its makers and its audience.

The site chosen for the Music Room was not obviously promising–a residential lot at the fault line between a residential neighbourhood and an industrial precinct at the northern edge of the Halifax peninsula. Lady Hammond Road adds traffic noise to the soundscape of nearby waste transfer stations and a container port. Clearly, acoustics were a primary concern from without as well as within. An old house on the sloped site was maintained and reworked to contain support spaces.

A bluff rectangular prism, stretching the width of the site and placed between the old house and the road, houses the Music Room proper. Minimal window openings, tightly drawn flashings and a pattern of control joints serve to magnify the apparent volume of the Room on approach, providing a clearly institutional image. A terrace accessible only from the interior of the Room fills much of the front yard, anchoring the building to the site. During intermissions the terrace presents the concert audience back to the neighbourhood, and the restrained faade becomes the backdrop for the animated spectacle of people enjoying themselves through music.

Slotted between the terrace and a wooden fin wall on the property line is a ramp leading to the tall shadow of the breezeway passage beneath the volume of the building, and then to a garden court at the rear of the site, cradled between the new Room and the old house. The path then veers left into the lobby and ticket office, carved from the spaces of the old house. The several changes in direction along the route and the slightly miniature scale of the landscape and support spaces–lobby, washrooms, bar–enhance by contrast the apparent scale of the Room itself, which is entered after another left turn back towards the road.

The Music Room interior directly expresses the exterior volume. It is a singular space, constructed by commercial vernacular means: concrete block and steel joists. A maple liner wraps the floor, ceiling and end walls, containing both the performance area and the seats within its ambit. The liner is expressed as a single ribbon on the floor and end walls, which loops away from the rear wall to form four stepped levels of balcony. Above the balcony the ribbon splits into five strands, undulating independently to create a rich and warm surface, visually and acoustically. The maple liner provides a surface of lustre and warmth reminiscent of a fine musical instrument, but is held back from the sides of the room to provide glimpses into the corners of the block walls and black-painted roof structure beyond. Concrete block predominates on the two flanking walls of the Room. Sculptural compositions of wood panels and baffles placed against the block tune both the visual and auditory experience of the space.

The collaboration of architect and acoustician as a kind of duet is apparent in the sectional development of the Room. In drawing the longitudinal section, the architect is at pains to both isolate and link specific architectural moments, and to use the demands of the acoustician to generate a play of theme and variation in detail. As a result, the acoustic devices are fully integrated into the architectural expression of the Room.

The Music Room has a paradoxical quality of being both big and small at the same time. The simplicity of the overall room geometry and the ability to see all eight corners of the exterior volume from within create a certain grandeur of scale, which is enhanced by the singular character of the maple ribbon. Yet the same uninterrupted detailing of the ribbon means that there is no discernible threshold between musician and listener, while the centrepiece of the room, a glossy black nine-foot Steinway grand piano, forcibly asserts the actual and very intimate size of the Room. Acoustically, the room behaves in a similar fashion, providing an intimate sound with a subtle note of grandeur.

Community-based arts groups in English Canada are quite accustomed to doing without architecture, and instead make do with borrowed and makeshift facilities poorly suited to their needs and aspirations. The Music Room is proof that a modest organization can aspire to a purposeful and ambitious architecture, and indeed benefit directly from it. Its existence has led to a notable increase in both the quantity of concert offerings and the quality of performances and performers in Halifax. Bookings for concerts and recording sessions are almost uninterrupted. With the Music Room, Niall Savage has shown that architecture has much to offer in sustaining and nurturing other artistic endeavours.

Steven Mannell is a Halifax architect and Director of the School of Architecture at Dalhousie University.

Client: Scotia Festival of Music

Architect Team: Niall Savage, Chad Jamieson, Jennifer Stewart, Emanuel Jannasch, Bruno Weber, Judy Obersi, Peter Bogaczewicz

Structural: Campbell Comeau Engineering

Mechanical: Morris Richard Consulting Engineers

Electrical: Morris Richard Consulting Engineers

Interiors: Niall Savage Architecture

Acoustics: State of the Art Acoustik

Contractor: Lindsay Enterprises

Other Consultants:

Area: 1,800 ft2 new construction; 1,500 ft2 renovation

Budget: $600,000

Completion: September 2002

Photography: James Steeves